When Jeffrey Taylor and his father Ralph began traveling to barbecue competitions across the southern United States, cooking was nothing more than a hobby.
Now, nearly nine years after opening Ralph’s Pink Flamingo BBQ – now a mainstay restaurant in Fort Smith – and mere months after opening a second eatery in the city, the duo’s culinary foray has become a “hobby gone wild.”
Jeffrey’s hobby continues to grow, as he and his father recently opened Jeff’s Club House as a lunch and brunch destination that also offers catering.
The decision to open a second restaurant reflects Jeffrey’s passion for cooking and his business acumen he developed as a student at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith. Looking back on his childhood, it was no surprise that Jeffrey entered the restaurant business. He grew up in the kitchen, cooking alongside his parents and grandparents and fostering a fascination for the culinary arts.
He was also competitive. So when he and his father began traveling to food competitions, Jeffrey also competed in youth cooking competitions. He never placed lower than third.
“The quality is in the details. You have to have almost an obsession with quality to win a cook-off,” he said.
But when he and his father discussed opening a restaurant together, Jeffrey had his reservations. If he was going to open a business, he was going to fully devote himself to it. But with college on the horizon and a world of possibilities along with it, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to lock himself in Fort Smith with an obligation like entrepreneurship.
“I’m wanting to go off to college, I’m wanting to travel the world. I was thinking, ‘Do I really want to do this?’” Jeffrey said.
But, the attractive offer of becoming a co-owner with his father, as well as enjoying the quality of life in Fort Smith, caused him to decide to stay in the city and open the restaurant with him.
They opened Ralph’s Pink Flamingo BBQ in 2008, anxious at the challenges that awaited. Neither of them had ever owned a small business. Jeff had some restaurant experience, but his father had been a banker.
Their first day, they served more than 100 people and realized they had made a smart decision. Now, after establishing a reputation as one of the top barbecue restaurants in the state and expanding their catering business, Jeffrey considers 100 people a day “just okay.”
He attributed the business’s growth to their focus on the customer.
“I try to remember one thing about a regular customer – just one little thing,” he said. “It’s like ‘Cheer’s.’ You want to go to a place where everybody knows your name. We’ve made it a priority to have that same focus on the customer.”
But Jeffrey faced other challenges as well as the business grew. They opened the business a year after Jeffrey had started college to pursue a degree in business administration. Attending school while owning a business strained his schedule, but flexible class offerings allowed Jeffrey to work during the day and attend classes at night.
“There were multiple semesters where I’d take classes four days of the week and wouldn’t start until 4 or 5 p.m. some nights,” he said.
Even with the challenges, there were upsides. Conveniently, Jeffrey was able to take the business concepts he learned in class and apply them to the growing company.
“The foundation classes were key for me – they provided such a broad range of knowledge,” he said. “There were multiple times that I’d learn something in class and come home and tell my dad, ‘We need to do this differently.’”
“At UAFS, there’s a personal touch,” he added. “Going to class, I had 15-20 people in a class. At some other universities, you’re just a number on a page. You don’t have to go to Harvard or Yale to get the level of education that’s here locally.”
Jeffrey’s business education also gave him the perspective to identify the need for a Saturday brunch location.
“My business professors always stressed to me, ‘Look in your community, find a need, and fill it,’” he said. “And I looked around and didn’t see a Saturday brunch location in Fort Smith. And I realized there was a market for it.”
The result was Jeff’s Club House, an eatery that Jeffrey and his father opened in November offering comfort food at a reasonable price. Menu items include various sandwiches – like Ralph’s Cuban, a ham and pulled pork sandwich with Swiss cheese and spicy brown mustard, or the caprese panini, a sandwich with vine-ripened tomatoes, fresh mozzarella cheese, basil pesto and a balsamic glaze – as well as various salads and soups.
“At UAFS, there’s a personal touch. Going to class, I had 15-20 people in a class. At some other universities, you’re just a number on a page. You don’t have to go to Harvard or Yale to get the level of education that’s here locally.”
The second restaurant is also Jeffrey’s effort to become a part of what he calls a “progressive movement” in Fort Smith.
“We have a lot of UAFS graduates and a lot of young people staying in Fort Smith and starting businesses,” he said. “They’re bringing culture here with events like Ales for trails, the Peacemaker Festival and the Steel Horse Rally. Even three years ago, we didn’t have things like that.”
“We try to help and donate food to help them become better events,” he continued. “I just want to help the community be a better place. If we make it younger, brighter and hipper, more people will come live here and more businesses will come here.”
Eight years ago, Jeffrey Taylor faced a crossroads. Eight years after making a decision that led to him becoming a business leader in the Fort Smith community, he reflects on the dilemma with a smile.
“It was a fantastic decision,” he said. “This started off as a couple of guys goofing off in the backyard. Now we’re serving hundreds of people every day and making a living. We have created about 20 jobs in our community. I met my wife, Jordan, at UAFS and we now have a beautiful daughter, Raleigh, and another baby on the way. We are buying a nice house and own part of two successful Fort Smith restaurants. We are actually living the American Dream. I don’t know if any of this would have been possible at my age without UAFS.”
About the University of Arkansas - Fort Smith
The University of Arkansas – Fort Smith is the premiere regional institution of Western Arkansas, connecting education with careers and serving as a driver of economic development and quality of place in the greater Fort Smith region. Through a small campus, dedicated professors, and the university’s unique bond with its community, students at UAFS are able to do more in the areas they are passionate about, both on- and off-campus, in a way that prepares them for post-graduate success. To find out how you can do more at UAFS, visit www.uafs.edu.