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High noon in west Little Rock.

High Noon In West Little Rock

In the heart of west Little Rock lies a half-mile stretch of pavement - dubbed "Restaurant Row" - that is filled with noontime cars surging between stoplights.

Through five lanes of traffic, businessmen and businesswomen search for a lunch spot.

They have numerous choices, and the restaurant owners know it.

Tia's Tex Mex flashes a neon sign that reads, "Seating Available."

Just around the corner on Bowman Road, Bruno's Little Italy advertises a $5 lunch.

On Market Street, Way Out Willie's uses radio advertising to hype a two-for-one special.

"Sooner or later, it's going to get oversaturated," says Doug Green, who owns the Buffalo Grill West on Bowman Road. "The bottom line is if you do a good job, you'll survive."

But survival entails more than simply doing a good job.

For a restaurant to last in Little Rock, particularly in the flooded west Little Rock market, it must convince customers it offers something dozens of other restaurants don't.

It means restaurants resort to gimmicks.

It means restaurants must advertise more.

And it could mean some restaurants will have to stop fighting the competitive lunchtime wars.

Some already have.

"We felt we were attempting to compete with more of your fast-food operations," says Jim Manning, president of Restaurants of Arkansas Inc., which owns Coy's Steaks & Seafood on Rodney Parham Road. "That seems to be what people are looking for in this end of town."

Coy's, famour for its high-priced steaks, has stopped serving lunch. It now is only open for dinner and Sunday brunch.

Even Iriana's Pizza, the inexpensive, seemingly obvious choice for lunch on Bowman Road, couldn't endure the aggressive lunchtime competition in west Little Rock. Its downtown location across from the Excelsior Hotel thrives during the day.

There doesn't seem to be a single reason why one restaurant prospers while another fails.

In west Little Rock, restaurants are having to develop their own recipes for lunchtime success.

And while some are cookin', others are stuck on the back burner.

The Chain Drain

A petite, perky hostess smiles from behind a group of people waiting to be seated and asks, "How many in your party, please?"

There's a 20- to 30-minute wait at Tia's. Most people are spending the time drinking a margarita-sangria mix at the bar.

But that's at dinner.

At lunch, customers are seated more quickly than Tia's general manager, Mark Lowry, would like.

"We're building a lunch crowd," Lowry says. "It's not where we would like it to be."

Tia's seats 225 people, but the restaurant is usually only three-fourths full at lunch.

Lowry worries that customers drive by and see his small, deceivingly full parking lot and then drive to another restaurant in the area.

He hopes that when the Black-eyed Pea Restaurant opens next door, there will be more parking and more shared customers.

The number of west Little Rock restaurants does not daunt new owners. In many ways, the new restaurants help bring even more people to the area, with some commuting from as far away as downtown at noon.

But Mark Abernathy agrees with the Buffalo Grill's Green.

"Generally speaking, Little Rock is overbuilt as a restaurant market," Abernathy says.

Abernathy is a part owner of the popular Juanita's Mexican Cafe & Bar on Main Street downtown and of the Blue Mesa on Merrill Drive in west Little Rock.

"Night business is outstanding," Abernathy says of Blue Mesa, which features Southwestern fare. "But I think we need to remind people that we are open for lunch."

Lunch business is consistently good at Juanita's. It has doubled at Blue Mesa in the past six months, but that's only brought the trendy restaurant from having a poor luncheon business to having a fair business.

Abernathy realizes there is a perception that Blue Mesa is expensive. But he serves $4.95 lunch specials daily.

The real problem, Abernathy says, is that 3,000 restaurant seats have been built in the Little Rock area during the past year. Chains such as Regas Grill have come in with no new revenue sources to support them.

Other restaurateurs agree.

"I continue to watch the chains move in here," says D. W. "Mac" Macdonald, who owns Way Out Willies, formerly Fajita Willies, on Market Street.

Macdonald accuses the chains of siphoning off independent owners' business at a time when there is little overall growth in food and beverage revenues.

Overall sales are down at Way Out Willie's this year, although Macdonald says, "Our lunch business is probably holding its own."

KXIX-FM, 102.9, broadcasts its "Country Cafe" noon show from Way Out Willie's each Tuesday, and Macdonald offers special items for $1.03.

On Sundays, customers can bring in their church bulletins for $2 or 20 percent off items as part of a promotion called "It Pays To Be Good."

Restaurant owners and managers are finding it pays to devise such a plan and advertise it.

Keeping |Em Satisfied

"We are never satisfied," says Brian Keyes, the general manager at Regas Grill on Shackleford Road.

The 240 seats at Regas routinely are filled, sometimes even necessitating a wait for lunch.

Keyes plans to keep it that way.

Regas takes reservations, which is unusual at lunchtime in Little Rock.

Tables are held for large groups until 11:30 a.m.

Customers can even call to see how long the wait is and put their names on a list by telephone. When they arrive, they are seated immediately.

Scott Wallace, who owns Bruno's, believes "$5 is the key at lunch."

He offers an entree, small salad and drink for $5 at lunch. That includes tax.

The combination of a $5 special and the established name of Bruno's helps the restaurant weather the temporary loss of customers when new restaurants, particularly chain establishments, open in west Little Rock.

"We didn't know if there was going to be a sufficient lunch trade out there," Wallace says.

But once Bruno's began the $5 special, lunch business tripled and then quadrupled.

"I don't see how you can give a great lunch for less than $5," says Morty Kessler, who owns the Blue Rooster Grill & Smokehouse on West Markham Street. "We really won't do it because I just can't get the kind of quality and quantity I want to give people and stay in business."

There are two kinds of customers, according to Kessler.

One looks at price.

The other looks at food.

Kessler is beginning to learn he must cater to both.

Business was off at the Blue Rooster in July and the first week of August. But sales have gone up in recent days, according to Kessler, including sales on the new daily specials.

Kessler now serves smaller portions at reduced prices, although he has found many customers still order the larger portions.

Green says his lunch business at the Buffalo Grill on Bowman has been steady and may even be increasing because "our price is closer to what people can spend for lunch."

Meanwhile, the more upscale 1620 Grill on Market Street opened for lunch four weeks ago.

"We know there is a demand for something that is a little bit different," says Ed Moore of Continental Cuisine Inc., which owns 1620.

From the fast-food joints, to the locals, to the chains, there is a restaurant for every lunchtime taste and budget in west Little Rock.

Although some of the restaurants are experiencing lean times, the customers aren't going hungry.

PHOTO : BRUNO'S BARGAIN: Scott Wallace, owner of Bruno's Little Italy on Bowman Road in west Little Rock, says his $5 lunch specials have quadrupled his noontime business.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:competition in restaurant industry
Author:Rengers, Carrie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Aug 19, 1991
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