Icon (Close Menu)


Purple Cow Celebrating Its 30th Year

4 min read

Purple Cow, the five-restaurant chain based in Little Rock, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, so I visited with the two men who make it go: Philip Tappan, owner, chairman and CEO, and Ken Vaughan, president and chief operating officer.

An anniversary is a time to look back, and Purple Cow itself is a tribute to nostalgia, a family-friendly place with a ’50s diner vibe. Burgers are a specialty as are milkshakes, including the signature “Famous Purple Vanilla” shake.

But what was most interesting about our conversation was learning about the methods that Tappan and particularly Vaughan, who runs the business day-to-day, use to keep current in an ever-shifting restaurant landscape, buffeted not just by diners’ whims but by technology and, in particular, the changes wrought by social media.

First, however, a little background: The first Purple Cow was opened in 1989 at 8026 Cantrell Road in Little Rock by Continental Cuisine, a partnership whose business DNA included restaurants like Restaurant Jacques & Suzanne, Alouette’s, Restaurant 1620 and Graffiti’s.

By 2007, Continental Cuisine, then owned by Paul Bash and Ed Moore, had only the Purple Cow diners. That’s when Tappan entered the picture, buying Continental Cuisine in December 2007 with Todd Gold, who’s since moved on to become assistant dean of culinary arts and hospitality at Pulaski Tech.

Tappan had gotten to know Bash, a noted chef, and Moore through Quality Foods Inc. of Little Rock, the food service distributorship owned by Tappan’s father-in-law, Don Kirkpatrick, and which Tappan ran. (Yes, readers, everything is connected in Arkansas and everyone is related. Just learn to go with it.)

“I just always remember Purple Cow being one of the most successful, most creative [restaurants] and quite memorable,” Tappan said. And, he said, he’d been impressed with the quality of the products Purple Cow bought from Quality Foods. “Paul and Ed always just really held to a high-quality standard, which Ken and I have tried to continue.”

But even in the last 12 years, the restaurant industry has changed tremendously. “The competition is just ferocious,” Tappan said. “I just never would have thought there would be this many choices.”

The changes include new styles of dining, like fast-casual, as well as increased demand for carry-out and delivery services.

That said, Purple Cow’s full-service dining style remains popular. “Our sales have continued to show improvement, thankfully, over the years,” Tappan said. The chain, which in addition to the Cantrell Road restaurant has locations in west Little Rock, Hot Springs, Conway and, most recently, North Little Rock, is on target to reach $8 million in annual revenue, he said.

And then there are technology and social media and changes in how Purple Cow markets itself. “The bulk of our marketing spend is on social media,” Vaughan said. “We’ve recently hired a new social media marketing and media relations team, Michelle Pugh and Christina Munoz.”

Social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are constantly changing their algorithms and how they reach people, Vaughan said. The restaurant chain used to be able to reach a lot of people just through “organic” distribution, by posting on Purple Cow’s Facebook page, for example.

Now, however, “you have to purchase a lot of that,” he said. “Most of your impressions are paid impressions now, and that’s because Facebook and Twitter and these other outlets have changed the way the game is played because they control the game.”

Purple Cow listens to its customers, Vaughan said, citing online reviews, comment cards and surveys. And sometimes it makes changes based on that communication. For example, it received feedback that tables were a little too close together in some locations, so the business took that into consideration when laying out its North Little Rock restaurant.

But back to the anniversary and its observance: Yarnell’s Ice Cream of Searcy, which supplies all of Purple Cow’s ice cream, has agreed to make a “birthday cake” flavor for the restaurant chain, Vaughan said. It should be available by the end of this month, though for a limited time. The restaurant is also creating an “adult” milkshake with alcohol that features the birthday cake flavor.

He and Tappan feel confident about the future, Vaughan said, because they see customers who came to Purple Cow as children now bringing their own children to the restaurants. “That’s real important for us,” he said. “As long as we’re taking care of those people today, they’re going to take care of us tomorrow.”

Send this to a friend