Franke’s Cafeteria was established by C. A. Franke in Little Rock (Pulaski County) in 1924. It was widely recognized as a culinary institution in the city and was one of the oldest restaurants in Arkansas before its closure in 2020.
After leaving the military, C. A. Franke opened a doughnut shop in 1919 on West Capitol Avenue and then a bakery at 111 West 3rd Street in 1922. After determining that bakeries would soon spread and start competing with his own, he sold the bakery to Safeway and switched to the cafeteria business. He opened the first Franke’s Cafeteria in 1924 at 115 West Capitol.
Starting in the 1920s, the cafeteria saw four generations of Franke family members take the helm of the business. C. A. Franke’s son William J. Franke took over in 1967, and his son Bill K. Franke began overseeing the business in 1983, alongside his wife, Carolyn; their daughter Christen Franke oversaw a big part of the day-to-day management of the cafeteria.
Franke’s had several locations over the years. In addition to the original location on West Capitol (which closed in 1960), Franke’s operated a separate dining room at 511 Louisiana Street (opening shortly after 1924) and had restaurants in Little Rock’s University Mall (from 1968 to 2007) and at McCain Mall (from 1972 to 1992) in North Little Rock (Pulaski County). At other times, there were Franke’s Cafeterias in both Hot Springs (Garland County) and Fort Smith (Sebastian County).
By 2019, Franke’s had two locations in Little Rock: a lunchtime cafeteria (Franke’s Downtown) and accompanying sandwich facility (“Sack It” by Franke’s) that opened in 1989 in the Regions Bank Building (formerly the First Commercial Bank Building) on West Capitol, and the main location (Franke’s Market Place) on Rodney Parham Road, which served food non-stop from 10:45 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. seven days a week. In May 2019, Franke’s opened another location in Conway (Faulkner County), but in early September 2019, Franke’s closed its downtown Little Rock location, though the sandwich facility remained opened.
All the food at Franke’s was made from scratch throughout the day. Bill Franke explained that Franke’s methods were more work intensive than those employed by a standard national restaurant franchise, therefore requiring more employees. At one time, the two Franke’s locations in Little Rock employed approximately sixty workers, both full-time and part-time. Many employees tended to be long term. Roast beef was the top seller, although the hand-fried okra was popular as well. The eggplant casserole and egg custard pie were local favorites, in addition to a sweet coleslaw and full array of desserts such as pie and strawberry shortcake. A wide assortment of fruit salads and fruit juices was also available. Franke’s received praise in local, regional, and national media, including the Zagat guide, which rated Franke’s Karo Nut Pie as the best dessert in Arkansas in 2015. In 2018, Franke’s was inducted into the second class of the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame.
In February 2020, the Conway location closed. On March 23, 2020, the remaining Little Rock cafeteria was also shuttered. The closure was supposedly only a temporary response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but by June, the restaurant’s phone had been disconnected and its website pulled down.
For additional information:
“50 States, 50 Desserts.” Zagat. https://www.zagat.com/b/50-states-50-desserts (accessed January 12, 2021).
Franke’s Cafeteria Records. Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. Central Arkansas Library System, Little Rock, Arkansas.
Harrison, Eric E., and Nyssa Kruse. “Franke’s Cafeteria Downtown Closes.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, September 6, 2019, pp. 1B, 8B.
Ragsdale, John G. “Franke’s Cafeteria: A Little Rock Tradition.” Pulaski County Historical Review 56 (Summer 2008): 55–57.
David J. Ragsdale
Lone Star College–Kingwood
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