Southland Casino Racing bets on a local approach to food
Photography by Whitten Sabbatini
Mere minutes from downtown Memphis, Southland Casino Racing is making big moves in West Memphis, Arkansas. Their towering hotel rises like a beacon shining bright across the river, and a new 113,000 square foot casino complex spans the length of two and a half football fields. When the hotel and casino are complete this year, they will include 300 guest rooms, 2,400 new slot machines, and 50 new table games. And yet, with all this glitz, the crown jewel of Southland’s new expansion will be the cuisine.
The new restaurant concepts are the culmination of Executive Chef Josh Marling’s creative prowess and his desire to showcase something casino goers don’t often see: locally sourced, regionally driven dishes in a gaming atmosphere. High-end casino steakhouses are nothing new in Vegas, but Mid-Southerners are about to have a taste of the good life right here at home.
When Chef Marling arrived at Southland six years ago, he set out to do something different: He forged a relationship with local growers, seeking to keep the products on his menu as regional as possible.
From the charcoal for his grills (sourced from Timber, Missouri, in the Ozarks) to his catfish (from Pride of the Pond out of Tunica, Mississippi), Marling has emphasized the importance of a local supply chain. As Southland grows, these local partnerships are growing too.
Marling’s most meaningful business relationship has been with Home Place Pastures, a grassfed beef and pork farm in Como, Mississippi. From Home Place, Marling sources everything from the meat for his charcuterie boards and burger patties to the center-cut pork chops to be featured in Southland’s new Ignite Steakhouse. Central to this relationship is Home Place’s fifth-generation operator, Marshall Bartlett, with whom Marling workshops menu ideas, rethinking what is possible in casino dining in West Memphis.
“There are practical reasons to go local,” Bartlett says. “You build up the local economy and put money back into it; you create food system resilience and sustainability. This is agriculture—it affects our bodies, our water supply. These are all positives, but it doesn’t mean it’s easy.”
When Covid changed the food industry in 2020, Marling couldn’t depend on large, out-of-town suppliers.
“Home Place Pastures could keep up when national suppliers couldn’t get trucks into town,” he says. “I wanted food with a story, a cut no one else had, and Marshall would work with me on different cuts.”
They’re both quick to point out that their guests care about what they eat and where it comes from. “The more you diversify your food sourcing, the more secure you are,” says Bartlett. “When stores are empty, when big suppliers can’t get to you, your local suppliers help you. It might not always be the cheapest or the most efficient, but you get food to your kitchen.”
Bartlett works with Marling and his team, answering the ever-changing demands in volume and product. “Locally sourced food definitely elevates Southland,” Bartlett says. “It becomes a destination.”
Indeed, creating a destination for both dining and gaming is central to Southland’s expansion. “We have so many possibilities with the new area. New bars, new restaurants. We want to enhance our guests’ experience,” says Natalie Carlson, marketing manager of Southland Casino Racing.
Marling highlights The Kitchen, the buffet concept that will open in Southland’s new expansion. Unlike most casino buffets with hot wells, 80 percent of the food preparation and cooking will take place on the line in front of the guests. Not only does it give Marling’s staff the ability to cook fresher and better dishes, but it allows the guests to customize their order. Ignite Steakhouse features a glass-enclosed kitchen, also allowing Southland’s diners to see food preparation taking place. The Fry House will feature locally sourced catfish and house-cut fries.
Chef Marling has a goal of 100 percent utilization of the hogs he sources from Home Place Pastures. “We were working towards it pre-Covid, and now we’re getting back to it,” he says. Complete utilization of the animal includes curing and smoking hams onsite, featuring regional dishes like pigs’ feet in The Kitchen, and creating the sausage used on pizzas.
He’s sourcing chicken for his dishes from Marmilu Farms out of Gibson County, mushrooms from Memphis’s Bluff City Fungi, and baked goods from Sugar Avenue Bakery in Memphis. Fried pie will be fried on the line in front of guests and crafted in conjunction with La Baguette bakery in Memphis. These relationships allow local providers to influence his menu in both Ignite and The Kitchen.
“As a local farmer, you think that big casinos won’t have the ability to deal with people like us,” says Bartlett. Both he and Marling hope this new approach to casino cuisine will be a movement towards locally sourced ingredients for the Mid-South’s big institutions, like hospitals, colleges, and even high schools.
Southland’s dedication and commitment to the local community and economy do not end with food. “We’re invested in our local community,” Carlson says, noting Southland’s pledge to continue to donate food to the Mid-South Food Bank and a desire to bring additional jobs to the West Memphis area.
As Southland morphs itself into a national destination, casino enthusiasts might be lured by the flashy new hotel or the light show planned for installation. But it’s the partnerships within that make Southland a standout destination. By forging vital relationships with local farms and food suppliers, Southland has gained flexibility to change the menu as needed, offer seasonal dishes, and give back to the region they call home.
Marling and Bartlett are partnering in the hospitality industry for the love of food, a desire for sustainability, and the promise of delivering an upscale dining experience to guests.
“It would be easier for Josh to call a big supplier,” Bartlett says. “But his energy and enthusiasm make this work.”
Southland’s new restaurant concepts, including Ignite Steakhouse, The Kitchen, and The Fry House, open in April 2022, with the hotel opening in phases through the summer of 2022.
Southland Casino Racing
1550 North Ingram Boulevard, West Memphis, Arkansas
Meghan Stuthard moved to Memphis from Nashville in 2005 and never looked back. She’s an HR professional by day and a lover of all things Memphis food and drink by night. @meghanshelby
Whitten Sabbatini received his MFA from Columbia College Chicago. His work has been exhibited both nationally and internationally, including recent shows at the Museum of Contemporary Photography and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. @whittensabbatini