I received sad news Friday.
An Arkansas institution, Pine Bluff’s Sno-White Grill, will be closing.
But it was inevitable.
Bobby Garner is well past retirement age. Like so many independently owned Arkansas restaurants — think Shadden’s near Marvell — there’s nobody waiting in the wings when an owner retires or dies (as was the case with Wayne Shadden).
That’s why we need to enjoy these Arkansas classics while we still can.
Below is the story I wrote in 2009 for Roby Brock’s Talk Business magazine. I hope you enjoy it:
The newspaper clipping from the Pine Bluff Commercial is framed on the wall of Pine Bluff’s Sno-White Grill. The story is dated Nov. 29, 1991, and tells of a fire that broke out at Sno-White at 12:26 a.m. on a Thursday. It was Thanksgiving morning.
The article describes a devastating fire that destroyed the business at 310 E. Fifth Ave. downtown, a restaurant that the newspaper said had the reputation of serving the “best hamburgers in the state.”
“I don’t think I’ve gotten over the shock yet,” Sno-White owner Bobby Garner told the newspaper.
Then, he added: “I’m down, but I’m not out.”
Fast forward the clock almost 18 years, and you’ll find Garner behind the counter of a rebuilt Sno-White on a summer Friday morning. He’s serving as the short-order cook and still dishing out what many people consider Arkansas’ best hamburger.
Across this state, there are restaurants where the locals gather to drink coffee, catch up on the town’s gossip, discuss the previous day’s sports events and talk politics. But few of those gathering spots have the longevity of Sno-White, which was founded in 1936, one year before Walt Disney produced his first full-length animated classic, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
The chances are that if you’re in Sno-White, so is Bobby Garner.
“I’m the only one who has a key,” he says matter of factly as the ceiling fans whirl overhead.
He’s there six mornings a week at 5:30 a.m. and even comes in on Sunday mornings to clean up. The landmark restaurant is open from 6 a.m. until 3 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
And at the age of 73, Garner doesn’t show signs of slowing down.
“I checked with my board, and they said Sno-White doesn’t have a retirement plan,” he says, a sly grin crossing his face.
Of course, Bobby Garner is the board. His wife, Blanche, is still around to offer advice but doesn’t come to the restaurant often. From opening time until closing time, it’s Bobby’s show.
None of the coffee mugs match, which is part of the charm of a place like Sno-White. On the table where Garner sits down to visit there’s a mug that says “Sparkman Sparklers,” the name of a girls’ basketball team from Dallas County that was nationally known in the 1930s. It’s as if Sno-White has become the repository of south Arkansas history.
There used to be quite a few locally owned, full-service restaurants in Pine Bluff like Sno-White. But as the city has lost population and economic vitality through the years, their numbers have declined. Garner rattles off the names of the competitors that are now only memories. There was John Noah’s Restaurant over by the Norton Lumber Mill. There was the Wonderland. The Country Kitchen out on the Dollarway Highway is about the only comparable place to Sno-White these days.
Restaurants aren’t the only things disappearing in southeast Arkansas.
“Most of my friends have either died or moved,” Garner says. “There’s a void there.”
Still, Garner insists that despite the dramatically decreased population, business is good. The prime rib special for $14.95 on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights remains popular, as do the plate lunches. For $6.25 at lunch, you get an entrée and three vegetables. Garner lists main courses off the top of his head. Monday features pork chops or chicken and dressing. On Tuesday, it’s chicken and dumplings or grilled beef liver. The choices on Wednesday are fried chicken, baked ham or spaghetti and meat sauce. On Thursday, it’s chicken fried steak, chicken spaghetti or barbecued pork. Fridays feature salmon croquettes, fried catfish or hamburger steaks.
“We have to keep the Catholics happy on Friday,” Garner says of the two fish entrees.
He estimates that he sells between 150 and 180 plate lunches each day.
“I cooked 75 chicken fried steaks yesterday and sold them all,” he says on this Friday morning. “We have a lot of people come in on Tuesdays just for the liver. That’s hard to find in restaurants these days, and folks won’t fix that for themselves at home.”
Garner claims that he doesn’t have a favorite dish, though he’s quick to mention the cornbread salad: “You make it like you would make tuna salad. But instead of using tuna, you use cornbread.”
Mornings belong to the coffee-drinking regulars. There’s a 6 a.m., 7 a.m., 8 a.m., 9 a.m. and even a 10 a.m. shift.
Upon entering Sno-White, look immediately to your left and to the back of the room. You’ll see the famed Back Booth. It’s the one with political posters covering the walls behind it. There are posters for familiar Arkansas politicians — “I’m for Arkansas and Faubus,” “John McClellan for Senate,” “Dale Bumpers for Senate,” and even “Monroe A. Schwarzlose, Democratic Candidate for Governor, The Law and Order Candidate.”
Schwarzlose hailed from nearby Kingsland and ran for governor in the Democratic primaries of 1978, 1980, 1982 and 1984.
Of course, there’s a poster for Pine Bluff’s own Joe Holmes, who ran for governor in the Democratic primaries of 1990 and 2002. Holmes is among the regular coffee drinkers, usually a part of the 9 a.m. shift.
There are also local political signs such as “Buck Fikes for Municipal Judge” and “Dub Koenig for Justice of the Peace.” Fikes and Koenig are among the coffee drinkers.
“This is where the decisions are made,” Koenig says on his way out the door. “I’ve been coming in here for 30 years and have seen all of the famous Arkansas politicians in here at one time or another.”
Bill Clinton even came in as president to have one of Bobby Garner’s hamburgers.
“When I left the night before, there was a car across the street with two guys in it,” Garner says. “They were watching the restaurant. I came back early the next morning, and these two guys were still in the car. The police later began blocking the streets several blocks away in every direction. If you were already in here, you could stay. But nobody else could come in. There was one guy over in a booth that the Secret Service thought might be with the media. I asked him, and he said he was. He gave me no problems when I told him the president’s visit was closed to the media. He left.”
Garner doesn’t remember which hamburger the president had.
There’s the Hutt Special, named after the owners of the Hutt Building Material Co. over on Alabama Street.
There’s also the Perdue Special, named after the owners of the Perdue Co., which was Pine Bluff’s largest office products and commercial printing company before being sold.
Garner, who grew up 18 miles to the west of Pine Bluff at Grapevine in Grant County, jokes: “When I was coming up in Grapevine, I thought I might be president. I never thought I would cook a hamburger for one.”
Garner purchased the Sno-White Grill on Feb. 15, 1970, from Roy Marshall, who had owned the restaurant the previous 27 years. Garner never dreamed he would own the place so long.
“It just sort of happened,” says Garner, who also served on the Jefferson County Quorum Court for 14 years.
A number of former Pine Bluff residents make it a point to stop by Sno-White when they’re back in town. They include Paul Greenberg, who won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing at the Commercial and raised his family in Pine Bluff before moving to Little Rock and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 1992. Greenberg has described Sno-White in print as “my favorite diner.”
In June 1996, when “The NewsHour” on PBS wanted to discuss the felony conviction and impending resignation of then-Gov. Jim Guy Tucker and its effect on average Arkansans, Bobby Garner was among the first people interviewed.
Garner doesn’t know how the restaurant got the name Sno-White, but he once had figures representing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs attached to the outside of the building. Those came off the day Garner received a visit from a local lawyer who had been hired by the Walt Disney Co. to ask for royalty payments.
Among the notable things in the restaurant these days is what might be one of the few remaining Lou Holtz dolls. There’s also a cardboard cutout of John Wayne that looks out over the dining room.
“I haven’t been broken into since I hired him,” Garner says of the Wayne cutout.
Behind the Wayne cutout is a framed ad for the Sno-White from 1939.
Plate lunches were 20, 25 and 30 cents.
The phone number was four digits — 1320.
And the owner must have just hired the most popular waitress in town since the ad proclaimed: “Martha Mae Foust has joined our staff and will welcome her friends here.”
Garner has seven employees these days. One of his waitresses has been with him almost a quarter of a century. He has a cook who has been working there almost 30 years. Garner picks her up shortly after 5 a.m. each day on his way to the restaurant.
James Sapp first visited Sno-White for breakfast in 1958, just after he had moved to Pine Bluff as a 19-year-old from Mobile, Ala., in order to take a job with International Paper. After 51 years in Pine Bluff, Sapp is moving to Mayflower to be near his children. He finishes his breakfast and says he will miss Sno-White.
And what about that Thanksgiving Day fire back in 1991?
Garner began work the next morning rebuilding the restaurant.
“We took Christmas morning off,” he says. “We worked that afternoon.”
The restaurant reopened Feb. 14, 1992. This Arkansas institution hasn’t missed a beat since.