Like many other businesses, the restaurant business can run in families. Robert Smith, owner and founder of the Flying Burger & Seafood restaurant chain, agrees.
Smith, an El Dorado native, started working in his father’s Hot Springs restaurant, Chicken Country, in 1975 when he was 15. Smith’s uncle is restaurateur David Bubbus Sr., father of David Alan Bubbus Jr., founder of David’s Burgers of Little Rock, and that makes David Alan Bubbus, who goes by “Alan,” Smith’s first cousin. Smith’s uncle is the one who got Smith’s father, another Alan, in the restaurant business. Smith’s father died on Good Friday of this year, and Smith still mourns him.
But it takes more than experience and a family background to start a successful chain. For Smith, it required a popular concept, hard work and a “miracle.”
Chicken Country was open 25-30 years, Smith said, and was succeeded by the Ole Feed House, an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet with several locations in Arkansas. But in 2008, “I just kind of saw that the buffet-style restaurant might not last in the future, which I was right,” Smith said.
He added chicken wings — and other chicken offerings — to a burger concept restaurant, opening the first Flying Burger in Magnolia. After about six months, he decided to add seafood to the concept. “And when I did, business increased about 100%,” Smith said.
A man named Max Story, in the oil and gas business in Arkansas, came in every day to eat lunch with his wife, Betty. “This was kind of a miracle in my life,” Smith said. That’s because one day, with customers standing in a line outside the door, Smith told Story, “Max, I think if I had some money, I think this Flying Burger could be something big.”
Story asked Smith if he wanted his help. He did. Smith made Story a 50% partner and he and Story built a Flying Burger in El Dorado, managed by Smith’s son Michael. It opened in 2012.
“We decided that if it did good, we’d build a new one here in Magnolia,” Smith said. “Well, it did good,” and in 2014, the partners built a new Flying Burger across the street from the original location.
“Max is the one that made the miracle happen,” Smith said. “He put up the $4 million to build the two restaurants.” A few years later, Smith repaid Story and now he owns the eight-restaurant chain outright. “Max was instrumental in making the Flying Burger happen,” Smith said. “I never went to the bank or anything.”
People approached Smith about franchising, he said, and in 2017 the first franchised Flying Burger was opened in Ruston, Louisiana. In addition to Magnolia, El Dorado and Ruston, there are now Flying Burgers in Bossier, Louisiana; Longview and Texarkana, Texas; and Caddo Valley and Fayetteville, Arkansas.
The Fayetteville franchisee also opened Flying Burgers in Tulsa and Catoosa, Oklahoma, Smith said, but the COVID-19 pandemic doomed those locations. “That’s the only bad news about my place so far,” Smith said. “But all the other ones are doing really, really good.”
Sales at the restaurants totaled close to $20 million in 2019, before the start of the pandemic, he said, and he expects them to bring in $16 million to $18 million this year. Sales through pickup windows and government aid were life-savers during the pandemic, Smith said.
But ultimately, what makes a restaurant popular is its food. “We have great burgers,” he said. “We have great chicken. We have great seafood. Our lettuce and our salads, it’s all romaine and spring mix, and it’s cut fresh daily. We can get food out within 10 to 15 minutes of when ordered. We’re just fast and efficient and our food’s great.”
The restaurant industry “runs deep in our family,” Smith said. “I’ve had two brothers in the restaurant business, my dad, Uncle David, who has been in it since 1967.” And two of Smith’s three sons work with him.
As for whether he’d open a Flying Burger in central Arkansas, Smith said, “Well, we’ve had chances to do that. Out of respect for my cousin and my uncle, I’ve tried to stay away from that market.” After all, his uncle came down to Magnolia and helped Smith cook hamburgers when he opened his first Flying Burger.