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Cajun’s Owner Mary Beth Ringgold Dishes on Restaurant’s Closing

5 min read

As surely most folks know by now, the last day of business for Cajun’s Wharf, the sprawling, 19,000-SF riverside restaurant at 2400 Cantrell Road in Little Rock, will be Saturday, June 1, after 44 years. It’s an event frequently, but correctly, described as the end of an era.

I decided to open up the restaurant column to Cajun’s owner Mary Beth Ringgold, who also owns the Copper Grill and Capers Restaurant and the Market at Capers, all in Little Rock. Restaurateur Bruce Anderson opened Cajun’s in 1975, and Ringgold began working for Anderson at his Cajun’s location in Knoxville, Tennessee, coming to Little Rock in the early 1980s. Cajun’s was sold to Landry’s Inc., a restaurant chain based in Houston, in 1993, but in 1999, Ringgold and her business partners bought Cajun’s back, and it was in local control once again.

Ringgold, who announced Cajun’s closing April 1, was named to the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame last year, in the Proprietor of the Year category.

Her answers to my emailed questions have been lightly edited.

Are you now getting a lot of customers coming who want to experience Cajun’s Wharf for the last time?
Yes. We have been extremely busy since the news broke. But the conversations are more like, “We are coming out every week till June 1.” Also, everyone wants to tell their stories about their attachment to Cajun’s over the years. The No. 1 theme is that people met their spouses or significant others at Cajun’s. Cajun’s was a meeting place and first-date place for so many folks.

Does a business model exist for making something like Cajun’s work — even if you’re not doing it, because you’ve got your hands full — and if there is such a model, what might it look like?
The concept, as it is, probably not. The high-quality products that we source — like Alaskan king crab legs, cold-water lobster tails, Gulf shrimp with no chemicals and next-day-out-of-the-water fish — are all expensive. The combination of the other fixed and operating costs along with the cost of product can require high-end menu pricing. And pricing is a big determiner of how diners will view your concept. Higher price points lend themselves to weekend dining.

The decision-making process had little to do with my hands being too full. We had two compounding factors looming: We were facing the last five-year option remaining on our building lease with minimum rent kickers each year, and this was coupled with a diminishing top line. In our special destination concept, we were seeing fewer and fewer diners coming out Monday through Thursday. Strong weekend business is simply not enough to sustain such a large operation.

The National Restaurant Association has been tracking declining traffic patterns into traditional restaurants for 36 months. There is much research describing this situation as a systemic problem, not a brand-level problem. To-go and delivery are considered to be just a part of creating this downtrend.

Research shows that it is more of a “lifestyle adjustment” on the consumer side. Older diners with disposable income simply don’t eat as much and don’t eat out as frequently. Younger diners such as millennials look at dining and entertainment in a totally different manner than their parents did. While dining, they are on cellphones and devices throughout their meal, and although they want high-quality food, they seem to consider food more as fuel. The social and culinary experience is clearly secondary.

Some interesting facts: The $13 billion food delivery market is expected to climb to $24.5 billion by 2022. Third-party provider Bite Squad just sold for $386 million. Today’s broad demographic group wants their food whenever they want, wherever they want, and ordered and paid for with a click of a button.

Are other restaurateurs looking at the Cajun’s space and picking your brain?
So far, we have had no serious inquiries from restaurateurs considering the Cajun’s concept. People pick my brain all the time. I am surprised that I still have one.

How many people did you employ at Cajun’s and what are their plans?
Our current staff is a little over 70 people. We will try to absorb as many as we can into Capers and the Copper Grill. If I cannot take them, I plan to reach out to my friends in the restaurant community to help everyone find opportunities. One of the great things about the restaurant community is the giving nature of its members. That is evidenced in the amount of charitable giving that we are all a part of all year long. I feel sure that there are operators who are looking for well-trained, top-notch team members.

Once you have some free time, are you planning any changes at Copper Grill, Capers or the Market at Capers and if so, what are they?
Clearly, the coming days will be very busy and technical in the specifics of bringing Cajun’s to a close. But we have new menus in development for both Capers and Copper Grill as we speak. The Market at Capers has seen an upsurge as of late, partly due to the market conditions that I described and the demand for good food provided conveniently. We put a lot of attention in the details of providing high-quality, made-from-scratch foods for takeaway, and we are seeing more and more regulars visit the Market at Capers.

What’s the most outrageous Cajun’s moment of your career?
There are so many memorable events and good times and funny stories that make up the landscape of Cajun’s. Speaking of my career specifically, probably the most unusual and interesting thing that has happened recently was my participation in the UA-Pulaski Tech’s culinary school Diamond Chef Arkansas competitions in 2017 and again in 2018. Participation in competition was so far off my radar screen and so different than what I do on a daily basis.

One of the most memorable Cajun’s events was when Gov. Mike Beebe had his “Painting Arkansas Blue” inaugural party in January 2007. We utilized every square inch of the building and had over 1,700 people in the house. It was shoulder to shoulder and the energy was electric. What a great party!

There are so many memories. I have 31 years invested personally in Cajun’s. Combine the time of my business partners, Marilyn Greene and James Willis, here, and we have over 98 years combined working the Cajun’s concept. No matter how you look at it, that is a lot!

How many people do you employ at Copper Grill, Capers and the Market at Capers, in other words, the folks who don’t work at Cajun’s. (Our readers like numbers.)

What was your best revenue year at Cajun’s?
We reopened Cajun’s in October 1999 when we took it back over from Landry’s. That fall and all of 2000 were a spectacular time, mostly because Little Rock was so happy to have us back at the helm. We have had a lot of great years here. I can assure you, we will never forget them. Cajun’s has made an impact on so many lives over the years.

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