Cafeteria fare

On his way back to Waco, Texas, following an Easter weekend visit to Little Rock, my oldest son stopped at Bryce’s Cafeteria in Texarkana for lunch.

It’s a stop he has been making most of his life.

My wife is from south Texas (Kingsville, Alice, Corpus Christi). On trips to visit her relatives, we usually timed our departures so we could eat at the venerable Texarkana restaurant, which closed its doors at the end of April after 86 years of serving customers.

When I was a boy in Arkadelphia, Hot Springs was usually the first choice if we were going out of town for a special meal.

If shopping and doctors’ visits were involved, Little Rock was the destination.

But to change things up from time to time, my parents would choose Texarkana since both of them loved eating downtown at Bryce’s.

Downtown Texarkana was a busy place in those days. That was before restaurants and retailers moved north to Interstate 30. Shoppers from southwest Arkansas, east Texas, northwest Louisiana and southeast Oklahoma flocked to downtown businesses such as the Belk-Jones and Dillard’s department stores.

Earl Jones Sr., who was born in North Carolina where the Belk chain was founded, moved to Texarkana in October 1947 to open Belk-Jones.

Meanwhile, William T. Dillard, who had been born at Mineral Springs in 1914, opened his first store at Nashville in Howard County in February 1938. He sold the Nashville store in 1948 and moved his family to Texarkana after purchasing a 45 percent interest in Wooten’s Department Store. In 1949, Dillard purchased the remaining 60 percent of Wooten’s.

Michael Barone and Grant Ujifusa once described Texarkana in the “Almanac of American Politics” as the heart of “populist country, a place where farmers producing cotton and other crops felt themselves at the mercy of Dallas cotton brokers, Wall Street financiers and railroad magnates who were grabbing all the gains of their hard work. Outside Texarkana, in a landscape littered with small houses and lazily winding rivers, there was little protection from the sun and wind, and precious little ornament; the reservoirs and motels and shopping centers one sees there now are signs of an affluence still only beginning to penetrate what was a zone of subsistence if not poverty.”

Bryce’s fed those who came to Texarkana from the small towns of Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. The cooking was consistent, and it was good.

As my son paid his bill that Monday following his final meal at Bryce’s, he told the cashier of his first visit there. Like a lot of smart, high-strung boys, he was slow in getting potty trained. Austin was obsessed in those days with trains and airplanes, and my mother came up with an idea. She told Austin that if he would get potty trained, the two of them would take a trip on a real train.

It worked, though it was a short journey. They boarded an Amtrak train at Arkadelphia and took it only as far as Texarkana. My father raced down Interstate 30 in his Oldsmobile and picked them up at the Texarkana depot. The three of them then had a big lunch at Bryce’s. My parents later told me that Austin slept soundly on the way back to his grandparents’ home.

“We’ve been hearing a lot of stories along those lines,” the cashier told Austin, who’s now 24.

Bryce Lawrence opened his cafeteria in 1931 during the Great Depression. It remained downtown until February 1989 when it moved near Interstate 30 and Summerhill Road on the Texas side of the state line.

A Chicago Tribune writer once declared that Bryce’s “may have better food for the money than anyplace on earth.”

During his 1992 presidential campaign, Ross Perot, a Texarkana native, was asked to list his favorite restaurant in the world. His choice was Bryce’s, of course.

I would always start meals there with tomato aspic (I suspect I was the youngest person to purchase that old-school dish) and finish with egg custard pie in honor of my mother, who enjoyed both.

Jane and Michael Stern, who became famous for the “Roadfood” series of books, once wrote of Bryce’s: “Going through the line takes you past an array of swoonfully appetizing food — food that has made this place famous since it opened for business in 1931. There are more vegetables than most Yankees see in a year — purple-hulled peas, fried green tomatoes, red beans, turnip greens cooked with chunks of ham and a full array of potatoes, cheesy macaroni casseroles, rice casseroles, buttered cauliflower, sauced broccoli, etc.

“Among the main courses, fried chicken is stupendously crunchy and big slabs of sweet ham are sliced to order. For dessert, we like Karo-coconut pie, hot cobbler with an ethereal crust and banana pudding made with meringue and vanilla wafers. The entire experience is a culinary dream, including a smartly uniformed dining room staff (to help old folks and invalids with their trays, and to bus tables) and servers who address all men as ‘sir’ and ladies as ‘ma’am.'”

One of their readers wrote: “I’m not customarily a fan of cafeterias. Multiples of food behind glass covers bring back not-so-pleasant memories of school cafeterias and unappetizing food. But Bryce’s could make a convert out of me. Here everything looks so good that it is hard to make a choice. We were hungry so it was tempting to order one of everything. As it was, we selected a gracious plenty. The fried chicken is very good and still crisp even though it has been sitting under a heat lamp for a while. The turnip greens, black-eyed peas, squash and coleslaw are well-seasoned and delicious.”

Richard Lawrence, the son of Bryce Lawrence, died in February at age 65.

His obituary read in part: “Richard was born in Texarkana, Arkansas. He went to St. James Day School and Allen Academy. He graduated from Texas High School, where he was an outstanding football player and loved his days playing football for Watty Myers. He went on to play college football at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas. After that, he earned a culinary degree from Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. … Richard was best known for his role in Bryce’s Cafeteria, the family business that was started in 1931 by his father, Bryce Lawrence. He worked there tirelessly for most of his life with his brother, Bryce.

“Richard loved and was loved by all his employees, some of whom worked for Richard and his father for more than 50 years. They all loved to call him Big Daddy. Richard adored his family and extended family, especially the time he spent with them at his cabin at Lake Greeson, teaching all his nieces and nephews how to water ski. Richard’s favorite thing was to cook and entertain, which usually meant telling funny stories about himself. But more than anything else he enjoyed spending time with his family at their summer home in Charlevoix, Mich.”

Shortly before Bryce’s closed, Greg Bischof of the Texarkana Gazette wrote about two veteran employees.

“Leo McCoun and Pearlene Jennings loved working for Bryce’s Cafeteria so much they each worked there for more than a half-century,” he wrote. “Even though the cafeteria will see its last tray full of cuisine slide before the cashiers at the end of April, McCoun’s and Jennings’ memories of working there will likely live on as long as they do. For 86 years, one of Texarkana’s most renowned eateries, founded by local resident Bryce Lawrence in 1931, not only pulled off an entrepreneurial miracle by surviving all 10 years of the Great Depression, it went on to become one of the most popular non-franchised businesses in the region, attracting customers from as far away as Dallas.

“Both McCoun and Jennings were not only eyewitnesses but major contributors to that success — as well as being veteran employees long enough to work at both the cafeteria’s original and current locations. For McCoun, born in 1935 and raised in Lewisville, his employment started Nov. 10, 1958, at Bryce’s original setting at 215 Pine St. with a starting income of $15 a week.”

McCoun told Bischof: “Guys got $15 a week while the girls got $12.50. I loved every one of my jobs here. I enjoyed all 58 years because I just liked being around people. Moving to the north side of town was different and a good move because Interstate 30 pulled business northward, but I think I will always like the look of the old place we had at 215 Pine. It just had a vintage atmosphere about it. At the time we were downtown, there was only one other cafeteria nearby, and that was in Wake Village.

“Bryce’s was a popular place the whole time. We had customers from as far away as Nashville, Ashdown, El Dorado, Magnolia, Camden and, yes, even as far away as Dallas. I got to know customers that were as young as five years old. Now they have grown up and have had children and grandchildren of their own. I got to know so many families and customers from all over. I’ll never forget this. I’m 81 years old, and it’s finally time to retire.”

Bischof wrote: “McCoun, who was 23 years old at the time, began as a pot washer, which he did for three years before becoming a silverware roller for another three years. He eventually became a dining room cleaning attendant as well as an occasional meat slicer in the customer serving line. He still performed both those tasks when the cafeteria made its move from 215 Pine St. to its current location near Interstate 30 in February 1989. Starting in 1996, McCoun became the dining room manager.”

Jennings began working at Bryce’s in May 1965.

“As a 17-year-old Macedonia High School student, she was looking for part-time work as a waitress during the summer of 1965,” Bischof wrote. “Upon graduating the following year, she went full time and made a career of it.”

Jennings told the newspaper: “I started out getting paid $17 a week as take-home pay, which came in a brown envelope. We had an upstairs as well as a downstairs dining room, and we helped customers carry their trays upstairs. I stayed with Bryce’s because I just liked the place, all the friendly customers and the employees. Waitressing was my only job. I loved both locations, but I do miss going up those stairs downtown. I think I got to know hundreds, maybe thousands, of customers through the years.”

Mother’s Day was the busiest day of the year, followed by Easter.

“Both of those holidays drew the crowds,” Jennings said.

Bryce’s is gone, but at least we still have Franke’s at two locations in Little Rock.

But death also has rocked the Franke family of Little Rock. Bill K. Franke died in Little Rock just 12 days after Richard Lawrence died in Texarkana.

Franke’s obituary noted that he “spent the majority of his life serving Arkansas food to Arkansas people at his family business, Franke’s Cafeteria. He was known for his strong presence and was the definition of honor and integrity. … A man of many hobbies, he loved most what nature had to offer. Astronomy, hunting, fishing, cooking and riding motorcycles were among his favorites.”

The death came just more than three months after his daughter, Christen Franke, died suddenly at age 37.

Fortunately, Bill’s widow, Carolyn Cazort Franke, and other family members plan to keep the restaurants going.

Here’s how the Franke’s website describes the history of the company: “In 1919, C.A. Franke opened a doughnut shop on Little Rock’s West Capitol Avenue. After a few short years, it became a thriving business, and in 1922, Franke built a large bakery at 111 W. Third St. Soon a fleet of trucks, nicknamed ‘wife savers,’ could be seen delivering fresh baked goods door to door in neighborhoods throughout the city.

“In 1924, Franke opened the original Franke’s Cafeteria at 115 W. Capitol. The cafeteria was near the major department stores and businesses in downtown Little Rock, and the eatery prospered in this vital commercial area of downtown. A separate dining room was opened around the corner at 511 Louisiana and shared the same kitchen, preparing food for both locations. C.A.’s son, W.J. Franke, worked with his father and eventually became the second generation to run the cafeteria. W.J.’s son, Bill Franke, learned the business from his father and took the reins as the third generation to run the cafeteria in 1983.

“In 1960, the original cafeteria closed its doors but not before inspiring newer locations around the state. Franke’s has had many locations, including Hot Springs, Fort Smith, North Little Rock’s McCain Mall and Little Rock’s University Mall. Today the cafeteria has come full circle with a location on West Capitol in the Regions Bank building and our newest addition, the Market Place location on Rodney Parham.

“Some of Franke’s menu items are legendary, led by the eggplant casserole and egg custard pie. The sliced roast beef, candied sweet potatoes, hand-breaded fried okra and Karo-nut pecan pie continue to be customer favorites. Most recipes have remained unchanged from the originals and are often the subject of recipe duplication debates. The food line at Franke’s, with its array of cold dishes, steaming meats, assorted vegetables and mouthwatering desserts, has kept customers coming through the doors for many decades.

“Franke’s success and longevity are due to consistently serving good food at reasonable prices, a long history of staff who have served the people of Arkansas with a full heart and loyal customers who have become a part of our family. As an Arkansas tradition, Franke’s offers more than just a home-cooked meal. It’s a place for older generations to remember and a home for younger generations to begin making memories.”

I eat lunch often at the downtown Little Rock location and always study the framed black-and-white photo of Capitol Avenue looking west toward the state Capitol. It was taken decades ago. You can see the Franke’s sign on the left and the sign for the Capitol Theater on the right. There’s also a framed gavel that was used by Lee Cazort when he was the Arkansas House speaker in 1917, the Arkansas Senate president in 1921 and the state’s lieutenant governor from 1929-31 and 1933-37.

Cafeterias were once common across the state. My family often would eat in the 1960s at a downtown Arkadelphia cafeteria called Homer’s.

Now locally owned cafeterias are becoming hard to find.

Bryce’s is but a memory. Here’s hoping that Franke’s will flourish for many years to come.

 

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