This week, longtime restaurant and bar West End End Tavern will close their doors for good. It is bittersweet for many of us who have been around Little Rock for years. Any time there is an established spot close doors I frequently hear the doom and gloom moaning about how Little Rock’s restaurant scene is dying.
It can seem this way when a couple of places you have frequented for years are gone, especially if you do not change up your routine and venture out much. Just like if all you ever do is check out new places and never loop back around then it seems like Little Rock is booming. The answer, as always, lays somewhere in between.
To be fair, we almost exclusively track local or very small regional restaurants with a limited number of locations. The chain restaurant scene in Little Rock is dying, but most of that is being shifted to locally owned spots. Regardless of what I am about to say, I believe total dining dollars all around is at a net neutral at best, but likely an overall decline. I’ll have to pull A&P numbers at the end of the year to confirm.
The money spent on local restaurants is increasing, but out of town dollars, that is typically spent on chains, is rapidly declining. It creates some long-term economic stability issues that we as a city and industry are going to have to address someday, but today at least the news is good for local restaurants.
First off, methodology. I looked through our content this year and the Democrat Gazette’s Transitions section, which will occasionally pick up something off our radar. I am focusing only on local or small regional restaurants. For example, I don’t ultimately care if Del Frisco’s closes one of their 53 locations or if we get another steakhouse or chain burger joint to open. Local or small regional only. This is also limited to just Little Rock proper since we have the best data from the city itself.
To be fair, the closures we did have were big, which made the number seem bigger. The Southern Gourmasian was a huge loss, so was Vesuvio, Gusanos has been a river market fixture for a while, as has Rumba. On the whole, though we are only seeing 13 real closures so far on the year. It is possible we missed one here or there, but those are the big ones that made the news.
Those include Skye’s Bistro, Rumba, Vesuvio, West End Tavern, Southern Gourmasian, Zin Wine Bar, Ozark Restaurant (due to fire), Canvas at the Art Center (reopening eventually), Gusanos, Chi’s Dim Sum (merged restaurants), Sufficient Grounds, Viva Vegan, and Whole Hog on Cantrell.
There are a few others we are watching, expecting to close. There are also always some end of the year places that decide to close at the end rather than go through another year of taxes and licenses. I still expect that number to be limited.
As I have alluded to, this year has been a big opening year. Even the number of major openings outweigh the number of major losses. Spots like Sauce(d), Cathead’s Diner, Ira’s, Fassler Hall, and TAE are all major openings that expanded the food scene in both size and diversity.
For a lot of the losses, there were equal and opposite openings. Either in the same space, same ownership group, or sometimes both. Southern Gourmasian owners opened TAE, Gusanos will become the Shack soon, Live Life Chill took over from Rumba, Proof took over from Next Bar in Hillcrest, and Sufficient Grounds’ space is now Flint’s.
Moves to the area and general expansions were also big. Ira’s opened up his long-awaited move from North Little Rock to downtown, Kontiki African made the move to Little Rock, both Poke places (Ohia and Hula) not only opened but later expanded, and finally Cantina Cinco de Mayo, Core, Banana Leaf, and Jimmy’s Serious Sandwiches all expanded locations.
Overall we are tracking 23 openings on the year from local spots. That doesn’t even include places like Arthurs, Oceans, or Rock Town Distillery that all expanded in such a big way that they might as well be a brand new opening.
Still to Come
Just like we expect a few more closings, there are also some more openings left for the year, some that should absolutely be open in 2018.
Like we mentioned earlier, expect to see the Shack open in the old Gusano’s spot, The Railyard/Count Porkula will be opened by the end of the month, Dos Rocas in SoMa along with bar next door (separate owners) should both be open soon, there is a downtown donut shop and an expansion on a local coffee shop that we hope to announce soon as well. There is also the AW Lin’s downtown location and Capital Seafood House (old OW Pizza spot) that may be open by the end of the year, plus a few others, although our confidence is not high on opening dates.
In all, we could easily see 30 locally owned locations open up by the end of the year compared to 15-18 closures. It is not a massive net gain, but the solid growth Little Rock could use right now.