Texas opportunists revive shuttered operations - Blue Ribbon Cafe, Grand Prairie, Texas

Texas opportunists revive shuttered operations - Blue Ribbon Cafe, Grand Prairie, TexasTexas opportunists revive shuttered operations

GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - Two former Spaghetti Warehouse executives claim they've found a food-service silver lining in the thunderhead that's been looming over the Texas economy the past several years.

The idea behind their newly opened Blue Ribbon Cafe is not an original one: Hundreds of restaurants have opened in closed-down sites outfitted with used equipment.

But Ron Whisenant and Tim Moore plan to take it one step further.

"We're going to take the first one, get the bugs out, and then we hope to build a whole chain using closed locations and used equipment," said Whisenant, who until May was Spaghetti Warehouse controller.

Whisenant and Moore, a former vice president with Spaghetti Warehouse, opened their first "hometown cafe" in this Dallas-Fort Worth suburb during the first week in July. And they did it for less than $50,000.

The duo struck a deal with NCNB, the bank that owns the former K-Bob's Steak House location the restaurant is built in, and the transaction included three months, free rent. They completely outfitted the diner's kitchen with equipment bought in an auction from a closed-down JJ Muggs unit in Houston.

And with Texas food-service sales showing its first uptick in three years, Whisenant said the time is right to capitalize on Texas restaurants that didn't make it through lean times.

"There are auctions held in Dallas every week," he said. "And many operations were in business less than a year. The equipment is in great condition.

"We said to ourselves, `Here is a closed restaurant that's in a good location; it was just the concept the people didn't want.' It seemed like a normal step."

Whisenant and Moore aspire to open others in medium-sized Texas towns, such as Lubbock, Tyler, and Amarillo.

And because of the legendary expanse of the Lone Star State, Whisenant said standardization wouldn't be a problem.

"Most people who have eaten in the Blue Ribbon Cafe in Grand Prairie will never visit a location in Lubbock," he said. "They don't all have to look the same."

But the menu should carry over, he added.

Grand Prairie's Blue Ribbon Cafe, which measures 5,300 square feet, serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner and offers a typical diner menu with hamburgers, chicken-fried steak, and meat loaf. Nothing is priced over $6.

"We want to be the kind of hometown cafe that opens at 6:30 in the morning and takes care of you all day long," Whisenant said.

Another feature planned for all units is the bakery and ice-cream bar in the front of the building. Whisenant and Moore converted the old steak house's private dining room into a bakery that serves pies, cakes, and pastries for the restaurant as well as acts as a take-out bakery with a separate entrance. The room also houses a dipping station, which serves Blue Bell Ice Cream, a regional favorite made in Brenham, Texas.

Whisenant is basing his expansion plans on a theory that the low start-up costs associated with the venture will guarantee success - even at relatively low volumes.

But the team's affiliation with NCNB, which, in addition to owning the first property, provided the pair with the initial $55,000 loan, won't hurt growth patterns either, according to Whisenant. The bank has foreclosed on several other prime restaurant properties across the state, he explained.

In the meantime, Grand Prairie residents Whisenant and Moore are concentrating on making the first, and therefore the most important, Blue Ribbon Cafe a success.