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Perry Smith knew Arkansans had good memories of the Minute Man restaurant chain that once blanketed the state. But even he was surprised when his announcement that he was bringing Minute Man back to central Arkansas went viral on social media.

In January, Smith announced that he had entered into an agreement with Linda McGoogan, the owner of the lone remaining Minute Man at El Dorado, to build three of the restaurants in central Arkansas and then expand the brand from there. Within hours, thousands of Arkansans were sharing Minute Man memories on their Facebook accounts.

My own memories are strong since I grew up a couple of blocks from one of the state's busiest Minute Man locations, the one that was next to the Ouachita Baptist University football stadium at Arkadelphia. That location featured a pool hall and recreation room in the back, though it defied the stereotype of dark, smoky pool halls of yore. What was known as the Rack & Cue was clean, well-lighted and run by a patient man I remember only as Mr. Kemp. It served as a gathering spot for thousands of students from Ouachita and what's now Henderson State University through the years. We had a beagle who would walk down the street each day and sleep under the pool tables. The dog became almost too fat to make that walk after a few years because college students were constantly feeding her French fries.

The Minute Man chain would grow to include more than 50 company-owned and franchised locations in Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee. Smith now has drawings of what a new generation of Minute Man restaurants will look like, and is seeking investors.

Smith is an Arkansas native whose family moved to the Washington, D.C., area in 1974 when his father, Don Smith, was appointed by President Richard Nixon to the Federal Power Commission. The FPC was organized in 1930 with five members nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. It was replaced in 1977 by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Don Smith, a Stephens native and University of Arkansas graduate, resigned from the FERC in 1979 to become managing director of Shearson American Express in Washington. He died of a heart attack at age 55 in 1993.

Perry Smith has experience in the restaurant business. His Matchbox Food Group had locations in California, Maryland, Florida, Virginia, Texas and the District of Columbia. After selling his shares in the restaurants, he founded a business and leadership development firm known as the Avalon Institute. He remembers eating at Minute Man as a child and has spent hundreds of hours researching the history of the company. That history led him to learn about Wes Hall, who was born at Little Rock in 1915 and graduated from Little Rock High School in 1933.

"Hall was acquainted with the food industry throughout his life," Monica Madey Mylonas writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. "He worked at the Food Palace, Little Rock's first supermarket, from 1933-36. During that time, he also attended Draughon Business College, studying accounting part time. From 1936-42, Hall worked for Kraft Food Co. He went on to serve in the U.S. Army and spent seven months in the Pacific Theater during World War II. ... He also worked for Lido Enterprises, a cafeteria and restaurant business, until 1951."

The first Minute Man opened in May 1948 at 407 Broadway in Little Rock. It was a coffee shop with 24-hour service. In 1956, Hall bought out partners Oliver Harper, Walter Oathout and Alton Barnett and converted the Broadway location into a fast-food establishment. The Raytheon Co. placed three experimental microwave ovens called Radarange in restaurants. One of those three restaurants was the Minute Man.

"Hall and his partners pioneered the use of microwave ovens in the restaurant business," Mylonas writes. "The most popular and publicized offering from these ovens was surely the Radar Deep Dish Pie, a sweet treat that many Arkansans remember for its tendency to burn the roof of one's mouth. Minute Man also sold what it billed as 'real charcoal-broiled hamburgers' and offered a gourmet hamburger with a double full-sized meat patty and extras a full year before McDonald's debuted the Big Mac."

Hall was a master marketer. Minute Man was among the first fast-food chains to give away glasses to customers as part of a Coca-Cola promotion, and the first to offer a special meal for children. It was called the Magic Meal. The slogan "old-fashioned hamburgers" was sold to Wendy's.

"From 1951-81, Hall operated Minute Man of America in conjunction with Dixie Equipment Co., Food Service Supply and Razorback Sign Co.," Mylonas writes. "After selling his controlling interests in these businesses, Hall formed Corporate Finance Associates, a merger and finance company, in 1981. In 1985, Hall founded Wes Hall Inc., a real estate company."

Hall died in May 2002.

McGoogan has operated the El Dorado location since 1984 with help from her husband Paul and son Brent. The last Little Rock location at Fourth and Broadway closed in May 2002 just three weeks after Hall's death.

Smith began talking with McGoogan several years ago about keeping the brand alive. He got serious last May when Stephen Steed wrote a story for this newspaper about the 70th anniversary of the restaurant chain. Steed wrote: "When it comes to the history of Arkansas-based fast food, Linda McGoogan is king of the grill, owner of the last Minute Man standing."

If Smith has his way, McGoogan soon will have some company.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 04/10/2019

Print Headline: REX NELSON: Minute Man memories

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