Happy are the people who find what they like to do and are good at it. One such is Dale Summitt, the owner with his son, Zach, of the Old South Restaurant, a historic diner at 1330 E. Main St. in Russellville.
The Summitts bought Old South, opened in 1947 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, in 2014. The restaurant had gone through a fairly well-publicized bad patch the year before, having been closed by the state for a few days because of nonpayment of sales taxes.
The indispensable Arkansas food writer Kat Robinson says on her Tie Dye Travels blog that area residents held a citywide yard sale and paid the taxes.
Summitt doesn’t care to discuss the restaurant’s troubles before he came on the scene, noting only that he and his son observed that Old South had a loyal clientele and they sought to take advantage of that by buying the landmark property.
Old South is not their first restaurant. That was the Home Plate Cafe on Highway 7 outside Hot Springs Village, which Summitt had opened in the early 2000s and sold in 2008 or 2009. Zach had grown up in that restaurant, Dale Summitt said. “It was a lot of fun.”
But after selling the Home Plate Cafe, “I was bored,” Summitt said. “We had been aware of this place [Old South] for several years because my children went to Tech here,” adding, “So I guess we bought it because I wanted to be back in the restaurant business again, and I guess I wanted my son to own something also.”
Their first objective at the restaurant was “to keep it ‘the same’ — and that’s under quotes — to keep it headed in the same direction, but we also did add things to the menu, like, for instance, prime rib,” he said. “We added fish. We do several kinds of grilled fish on the weekends. We do salmon,” red snapper, crab cakes, etc.
They sought to keep it “a Southern tradition” while adding other items appealing to customers.
A visit on a cool Saturday in early November indicated that the formula appears to be working. The place was packed. I chose the day’s special: turkey and dressing, a baked sweet potato and coleslaw. It hit the spot, but the menu also includes diner foods like burgers, as well as catfish, chicken in various iterations, vegetable plates and all-day breakfast.
“Whatever we serve, we want it to be good, well-received,” Summitt said. “Of course, the major objective always is to make a profit. Without a profit, we can’t be here.”
Old South landed on the National Register because of its unique design and Art Moderne style. It’s a modular building constructed of parts manufactured by the National Glass & Manufacturing Co. of Fort Smith. The walls are porcelain-faced aluminum panels, and a band of neon highlights the exterior.
The interior fixtures like the diner counter, stools and booths are mostly original to the building. It’s old — some of us love that kind of thing — but it’s clean and it’s welcoming, and on the day I visited it was patrolled by Dale Summitt, ramrod straight, dressed in the restaurant uniform of black shirt and crisp trousers and asking customers if everything was satisfactory.
Built in six days on a concrete slab, the Old South Restaurant concept was the creation of William E. Stell, owner of the National Glass & Manufacturing Co., which manufactured fixtures and furniture for restaurants and department stores.
Stell, with the help of company architect Glenn Pendergrass, developed this modular diner design with an eye toward selling them as turnkey operations. The first Old South Restaurant, the prototype, was in Fort Smith. It was demolished in the late 1970s.
Although Sunday had been the most profitable day of the week at Old South, the Summitts ended Sunday service when they took over so the staff could attend church. Despite that, “we have probably increased our annual gross maybe two-and-a-half times” since the first few months they began operating, Summitt said.
The reception by the community has been “outstanding,” he said. But the Summitts have contributed to the community in turn, serving free meals on Thanksgiving Day.
And that, in turn, has led to diners and others who don’t need a free meal coming into the restaurant on Thanksgiving and insisting on leaving money. Summitt estimated they’ve collected more than $3,000 every Thanksgiving since they started providing free meals, money that goes to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and local nonprofits.
It’s the very definition of a virtuous circle.