by Robert Bell
Posted 3/1/2010 12:00 am
Updated 2 years ago
It almost happened in 2008, but this time there seems to be no question: Golden Corral was the heavyweight champion among North Little Rock restaurants in 2009 with food sales that topped $6 million
(To see a list of the highest-grossing Little Rock restaurants in 2009, click here for a PDF or here for a spreadsheet version. To see a list of the highest-grossing North Little Rock restaurants, click here for the PDF or here for the spreadsheet. For revenue details from upscale Little Rock restaurants and various cities around the state, click here.)
Perennial champ Red Lobster on McCain Boulevard, despite a solid increase in sales, still lagged by $569,000, according to the hotel-motel-restaurant taxes the two restaurants paid the North Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau. Unlike sales taxes paid by individual retailers, HMR tax records are subject to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. The HMR tax is applied to food but not to alcoholic beverages.
Golden Corral, a steak and buffet franchise, topped its own 2008 revenue of $5.27 million by 16 percent, an increase which was attributable in large part to increased television ads, said James Staats, general manager.
"Golden Corral corporate bought TV time across the country, and it's the first time we've ever been on TV here on a regular basis," Staats said. "In years past, if we were on six weeks, it was a miracle and it was really expensive, because we were paying locally. Well, we went on a national campaign and instead of being on six weeks, we were on 22 weeks," he said.
"They're little 15- and 30-second ads that are pretty cute, and they've helped us tremendously," he said.
Competitors beware: This year, Golden Corral ads will run for 46 weeks.
The deluge of business has meant Golden Corral had to hire a lot more staff to keep the buffet stocked and everything else humming along. Normally, the restaurant averages about 80 employees, but at the peak last year, there were 110 workers, Staats said.
Including nontaxable sales, Golden Corral was up 19 percent year-over-year, with revenue of more than $6.5 million, he said.
"We're trying like heck to build another one on the other side of town," he said. "It would really ease the burden on some of those days when it's so slammed."
The recession was also likely a factor in increased business for a restaurant that offers unlimited food at a fixed price.
"People were watching what they were spending money on. Instead of going one time to a more expensive place, they could come a couple times to our place," Staats said.
Though it wasn't in the top spot, Red Lobster had a good year from a revenue standpoint, at least in central Arkansas. The seafood eatery saw a 5 percent year-over-year increase at the North Little Rock location. And the Little Rock location, on West Markham, enjoyed a 10 percent increase that very nearly allowed it to capture the top spot on our list of highest grossing Little Rock restaurants. It lagged HMSHost, the restaurant operator at Little Rock National Airport, by less than $5,000 - a fraction of a percent for establishments that both sold nearly $4.3 million worth of food last year.
Despite holding on to the Little Rock list's top spot, HMSHost's food revenue was off almost 6 percent - not surprising during a year in which air travel was also sluggish.
The Fayetteville Red Lobster was down 19 percent year-over-year, but that is primarily because a new location opened in Rogers in November 2008, said Camilla Rivero, service manager.
For 27 years, the Fayetteville store was the only one in the area, she said. The Rogers location means about 1,000 customers a week don't have to make the drive down I-540 to eat at Red Lobster, she said.
However, "we are a corporate location, so corporate was aware that was going to happen," she said.
Among high-end establishments in the Little Rock area, Sonny Williams Steak Room is still king with $1.47 million in food sales last year. But that represents the second consecutive 13 percent decline; back in 2006 and 2007, Sonny Williams was bumping up on $2 million in annual sales.
Since 2006, Arkansas Business has been tracking the taxable revenue of restaurants that we identified as "upscale." This year, the list has been reduced from 13 to 10 because Mike Selig's Vermillion and Gypsy's Bar & Grill, both in Little Rock, and Aydelotte's in North Little Rock closed in 2009.
For those that have survived, 2009 was almost uniformly a grim year, with sales off either slightly (Acadia Restaurant, down 4 percent) or dramatically (Restaurant 1620, down 21 percent).
But there was one upscale restaurant that bucked the trend in a big way: Mary Beth Ringgold's Copper Grill & Grocery in downtown Little Rock. Sales at Copper Grill were up 15 percent in 2009, coming very close to $900,000.
Copper, which opened in July 2007, may have benefited from the closing of nearby Vermillion, which reported $175,870 in food sales in the bit more than three months it was open in 2009. But there's new competition in the River Market: Dizzy's Gypsy Bistro opened on Nov. 3 in the former Vermillion space. The transplant from Benton siphoned $98,130 out of the restaurant market by the end of 2009.
Gwen Moritz contributed to this report.