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They Just Eat It Up (Gwen Moritz Editor’s Note)

4 min read

THIS IS AN OPINION

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Have you noticed just how much restaurant news is available online? We put restaurant news on ArkansasBusiness.com, and so does our sister publication, Little Rock Soirée. There are a bunch of local food blogs, and all of us are looking to be the first with news about the local restaurant scene.

There’s a reason for that. Restaurant news drives online business. There is no other industry that can be counted on to generate so much instantaneous online traffic.

But some of us have been covering this industry for a long time. Even before I arrived in 1999, Arkansas Business was exploiting a strange little quirk in the state’s Freedom of Information Act in order to rank restaurants by food sales.

Sales taxes remitted by individual businesses, you see, are exempt from the FOI. We can’t find out how much a jeweler or grocery store sends to the state in sales taxes and then extrapolate its sales.

But Advertising & Promotion Commission taxes — which municipalities can choose to impose on hotels and/or restaurants and use to promote their cities — are not technically sales taxes. They look and act like sales taxes, but they aren’t exempt from the FOI. So we — and, increasingly, other news sources — request that data and use it to determine the food sales from various restaurants.

The numbers for some of these restaurants are mind-blowing, although it’s important to remember that alcohol sales are not included. The biggest number we’ve found in the state was at the Wal-Mart corporate cafeteria in Bentonville — almost $7.5 million last year, up almost 15 percent from 2013. But that’s sort of a captive audience, although obviously Wal-Mart employees aren’t required to eat there.

The top-selling regular restaurant in 2014 was Golden Corral in North Little Rock at $6.2 million (down 2 percent from 2013). It’s not far from my house, but one visit was enough for me. It’s the kind of place my husband would take our boys when they were teenagers and I was otherwise occupied. Clearly, my opinion hasn’t hurt Golden Corral’s fortunes.

***

I made a mistake in the list of the top-selling Little Rock restaurants. Red Lobster should have been No. 12, but because it changed ownership during the year, its tax receipts were divided into two accounts. It did $3.24 million in food sales last year — way below the $4.38 million racked up by its counterpart in North Little Rock.

Both Red Lobsters have seen significant declines in food sales, as did the one in Fayetteville.

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Did you read last week’s cover story about the guys who run Yellow Rocket Concepts? That’s the restaurant group behind ZaZas, Big Orange, Local Lime, Lost Forty Brewing and the new Heights Taco & Tamale that’s set to open next month.

In a market this size, it’s impossible not to report on companies that employ friends and relatives. I feel that I should disclose somewhere that my son, a student at UALR, works a few hours a week bussing tables at Big Orange Midtown.

I don’t think his employment there influenced Managing Editor Jan Cottingham’s coverage of the business. My personal experience confirms what the sales figures for that restaurant show: It is a very busy, very popular place and serves great burgers. And my son and I both enjoy his job there — even as a part-time busboy, he’s paid well enough that he never asks me for money.

(I also like the food at ZaZa in the Heights, but that place is too chaotic for me.)

I have to admit to wondering why the Yellow Rocket guys — John Beachboard, Scott McGehee and Russ McDonough — haven’t started replicating their successful concepts in different markets. It just seems strange to watch the same people pumping out entirely new concepts.

As Jan discovered in her interview, Russ McDonough had the same thought.

“When I came on board, I thought the idea was to take your best one or two restaurants and build 50 of them,” he said.

But Beachboard and McGehee persuaded him that they would rather “stay energized and creative by doing new things.”

Suddenly Yellow Rocket seemed a lot like Arkansas Business Publishing Group. Rather than producing a bunch of business journals in different markets, ABPG produces a variety of niche publications in Arkansas. 

Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at GMoritz@ABPG.com.

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