Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Diner Central: Fort Smith, Arkansas.

LATE NIGHT: At Benson's Grill in Fort Smith (Grav Weldon).
Fort Smith supports three locally owned 24 hour breakfast joints — more than anywhere else in the state. But why?
COUNTER SERVICE: At Lucy's Diner. (Kat Robinson)
There are a certa
in group of people who keep schedules that are far different from the norm — nurses, law enforcement officers, television producers, college students number among them. Odd hours makes one no less hungry, but where can one go when the urge to eat breakfast strikes at 11 p.m. or 2 a.m.?
Central Arkansas residents are, for the most part, confined to a small number of national chains such as IHOP, Denny’s and Waffle House. But in Fort Smith, the choices are different and include Lucy’sBob & Ellie’s and the king of all Arkansas late night food — Benson’s Grill. Why is that? How can a smaller economy support more locally owned efforts?
Jennifer Boulden is the Communication and Event Services Manager for the Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau. She believes there are multiple reasons.
“Fort Smith has that trifecta of late-night appeal: we’re very heavily a manufacturing town, we have a considerable amount of nightlife downtown, and we’re becoming more and more a college town. Plus, of course, we’re on several major trucking routes, we have two large hospitals and we have a strong military presence here with the 188th Fighter Wing and the National Guard training facilities at Fort Chaffee. So in the wee hours of the morning we get the factory and hospital shift workers, the students up studying or partying, and we get the adults looking for a hearty meal after living it up on Garrison Avenue or at the other clubs throughout the city.”
Don Tate is the guy in charge over at Benson’s Grill, one of the three 24 hour locally owned joints around. He agrees. “We have a large manufacturing base here in Ft. Smith and they have worked three shifts, so there are folks eating out at all hours of the night. There are also to big hospitals here in Ft. Smith that supply us with customers 24-7.”
Convention and Visitors Bureau executive Claude Legris thinks it’s ingrained in the population. “Fort Smith, though a sophisticated community (Mitsubishi, regional health care, 188th Fighter Wing, a growing arts community, outstanding educational institutions), still has a ‘mom and pop’ kind of attitude. Lots of the folks here are multi generational, and they still take pride in personal relationships they have had their entire lives. They show a preference for these types of establishments because that’s how they were ‘brung up.’ Plus they know that biscuits and gravy are good 24 hours a day!”

Boulden also notes it’s not just the egg-
and-pancake crowd looking for a bite to eat. “We have so many people here with topsy-turvy hours, for one reason or another. Even one of our doughnut shops, Irish Maid, makes their pastries fresh during the supper hours and then again at midnight, rather than in the early morning hours as most places do. So before people go in for a late-night shift, they can go by there and get piping fresh doughnuts.”
It's not just the 24 hour diners that are thriving. Fort Smith has a host of other great breakfast eateries, from the nostalgic powerhouse Calico County to made-from-scratch breakfasts at Lewis Family Restaurant. The city has its own locally-owned four store Sweet Bay Coffee Company, diner breakfasts at White Spot and Wake-Up CafĂ© and quiche and muffins at Gourmet Gallery. Fort Smithians seem to adore their morning meal. Boulden says it’s not just the blue-collar crowd. “On weekday mornings, you’ll get a lot of the old-timers meeting at their favorite breakfast spot to go over the newspaper together, and Fort Smith’s tourists and business travelers looking for something tasty and different.”
At Benson’s, that meal is always substantial. Tate says breakfast interest is pretty steady. “In a 24 hour period, approximately 40% of all of our plates served are from the breakfast menu. It is a bit seasonal, in that when it is cold we see that percentage skew towards breakfast by 3-5%, especially in the overnight timeframes.
“For us, people come to us for comfort food that has a lot of flavor. We use a slightly spicier blend of sausage, a thick cut bacon, and have ‘country ham‘ (salt cured, bone in) in addition to regular ham. I have tried, occasionally, to go to a more subtle flavor of products, buy our clientele insist on food that is seasoned. Our biggest growth area in the breakfast areas have been in different omelets like Philly Cheese-steak, El Paso, Sausage and Swiss Cheese, and a Rueben omelet, and Sweet Potato Pancakes. People still like to try something different, but find comfort in there old favorites.”
Tate also notes that people who are seeking out breakfast at Benson’s aren’t really looking for the healthy option. “I will tell you that in the almost 14 years that I have owned Benson's, we have almost quadrupled the sales at the restaurant by just focusing on trying to remain a ‘joint’ and serving comfort food and a more than reasonable price. We don't try to be something that we are not and don't chase fads. When we were at the height of the Atkins Diet craze, we put up a sign that said, ‘Don't worry about the calories... don't worry about the carbs... they're ALL in there.!’ "

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