Becoming a legend in the food business might lead some to rest on their laurels. But at Sims Bar-B-Que, being legendary means hard work and dedication. All this week, Rock City Eats is celebrating black-owned businesses in Little Rock’s food scene that provide diversity, passion and excellence on an everyday basis. This is the fourth in a five-part series.
I walked into Sims Bar-B-Que to interview owner Ronald Settlers a few minutes ahead of schedule. He briefly glanced up and quickly said, “I’ll be with you in a minute,” before immediately resuming an in-depth discussion with a restaurant supply company. That situation resolved, he then walked past my booth to speak with another man on yet another business-related matter. Settlers was focused, direct, to the point on every issue, which meant I didn’t have to wait long until he sat down across from me, ready to get on with it. When you’re running the oldest barbecue restaurant in Little Rock, you don’t have time to waste.
In fact, Sims Bar-B-Que is one of the oldest continuously operating restaurants in the entire state of Arkansas, a fact that Settlers is proud of. Sims is one of only three remaining Little Rock black-owned restaurants that saw the civil rights movement abolish “separate but equal” access for black patrons, something that Settlers attributes to Sims’ quality.
“There’s Sims, and Lassis Inn, and Yancey’s Cafeteria that are still serving the black community who survived that,” says Settlers. “That’s a big impact on the community. You got generations of people that are still coming here. That just shows you if you got good food and good service, you will survive.”
Allen Sims opened Sims Bar-B-Que on 33rd Street in 1937 and ran the restaurant until 1976, when Settlers purchased it from him and incorporated it. Settlers kept the restaurant going at 33rd Street and, together with partner Percy Walker, opened the locations on John Barrow Road and Geyer Springs Road. However, in 2008, he decided to move the original restaurant to Broadway and Roosevelt for higher visibility and exposure. The move worked, as Sims was accepted into the neighborhood almost overnight, which Settlers credits to the barbecue and an eye for cleanliness.
“First of all, it’s the food,” says Settlers. “That’s number one. If you’ve got good food, they’re going to come to you. But along with good food, you’ve got to have a nice establishment. If you come here every day, the floors are clean, it’s not run-down, the bathrooms are clean. People notice that, people don’t like eating over filth.
“You have to have repeat business. If you don’t have repeat business, you’re going to be out of business.”
The longstanding devotion to quality, cleanliness and service has made Sims Bar-B-Que one of 12 finalists for the inaugural class of the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame. It’s an honor that puts Sims in an elite category with some other black-owned businesses, including Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales in Lake Village and Jones BBQ in Marianna. For Settlers, keeping those standards going means making everything fresh every morning, especially smoking the pork and beef.
“We’re smoking meat every day,” says Settlers. “If you come by here and the smoker’s not going, we’re closed. We aren’t going to serve you leftover meat.”
Settlers identified two problems he believes are common to black-owned restaurants and food businesses in Little Rock. The economic downturn of the last decade hit particularly hard, Settlers said, though he recognized that nearly all service industry businesses felt that, regardless of who owned them. However, he feels that minority business owners get the short end of the stick when it comes to paying taxes. All restaurants pay a 2-percent advertising and promotion (A&P) tax to the city of Little Rock, which in turn encourages locals and tourists to dine out. However, Settlers says the city isn’t sending people his way.
“You take the city, downtown, the River Market, that’s what the city tries to promote that area,” says Settlers. “They don’t promote this area out here, they don’t promote the southwest area. It’s just West Little Rock, the Heights, stuff like that. We pay the same taxes as everybody else, why shouldn’t we be promoted?
Nonetheless, it would be hard to even start a conversation about barbecue in Little Rock without talking about the history and impact Sims has made and is still making. None of that is by accident; nearly all of it comes from the hard work of Settlers and his staff. As we say our goodbye, he hustles to the front to talk with one of his managers, picking out the color and material of new t-shirts for the restaurant. Business as usual.