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A dynasty built on eggplant casserole

Franke’s is Arkansas’s oldest restaurant.

by and

LOOKING BACK: Bill Franke.
  • LOOKING BACK: Bill Franke.

A few years back, the Luby’s chain out of Texas swaggered into Little Rock, opened a cafeteria in the Park Plaza mall, and began drawing large crowds. Park Plaza is a block away from University Mall, an older, smaller and rather rundown mall that housed a branch of the local cafeteria champion, Franke’s. The neighborhood didn’t seem big enough for both cafeterias, and it wasn’t. Today, Luby’s is gone from Park Plaza. Franke’s, the oldest restaurant in Arkansas, is still doing business at University Mall and two other locations in Little Rock, still owned by the family that founded it 87 years ago.

Bill Franke, the president of Franke’s, declines to talk specifics about the Park Plaza Luby’s, or any of the other competitors Franke’s has outlasted over the years. (And it should be noted that while Luby’s pulled out of Park Plaza, the company still has two cafeterias in the Little Rock area.)

But as for the broader question of how a family-owned cafeteria has survived in what has become a chain-owned, fast-food restaurant world, Franke has an answer: “There’s only one thing that keeps you going in the restaurant business and that’s good food.” For many customers, that means, most of all, eggplant casserole, egg custard pie and roast beef, the three dishes most associated with Franke’s. But Franke’s also has a wide range of vegetables and salads; in a time when chicken is very nearly king, it offers seasoned baked chicken in one form or another every day; it has fruit cobblers and jalapeno cornbread. Regular diners learn the days that their particular favorites are offered. Thursday is fried-chicken-livers-with-rice-and-cream-gravy day at the Franke’s in the Region’s Bank building downtown. (The third Franke’s is at 11121 N. Rodney Parham Road.)

Bill Franke’s grandfather, C.A. Franke, founded the business. He was born in Ithaca, N.Y., the son of a sparkplug manufacturer. He got an engineering degree from Cornell University and worked at the sparkplug plant for a while. Then he served in the military during World War I, and was stationed at Camp Pike in North Little Rock, where, according to his grandson, “He fell in love with Arkansas.” He also foresaw that small independent sparkplug manufacturers would be swallowed up by a few big companies.

“At some point, he decided to stay here and open a bakery,” Franke says. Why a bakery, nobody knows, but it opened in 1919, essentially a hole-in-the-wall doughnut shop, and the family counts that as its entry into the restaurant business. The first cafeteria opened in 1924, on Fifth Street (Capitol Avenue) between Main and Louisiana.

The little bakery grew into a big bakery with delivery trucks and multiple retail outlets around town. Eventually, the bakery was sold. The cafeterias continued under Franke ownership. After World War II, in which C.A.’s son, the first Bill, served, the two of them and C.A.’s son-in-law, Dick Lewis, ran the company. Then Lewis died, and C.A. shortly thereafter, and Bill ran the business for years. In 1983, the present Bill Franke and his younger brother, Chris, bought the company from their father, who retired. He died two years later. The two sons are still in charge.

The Franke’s cafeterias have been at many different locations. Although the first one was in downtown Little Rock, Franke’s was gone from downtown for many years before it returned, in the Regions Bank space where another cafeteria had once operated. The most Franke’s cafeterias that were ever open at any one time was four — three in Little Rock and one in Hot Springs. The Hot Springs branch closed in the late ’70s or early ’80s after some 40 years of operation. There was once a branch at Fort Smith, but it didn’t last long.

Will there always be a Franke’s? Not necessarily. Bill Franke, 56, said that his two children, both daughters, were pursuing other careers, with his encouragement. “The restaurant business is hard.” His brother’s children don’t seem inclined to take over the family business, either. It’s not only possible, but likely, that one day there’ll be no Franke in Franke’s. If there’s no Franke’s at all, even without family involvement, Little Rock will seem a different place.

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