If you are old enough to read (which I am making a huge assumption here that you can), then you have no doubt heard the paradox of what happens when an unstoppable force meets an unmovable object. There is no good answer, and there likely never will be.
How about this one. What happens with an unchangeable 90-year-old restaurant meets a culture that demands something new on every visit? The typical answer is that the unchangeable ceases to exists. Yet somehow for McClard’s BBQ in Hot Springs, they manage to not only defy those odds, but be more relevant than ever in the process.
It was a situation that even stumped owner Scott McClard recently when we sat down to chat. How do you keep a restaurant that is essentially an immovable object relevant when faced with an unstoppable force wanting change and something new all the time.
“It is the hardest question I have ever had,” McClard says. “The food is easy, it is making sure we have customers built-in for the next 90 years is the hard part.”
For those of you who do not know the story, Scott’s great-grandfather started McClard’s BBQ in 1928 after running a travel court. A traveler couldn’t pay the rent, but offered up a bbq sauce recipe instead. Figuring they wouldn’t get anything anyway out of the guy, they took the recipe, made a few tweaks of their own, and the rest is history.
They moved just down the road on Albert Pike a few years later and set up the current building. The original location sat on a street just a couple of blocks away now renamed in honor of that very fruitful transaction, that has no doubt paid for far more than the rent they were owed.
Originally McClards started smoking goats, “Back in those days, only Rockefellers ate beef. Goat was the meat of choice for working class people of the time,” McClard recounts. The goat is no longer on the menu, although we would love to see it return for special occasions, but the sauce recipe is exactly the same after those few early on tweaks.
Over the years McClards added a menu item here and there. Picking up pork, tamales, chicken, and yes, eventually, beef. They frequently have guests come in that recall eating something 30-40 years ago and finding that it taste exactly the same today. It is part of that unwavering commitment to not changing that has built loyal customers over the years.
They will add a new item every five years or so, even that infrequent the average customer has a hard time embracing something new out of McClard’s.
“We added sausage a few years ago, and we had a ton of complaints. ‘Your grandfather would have never put this on the menu’, I would hear all the time. Eventually even those people started to enjoy it,” McClard tells us. “Then we decided to throw several of our meat items together for a dish called Around the Barn. It had pork, chicken, and beef. The platters we had were not big enough, so we started using metal trays like a lot of bbq places use. Immediately I had people complaining saying, ‘I want the barn, but I am not eating off of a damn prison tray.’ So for a while we had to serve a few people the item on two of our normal platters.”
Indeed, McClards has built such a following that not even the plates can be changed without resistance. At the same time the majority of restaurant growth, and the future loyal patrons, are looking for something exciting and new with more adventurous dishes. It was a problem not only McClards faced several years ago, but all of Hot Springs.
“Hot Springs was already in a slump, then the Majestic Hotel burned and it felt like the whole town became depressed. Us long-term people felt like we were just waiting for the end of a good run,” McClard remembers. “Then, all of a sudden you have Anthony Valinoti (of Deluca’s Pizzeria) roll into town with this extreme energy and optimism about life itself. He started talking to us about all cooperating and promoting each other. He really helped us get the food scene on the same page.”
That was the start of the turn around for both Hot Springs, and making McClard’s relevant again. While their menu didn’t change at all, their overall approach did. They began partnering with other restuarants, like Deluca’s Pizzeria, to extend the reach of their food. They began introducing things like local craft beers. Then they took to social media to tell the story of McClards to a new audience, something Scott McClard says his daughter’s helped with a lot.
With new life in the restaurant scene, the restaurant scene itself began to change.
“All of a sudden you had the millennials come into town trying things us old farts had all given up on years ago,” McClard says energetically. “They were so determined and full of energy. They didn’t want to hear about what would or wouldn’t work, they had fresh ideas on how to make it work. Amazingly, they pulled it off. So now we have this energy and spirit to a town that only three or four years ago we were all ready to hang it up. All thanks to Tony and some very optimistic millennials.”
It seems the winning strategy for keeping McClard’s fresh and relevant to a new audience was doing everything they could to keep Hot Springs fresh and relevant to a new audience. The effort is paying off. Not only is McClard’s seeing strong business, but the food scene as a whole is growing at a rapid pace.
In my 30 something years of frequently going to Hot Springs, I have never seen the city more alive than it is today. Same with McClards. A stop at in at 3 in the afternoon reveals a restaurant that is over half full. Because of it another generation will have the new fresh items to eat in Hot Springs, and then extremely consistent BBQ that they can always count on. Damn prison trays and all.