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The duke of diners: what will restaurateur George Eldridge cook up next?

THE DICTIONARY DEFinition of legend is "a story coming down from the past; one popularly accepted as historical though not verifiable."

That's the life of 45-year-old Little Rock restaurateur George Eldridge. His 17-year adventure in the restaurant business in central Arkansas is legendary. It has spurred story after story passed down as fact.

Everyone who's ever heard of the man seems to have a snippet of information to add to his legend.

Eldridge is described by both his friends and detractors as affable but just this side of shady.

In Eldridge's defense, there aren't hard facts to substantiate the rumors that circulate about him. That doesn't stop allegations of gambling and rumors of side-stepping tax authorities, though.

His reputation?

"I suppose kind of like a gangster," says one former employee who says he still finds Eldridge a fine person for whom to work.

"He's definitely a schemer," says another former employee who claims Eldridge did not keep proper records of his employment at Buster's restaurant. "He's so sly you can't pin him down."

The tales spin.

They're the kind of accounts that cannot be printed for fear of libel suits.

But they're told.

And the legend grows. Within six months, Eldridge hopes to open another restaurant in Washington, D.C., no doubt taking advantage of a well of free publicity his Doe's Eat Place in Little Rock has garnered from the presidential campaign.

George Meets Lucille

The narrative begins when Eldridge bought The Band Box on South Main Street in Little Rock in the mid-1970s and began driving his patrons by bus to the dog races at Southland Greyhound Park in West Memphis and to the horse races at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs.

Eldridge had spent almost 16 years as a professional saxophone player. He also dabbled in the construction, insurance and real estate businesses.

Between jobs he'd go fishing, then drop by The Band Box and let the cook, Lucille Robinson, fry the fish.

He wasn't looking to get into the restaurant business, but when owner Tommy Marbut said he'd make Eldridge an offer he couldn't refuse, Eldridge accepted on a condition.

Robinson had to stay.

She did, and it was a good thing for Eldridge.

"I didn't know how to make change ... how to open a cash register," Eldridge says. "But Lucille was real patient with me."

That she was. The mother of nine says, "It was like I had another child."

Robinson remembers the early days. She remembers when Eldridge was living out of his truck, and she would dig his few sets of clothes out of the back to wash them.

"Lucille was the one in charge at The Band Box," says Eldridge. "It was a sort of strange, loose place and she was the only stabilizing part of it."

Robinson followed Eldridge to the Sports Page when he opened that restaurant in downtown Little Rock in the late 1970s. He eventually owned a house but still only had one set of sheets, which Robinson would take and clean.

Eldridge opened three Sports Page locations in Little Rock and one in Nashville, Tenn. By 1986, he says, "I wanted to slow down a bit."

He was simultaneously negotiating to sell the Sports Page and purchase Anderson's Cajun's Wharf.

He was structuring the deal so he would have 60 days vacation, but when the deal fell through, Eldridge panicked.

"I was afraid I wasn't going to have a job," he says.

So, on the same day the Sports Page deal closed, he bought Buster's Inc. with his close friend, Little Rock entrepreneur Melvyn Bell.

That's where the story gets good.

Musical Owners

The controlling interests in Buster's changed numerous times between 1986 and 1992, when it finally ceased operation.

Bell got out of the business near the same time he personally began suffering financial difficulties.

Eldridge was left in a swirl of financial problems associated with the restaurant.

Employees weren't exactly certain of what was happening.

"The thing about us when we worked for him is we were very insulated," says one former employee. "Only top management knew what was going on."

Some who left Buster's say they filed for unemployment but found no record of earnings over some three-month periods. It was as if they had not worked there.

Eldridge was deft in handling reporters' questions regarding the financial difficulties. Several times, he'd say the situation was nearly resolved and that he'd give an exclusive on what happened if the story could be put off a month.

Now, though, he says the problems weren't his but those of Bernard Carpenter.

In the late 1980s, Carpenter, who was general manager at Buster's, bought into the business. In 1990, he became sole owner as Eldridge disentangled himself from Buster's and opened Doe's Eat Place, based on the regionally renown Greenville, Miss., eatery of the same name.

There was a hazy period during which Eldridge's connection to Buster's was unclear. Carpenter went bankrupt in 1991, and Eldridge briefly came back to the restaurant. To reporters' queries, he claimed he did not have complete understanding of the situation because he was just a consultant.

By this time, Eldridge was on to his next venture in Memphis, Tenn., with a new Doe's and a nightclub.

Eldridge reports that litigation is still pending between himself and the state of Arkansas and the Internal Revenue Service regarding $20,000 worth of taxes due for state and federal withholding at the restaurant.

Eldridge is attempting to prove the payment is Carpenter's responsibility and not his own.

Financial problems, specifically regarding sales taxes, seem to follow Eldridge to each new restaurant.

In January 1992, Eldridge requested a waiver of penalties and a payment plan after a sales tax assessment showed he owed more than $17,000 for the audit period of Sept. 1, 1988, to Aug. 31, 1991, according to the state Department of Finance and Administration. His request was denied. He has since paid the $17,000.

Department of Finance and Administration officials, after examining Eldridge's records, wrote, "These records show that other businesses with which you have been associated have a history of not complying with the sales tax laws. Similarly, in the case of Doe's, the business not only failed to pay the taxes due, it did not even file the required sales tax reports for the audit period in question."

A Customer Pleaser

Although everything from The Band Box to Buster's and Doe's has been known to be Eldridge's, his name is not actually on the ownership papers. Most of his licensing permits are taken out in his daughter Katherine's name, or Robinson's.

Eldridge's reluctance to put his name on official documents fuels speculation about his past.

In 1979, according to police and court records, Eldridge was charged for keeping a gambling house, a felony offense, although he subsequently pled guilty to a lesser offense of keeping a gaming device, a misdemeanor.

"I was arrested in 1976 for assault with a deadly weapon," Eldridge says. "I was charged with manslaughter once but I beat that, too."

Eldridge's past does not seem to have affected his actual businesses, which are big successes with his customers.

Each establishment has been famous for simple, good food and an easy atmosphere.

Eldridge makes it a point to get to know his customers, most of whom he calls his friends. He hires employees who do the same.

He likes it for people to call him at home if they've had a problem with a meal at one of his restaurants.

Employees say Eldridge is committed to his businesses -- if a table needs bused, he'll do it -- but he sometimes drives his employees too eagerly.

Robinson says employees like the close atmosphere, though.

"Nobody just ups and quits," she says.

But she admits, "He'll stress the waitresses out real bad sometimes. He'll get to yelling and screaming."

"I get riled pretty easy," Eldridge says.

Then, he adds, "I'm a lot more docile than I used to be."

"I would describe him as a nice person, a good communicator," says a former employee. "There's so many things about him that are just so weird ..."

Robinson doesn't take anything from Eldridge.

"We got a real good understanding," says Robinson. That also goes for when Eldridge starts his ranting.

"I'll turn around and look at him, and I don't have to say anything," she says. "He'll turn around and walk back out."

Eldridge admits to it.

"She's been my boss for 15 years," he says.

"Seventeen," she corrects him.

This year, business has been good to Eldridge. It's been so good, in fact, that Eldridge had to miss an annual hunting trip -- a passion of his -- that fell the same week of the election.

Doe's became a favorite hangout for Clinton-Gore campaign staff members and visiting national media over the course of the campaign.

It received considerable national attention, especially from a Rolling Stone interview with President-elect Clinton held in the back room of Doe's in late July.

Doe's food sales alone have gone from $265,684 for January through September in 1991 to $313,984 for the same period this year.

Eldridge is cashing in on his political popularity -- Clinton has been a regular at each of his restaurants -- by opening the restaurant in Washington.

But this Southern boy from Gregory (near Augusta in Woodruff County) says he's being careful in his move to the nation's capital.

"We've got to eat these pigs one at a time," he says. "If we eat too fast, we'll choke."
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Rengers, Carrie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Nov 23, 1992
Words:1588
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