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Every time you go out to eat, you can choose between local fare and national chains. Both are important to our state’s economy, but there is just something special about choosing to eat locally. Aside from the obvious pride of supporting local businesses, local restaurants bring a unique flavor to the table that resonates with our shared culture. Every local restaurant has the potential to grow and become something bigger, and today, we’re diving into the flavorful world of restaurant chains that got their start right here in Arkansas.
Photo courtesy of Slim Chickens.
In 2003, Tom Gordon and Greg Smart opened the first Slim Chickens location on N. College Boulevard in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The pair had brainstormed the concept for several years and began frying chicken in a garage for friends and family to get feedback and begin building a menu. Today, the fried chicken chain has nearly 200 locations worldwide and is actively expanding into other markets.
Slim Chickens is known for their tenders but also serves chicken wings, sandwiches, and their popular Mac n’ Cheese Bowls. The grab-and-go jar desserts are also a fan favorite.
Photo courtesy of Tacos 4 Life.
Austin and Ashton Samuelson opened the first Tacos 4 Life in Conway in 2014 to make a difference in the world. For every taco sold, Tacos 4 Life donates a meal to a child in need. Since its founding, Tacos 4 Life has donated over 19 million meals to needy children, and they now operate 31 locations across the country.
In addition to its social commitment, Tacos 4 Life is also known for its fresh, made-to-order tacos, burritos, bowls and salads. They use high-quality ingredients and offer various options, including tacos with grilled chicken, steak, fish or tofu.
Photo courtesy of Whole Hog Cafe.
Whole Hog Cafe started in 2000 when three friends who loved to barbecue started entering barbecue competitions. They quickly became known for their delicious ribs and opened their first restaurant in Little Rock in 2007. Today, Whole Hog Cafe has over 20 locations across the country, and they’re still serving up some of the best BBQ around.
Whole Hog Cafe quickly became a favorite among locals and tourists alike. Their ribs are known for being fall-off-the-bone tender and juicy, and their other barbecue meats, like pulled pork and brisket, are just as delicious. Whole Hog Cafe also serves up a variety of sides, like potato salad, baked beans and coleslaw.
Photo courtesy of Purple Cow.
The Purple Cow is a diner-style restaurant chain that got its start in Little Rock in 1989. It was founded by Ed Moore and Paul Bash, who wanted to create a place where people could come to enjoy classic American comfort food in a fun and nostalgic atmosphere.
The Purple Cow is known for its classic diner fare, burgers, fries and their iconic purple milkshake known as the “Purple Cow.” Today, there are over 30 Purple Cow restaurants throughout the state, as well as in Texas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Missouri.
Photo courtesy of David’s Burgers.
David Alan Bubbus founded David’s Burgers in 2009 in Little Rock. Bubbus’s father, David Bubbus Sr., was a master butcher, and Bubbus wanted to use that knowledge to create a burger restaurant that served up the best burgers in town.
David’s Burgers is known for its hand-cut, fresh, never-frozen beef burgers. The burgers are cooked to order over a hot flame and served on a toasted bun with your choice of toppings. David’s Burgers also offers a variety of sides, including onion rings, milkshakes and all-you-can-eat hand-cut French fries.
Photo courtesy of Pizza Pro.
Starting with a tiny location in Jacksonville, Arkansas, in 1985, Scott Stevens began Pizza Pro to offer high-quality pizza at an affordable price. Pizza Pro quickly became popular, and Stevens soon expanded to other locations in Arkansas and beyond.
Pizza Pro is now a franchise operation with over 70 locations in Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee. It is known for its fresh, made-to-order pizzas crafted with high-quality ingredients. Pizza Pro also offers a variety of other menu items, including wings, pasta and salads.
Photo courtesy of Colton’s Steak House & Grill.
In 1996, a group of entrepreneurs and restaurateurs wanted to open a steakhouse where diners could enjoy prime steaks and excellent service in an atmosphere with the feel of the “American West.” The first Colton’s (originally called Dillon’s) opened in Conway, with the second location opening in Searcy just a short time later.
Today, over 60 Colton’s Steak House locations are in Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Georgia. Colton’s Steakhouse is known for its hand-cut steaks, cooked to order over an open flame grill, fluffy rolls with honey butter and buckets of endless peanuts.
Photo courtesy of TCBY.
After falling in love with frozen yogurt during a trip to Dallas, Frank Hickingbotham opened the first TCBY in Little Rock in 1981. The store was a huge success, and Hickingbotham began to franchise. By 1984, more than 100 stores were open in the U.S.
Although only four 4 Arkansas stores remain, TCBY (which stands for The Country’s Best Yogurt) has over 350 stores across the nation offering a variety of frozen yogurt flavors, toppings, mixings and cakes.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Pizza Company
A burned-out clock shop in Levy, Arkansas, became the home of the first U.S. Pizza Company in 1972. Founder and owner Judy Waller had a unique recipe for a thin-crust dough cooked on an old-fashioned stone hearth oven. Today, 15 locations across Arkansas are still cooking up Waller’s famous pizza recipe, made to order, along with her famous cheese dip, wings, salads and sandwiches.
Photo courtesy of Larry’s Pizza.
Larry White opened the first Larry’s Pizza in Little Rock in 1992 with a mission: “Serve good food, provide good, friendly service and do it all at a fair price!” The restaurant has expanded with locations across the state.
Known, of course, for the pizza, Larry’s put an interesting spin on the dinner buffet known as the “walking buffet.” As hot pizzas roll out of the oven, servers carry them through the restaurant, giving diners first dibs on hot pizza before it is placed on the buffet.
As we look at Arkansas-based restaurants, it’s impossible not to take a moment to remember those beloved spots that have closed their doors. Each closed restaurant carries with it a sense of nostalgia. These dining establishments were more than just places to eat; they were woven into the fabric of our community, leaving behind a trail of memories. So, here’s to the places we miss and the flavors that linger in our minds.
Mexico Chiquito got its start in 1935 in North Little Rock, Arkansas. It was founded by Blackie Donnally and his wife, who had moved from the Texas/Mexico border. They brought with them a wealth of secret family recipes, and their food was so good that people came from miles around to dine by candlelight in the little house in North Little Rock known as Mexico Chiquito.
Mexico Chiquito was known for its authentic Mexican food and its signature cheese dip. All of the former locations have closed with the exception of one spin-off, Mexico Chiquito Mex-To-Go, located in Little Rock.
Dixie Cafe opened as part of the Black-Eyed Pea Restaurant Chain in 1980 in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was founded by Dan Lasater of Ponderosa Steakhouse fame, Garland Streett, and Allan Roberts, who wanted to create a restaurant serving classic Southern comfort food. The men eventually parted ways, and the restaurant was renamed Dixie Cafe in 1986. The location was hugely successful, and the restaurant quickly became a favorite.
Eventually growing to 23 locations in three states, Dixie Cafe served a variety of classic Southern dishes, such as fried chicken, catfish, meatloaf and mashed potatoes. The restaurant abruptly shuttered all of its remaining locations in 2017.
A pioneer in the fast-food industry, Wes Hall wanted to create a fast-paced restaurant that served delicious and affordable food, including his signature charcoal-broiled burger. The first Minute Man of America location opened in Little Rock in 1948, and the chain grew to nearly 60 locations in the 1960s and 70s. Hall developed the first kid’s meal and was the first to partner with Coca-Cola to offer a complimentary glass to customers.
By 2018, only one Minute Man location remained in El Dorado. New owners attempted to revive the brand with three food trucks and a new location in Jacksonville. Unfortunately, COVID put a damper, and the El Dorado location is once again the last standing Minute Man.
The variety of culinary offerings that each of these restaurants brings to the table creates a sense of local pride. We can gather around the table in our own neighborhood, knowing that we are sharing a taste of the Natural State’s unique charm with diners far beyond its borders.
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