How can an overlooked restaurant approaching 40 years in town find their way into the spotlight again? The struggle is real for restaurants who have been going for a long time. In the modern dining culture the new flashy spots often get the attention, while the places who always find a way to keep going often fade to the background. The ability to stay relevant is something I am increasingly interested in and is a fascinating aspect to the local food scene. This is the second of our ongoing series looking at how long established restaurants are fighting to stay relevant to a new generation of customers.
Despite the prominent corner location on Rodney Parham, Shorty Smalls has become a forgotten fixture of Little Rock dining culture. The Little Rock location opened 38 years ago and was the first of the Shorty’s spots, which at one point grew to around twenty locations. Economic downturns in the 2000s and a dining culture that has shifted away from chains has brought that number back down to just three: Little Rock, Branson, and Oklahoma City.
They operate quietly to say the least. That is why it was such a surprise when I got an email a few weeks ago asking if I would consider coming to look at the renovations that president Paul Kreth hopes will catch the eye of folks again. The renovations certainly help, an exterior facelift makes the building much more attractive, and the interior layout has been reworked to make the flow and overall vibe of the space more inviting.
It wasn’t until about 20 minutes into a chat over lunch with Kreth though that I started to see that the real renovation of Shorty Smalls wasn’t happening on the outside, it was taking place from within.
Hopefully Kreth doesn’t take offense, but he is a bit of a geek. I mean that nicely, geeks are really a high honor in my book. They lovingly obsess over things until they find the right combination to make it work, then continue to refine that with a passion. Kreth geeks out over blending technology with customer service.
Usually when I have someone in their late 50s start talking about technology with me I find it is their way of trying to find anything to relate on, or to hit me up later to fix their computer. It became evident that Kreth knows his stuff.
Shorty Smalls was facing a problem in the early 2010’s. Customer service was on the decline, a quick scroll back through reviews on Facebook and Yelp show that. Wait times, forgotten or incorrect orders, and other common customer service issues were leading to slow declines in the restaurants overall sales. Combine that with things like a confusing menu layout and customers just stopped coming back.
They began implementing a number of technology based changes to customer service flow from tracking customer wait times to matching reviews on social media with individual tickets and service staff to identify how the problem occurred. Kreth then took it a step further, focusing on the overall time at the restaurant from parking to leaving, and made a number of changes to get people in front of food faster. Other things like online ordering, table reservations, and delivery help get food to folks faster as well.
The result has been a happier customer by the time they receive their food. Something that Kreth has improved dramatically since the last time I went in around 7 years ago. They have moved toward making most things in house rather than frozen food service products. They are also using several in house technology based solutions like a chicken tumbler that adds flavor and tenderness to their meat. Kreth says they are introducing a number of new menu items on their Fresh menu that uses fresh ingredients and gets away from the traditional high fat – fried-everything dishes in exchange for more healthy options.
It all amounts to customers who come back, and sales numbers have been slowly building back for Shorty Smalls. No, it isn’t the flashy higher level culinary cuisine that you will find at nearby Table 28, Petit & Keet, Pantry, or upcoming Sauced, but it is solid comfort food. That still has a place in the Little Rock dining scene. If the surface level renovations can be enough to get people to think about Shorty’s again, the much deeper changes on the inside should be enough to get people to stick around. If all that can come to together, Shorty Smalls should be around for a bit longer.
11100 N Rodney Parham Rd, Little Rock