Over a decade ago when I was just a few years out of college I got my first real job with a digital marketing agency located in the now Simmons Tower downtown. Around the same time EJ’s Eats and Drinks made the move to downtown after spending 4 years at a small spot in Hillcrest. It became a frequent lunch spot for many of us in the downtown area, in fact it is most of the reason I still have lunch every day around 11, because if not you couldn’t get a table at EJ’s.
As the years went on and I moved jobs, even some still within walking distance, I found less and less reason to get into EJ’s. What was once a great experience quickly turned forgettable.
Making EJ’s relevant again as the downtown dining scene has exploded and the competition is fierce will be the biggest challenge for the Graham family, who will take over ownership of the spot beginning February 1st. The lack of attention, dated cooking methods, and relatively slow service will not keep the spot open for long when there are a dozen better spots to eat right around the corner.
The Graham family are also the owners of Old Mill Bread Company in West Little Rock. There they are also up to their eyeballs in challenges following the sudden closing of Arkansas Fresh thanks to the rapid surge in demand for locally produced baked goods. Thankfully they are bringing in longterm employee Blake Wilkerson as a partner to help facilitate a lot of the changes at EJ’s while they work to ramp up bread production.
The cross utilization may be their saving grace at EJ’s. The first major change will be swapping out the food service purchased bread for sandwiches and burgers to their own breads. A step that will not only bring cost savings but a huge bump in flavor.
They also want to introduce breakfast, something that seems like a no brainer with their space uniquely positioned between several large parking lots and the buildings those folks are walking to every morning.
“Thankfully we have identified over $1,000 a month savings in easily fixed product loss. Plus we can make some simple changes like changing to our bread which lowers cost and increases quality,” owner Andrew Graham tells us. “Then, there are simple adjustments like adding breakfast that will give customers something fresh that is not readily available in the area.”
Graham says after those first little changes they plan to do some adjustments to organize the branding, currently there are 3 versions of the logo in use for example, and to increase delivery and catering. There are also some minor aesthetic changes like window coverings and replacing the 1990’s tvs throughout the space that will come early in the process.
For the existing menu items however, they plan to just take a step back and observe rather than make any dramatic changes right away. They want to take some time and figure out what is working and what people would like to see changed. The slow and calculated approach to changes has worked well with Old Mill, and hopefully will work on EJ’s as well.
A good place to start would be pairing down the sandwich menu, which currently has 24 different sandwich options, 10 of which have chicken involved. The chicken used appears to be boiled and lacks any resemblance of flavor, something that could be easily fixed and provide a quick boost to the quality.
Overall EJ’s has the potential to thrive with some easy changes and a little attention, something the Grahams seem poised to give the space. I for one would love to see EJ’s be relevant again, if only for nostalgia purposes. Here’s to hoping for the best with the ownership changes.