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Little Rock’s Original Fern Bar: How Buster’s Birthed Dave & Buster’s

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(Editor’s Note: This is the latest in a series of business history feature stories. Suggestions for future Fifth Monday articles are welcome. Please contact Gwen Moritz at (501) 372-1443 or GMoritz@ABPG.com.)

It was the ’80s. The shoulder pads were big and the hair was bigger.

And to hear him tell it, James “Buster” Corley should have failed in his efforts to grow Buster’s Bar & Restaurant in Little Rock into what’s now Dave & Busters, a publicly traded restaurant and entertainment chain that last year reported revenue of $746.8 million.

But Corley, making what he calls his best business decision, fell in with Dave Corriveau of North Little Rock, a whiz in the entertainment business, entertainment of the billiards and games variety.

Next summer, Dave & Buster’s, based in Dallas and co-founded by Corley and Corriveau in 1982, will be opening a location in Little Rock, its first in Arkansas. D&B now has almost 11,000 employees and 73 stores, including one in New York’s Times Square.

The D&B is reportedly headed to Gateway Town Center, an example of resurgent retail development in Little Rock, at the intersection of Interstate 30 and I-430. The popular 120,000-SF Bass Pro Shop is one component of the center, and the 325,000-SF Outlets at Little Rock, scheduled to open Oct. 16, is another.

The Arkansas arrival comes 33 years after Corley and Corriveau conceived of a business that featured good food and drinks along with arcade games and billiards, all in a space averaging about 45,000 SF. Corley calls it an “adult Disneyland,” though families are most certainly welcome.

The Dave & Buster’s concept was born of Corley’s experience operating Buster’s in Little Rock’s Union Station next door to Corriveau’s Slick Willy’s World of Entertainment, a 10,000-SF venue offering beer, pizza, billiards and video games, back when video games were a novelty.

Buster’s and Slick Willy’s joined Side Tracks, a disco, and Tracks’ Inn, a steakhouse, in Union Station, which had recently been redeveloped as an entertainment destination known as the Train Station.

If Slick Willy’s helped spawn an unflattering nickname for a president — and it did, with the aid of Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Paul Greenberg — Buster’s was Little Rock’s original “fern bar,” a stylish establishment attracting young professionals — some single, some decidedly not. The bars proliferated in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Buster’s, opened by Corley in 1978, was a legendary watering hole that, in addition to hosting yuppies, also attracted legislators, lobbyists and Arkansas “bond daddies,” those peculiarly Southern securities salesmen (and most of them were men) who also proliferated in the 1980s.

“A favored haunt of politicians, bond daddies and cocaine whores” is how one Arkansas businessman fondly described Buster’s.

Craig Douglass, a long-time Little Rock adman who also writes for Arkansas Business, is more circumspect. “Not only legislators (during legislative sessions), but many of the downtown business community’s upper management and ‘up and comers’” frequented Buster’s, he said.

“Friday lunches were a big draw for business people who worked downtown. Weekday ‘happy hours,’ as well, offered an opportunity to continue business, and to let off some steam,” Douglass said. “Tables were routinely pulled together at happy hour and at lunch as friends and associates came in to the restaurant and bar. It was not unusual to see eight to 12 people gathered around a nest of tables enjoying lunch or an afternoon cocktail.”

Jay DeHaven, an Arkansas wheeler-dealer who made Arkansas Business’ list of top 25 “Outlaws, Scoundrels & Posers,” also has warm memories of Buster’s. “I was a very frequent visitor,” he said. “Dave and Buster both were good friends.”

DeHaven remembers the bar at Buster’s. “It was a long bar and it was a good bar to sit and drink at,” he said. “Back then, you didn’t have the DWIs. You didn’t have the drugs. You just had booze, you know?”

And they poured a lot of it there?

“They poured a lot of it there.”

Corley, asked to list some of Buster’s best customers, declined to name names. “Having spent the better part of — well, all — my adult life in the restaurant and bar business, you learn to become discreet,” he said.

Corley, now 64, is originally from Jackson, Mississippi, where, at 21, he entered the restaurant business, waiting tables. He moved up to management and ended up in Little Rock in 1974 as a general manager of a T.G.I. Friday’s, then at the southwest corner of West Third Street and South Victory, where Cotham’s in the City is now.

At that time, Friday’s was owned by a partnership that included David Banks of Stephens Inc. as managing partner. (Banks went on to serve as CEO of Fort Smith’s Beverly Enterprises. He died in 2013.)

When the partnership sold Friday’s, Corley didn’t get along with the new owners and left. “I believe I quit, but they might say I was fired,” he said, calling it “one of the best things that ever happened to me.”

Corley had always wanted his own restaurant, and when Corriveau approached him about opening a place next to his Slick Willy’s, which had opened in 1977, Corley was ready.

“I had really nothing more than a really good reputation — and the naive energy and boundless enthusiasm to have the audacity to try to open a restaurant on a shoestring,” Corley said. “Had I known any better, I probably would have failed.”

With Corriveau and silent partner Larry Garrison, Corley opened Buster’s with $50,000 — or $30,000. He forgets. But it wasn’t much.

Through perseverance on Corley’s part and “great good fortune,” Buster’s prospered from the start.

Dave & Buster’s

The 1980s, Corley agrees, were a crazy time in Little Rock. As for the bond daddies, “Those guys were everywhere, throwing around a ton of money,” he said. “Friday afternoon at Buster’s, you could pretty much find anybody who was a player at the time. Lots of bond money. Tons of pretty women.

“Friday afternoon and Saturday brunch was the main event. We never opened that store as long as I owned it that we didn’t have at least a small line on Saturday morning for a champagne brunch that … I think had a statewide reputation. And we sure had a lot of fun doing it.”

In its heyday, Buster’s pulled in annual revenue of about $1.5 million, about $5.5 million in today’s dollars.

Corriveau and Corley watched customers travel back and forth from Buster’s to Slick Willy’s next door and realized they had the germ of a good business plan. “What happened was people would play at Slick’s and then come over and dine at Buster’s and vice versa, so that we got this cross-pollination,” Corley said. “It was a part of the experience.”

“So after we observed this for a while, we decided that we would take the two concepts, roll them together, put them on a bigger scale and put them in a much bigger market,” he said.

The partners opened their first Dave & Buster’s in 1982 in Dallas, but finding the money wasn’t easy.

“Dave and I have been thrown out of more Dallas banks than most people have ever been into,” Corley said. “We attempted to raise the money in Texas, and that didn’t work out for us. All of our funding came out of Arkansas, just based on Dave’s family connections and our good Arkansas reputation.

“For me, it’s just another piece of that Arkansas goodwill that once you’ve earned it, it doesn’t ever seem to go away.”

Corley and Corriveau’s Dave & Buster’s hit a few bumps on its way to success (see Eat. Drink. Play: A Timeline of Dave & Buster’s), but the partners, working as co-CEOs, stayed close.

Corley handled the food and beverage segment and general operations; Corriveau supervised games and entertainment. “And even though titles changed and the roles changed immensely, particularly as we got bigger, at the end of the day that’s still the way we were grounded as a business partnership,” said Corley, who retired in 2006.

“We became business partners first and then along the way earned each other’s trust and respect enough to the point where we became friends, best friends.” Corley said.

Corriveau, who retired in 2007, died suddenly on Feb. 7 of this year. He was 63. His death came as a complete surprise, Corley said. “He was the one who was supposed to live forever.”

“Longevity was always part of Dave’s plan, so it was one hell of a surprise that he went first, and I’m still unhappy about it,” Corley said. Corriveau was godfather to Corley’s daughter, Kate; Corley is godfather to Corriveau’s two children.

Corley sold Buster’s in 1986. It closed in 1991. Corriveau sold Slick Willy’s in 1980. It closed in 2001.

These days, Corley, who lives in the Dallas area, is a kind of goodwill ambassador for Dave & Buster’s, participating in the company’s charitable efforts on behalf of Make-A-Wish.

He’s happy that Little Rock, where the idea behind Dave & Buster’s was born, will soon, and finally, have its very own.

“I think it’s spectacular,” Corley said. “I have absolutely nothing but great feelings toward Little Rock and Arkansas. Some of the best times in my life were spent in Little Rock and some of the finest people I’ve ever known I met in Little Rock.”

“It was a glorious adventure and it worked out great,” he said. “I don’t think things would have been the same if I hadn’t journeyed through Arkansas.”

“For me, Arkansas really did turn out to be the land of opportunity,” Corley said. “I came to town with nothing. I didn’t even own a car. And I got the chance to go all the way — literally — to Wall Street and Times Square.”

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