What goes into keeping a place going for 30+ years? Adapting to new challenges and changing customers is a hard hill to climb, that is why so few make it that long. The the past six months I have spent a good portion of my free time working on a book about long standing Little Rock restaurants. Spending time with these business has opened my eyes to how difficult it is to keep a place going for a long time.
I wanted to take an inside look at the decisions and challenges a spot goes through to keep a brand going and thriving. I wanted to start with Graffiti’s Italian restaurant because they are deep in that pivotal point of keeping old customers interested while trying to attract new ones. This is the first in hopefully a series of looking at long standing places and what it takes to keep things going.
Dining has come a long way in since Graffiti’s Italian restaurant on Cantrell opened their doors in October 1984. It was part of an explosion of restaurants that came out of Jacques and Suzanne, that would later close in 1986. Graffiti’s was founded by Paul Bash who is practically food royalty in this state.
It built a loyal following who hold on for dear life to the dishes they have eaten over the past 34 years, while at the same time has not kept up with the ever evolving palate of local eaters. To say food is different now than it was in 1984 would be a huge understatement.
It is the paradox between staying true to loyal diners, many of whom have not faltered the entire lifespan of the restaurant, and trying to attract a new generation of patrons that is the struggle for the restaurant’s new owners Armando and Sarah Bolaños.
They bought the Graffiti’s late last year from long time owners David Jones and Patrick Dayer. Their family also owns La Terraza Rum Lounge in Hillcrest along with a previous restaurant in Venezuela. Additionally, Armando worked for a while at Zaffino’s by Nori, which is easily one of the best Italian places in the region, so he knows a thing or two about quality Italian.
“It is so different than La Terraza, there our struggle is to get people to understand our food,” Sarah explains. “Here people know the food, they know what to expect, and trying to manage that is the real struggle.”
Many of the recipes on the menu were unchanged from the restaurant’s opening, and those that are unchanged remain some of the biggest sellers. They are at the same time some of the recipes in biggest need of refreshing to build a stronger flavor profile instead of the relatively bland taste that has kept folks like myself from coming back.
Armando says they have been slowly making minor changes to some recipes, but ultimately the answer is going to most likely be specials and a whole new menu section.
“Once we got into the kitchen and got a handle on what we were working with we started rotating in specials, ” Armando tells me. “We are also contemplating a menu design that will keep the classic Graffiti’s dishes people love, but also have a list of some new items we have been working on.”
Some of the new dishes in mind are both more American, such as a fettuccine filled cheese bread, and more classic Italian such as an octopus dish. The new options are a better fit for diners with a more adventurous palate and who are willing to making dining an experience and ordering multiple courses.
Changing recipes is one thing, but much of the staff has worked at Graffiti’s for a very long time and are accustomed to their way of cooking.
“A lot of what the kitchen staff does here is habit,” Armando says. “They are all really good employees and do what they do well. Sometimes we make a tweak to a dish and after a few times they just naturally revert back to what they have done for the past 15 years. So on some of our long standing dishes we are not just having to adjust the recipe and methods, but also adjust cooking habits.”
Food isn’t the only thing with a slight refresh coming. They have shifted a lot of the wine list to include a heavier Italian influence, moving out some of the bottles that didn’t match the cuisine. They also made little changes such as swapping out napkins for a more colorful set to match the restaurants theme. They are also looking at ways to be more kid friendly, something the restaurant has never embraced well in the history of the space.
One area they are still debating on is the restaurant’s menus. The typical paper place mat style of menu has grown out of favor over the last several years, replaced with booklet menus that cut down printing costs. They also look more sophisticated, which goes along with a menu like that of Graffiti’s. However part of the Graffiti’s experience has been coloring the menus, so much so a bucket of crayons sits at every table.
“We have menus all over the restaurant that have been colored by guests throughout the past 30+ years, including several famous Arkansans,” Sarah says as we walk around looking at some of the framed drawings. “We don’t want to lose that appeal and connection. So while it makes a lot of business sense to swap these out, it is one of those things we will most likely hold onto in some way.”
Since taking over the restaurant, they have run a several special dinners featuring all new or updated menu items. They also plan to roll out some menu updates soon to showcase some of the more up to date menu items. Keep an eye out for new menu items or dinners, it is the best way to experience the next generation of Graffiti’s.