Perry J. Smith, founder of Matchbox Food Group and president of the new restaurant group, Minute Man Arkansas LLC, which opened a store in Jacksonville off U.S. 167 on Sept. 11, used to eat at Wes Hall’s Minute Man on Cantrell when he was a kid in the early ’70s. Smith said Minute Man was as much about family and community as it was food.
“I think that’s true for a lot of people who experienced Minute Man because it was such a great partner in the community,” Smith said. “For me, it was about going to get a hamburger with my dad.”
Smith distinctly remembers when the McDonald’s on Cantrell opened back in the ’70s.
“We pestered my dad to go there, and he hated the food. He said, ‘We’re going to Minute Man and we’re never coming back to McDonald’s.’ And then he made a comment, he said, ‘And by the way, Minute Man was started in Arkansas and McDonald’s was not.’ And that was important to him.”
Wesley T. Hall opened the original Minute Man downtown in 1948 as a coffee shop with 24-hour service.
In 1956 Hall bought out his partners and converted the flagship store on Broadway to a quick-service restaurant specializing in charcoal-grilled hamburgers and deep dish fruit pies called radar pies.
“In looking at the history of Minute Man, we had the good fortune of looking at Wes Hall’s papers,” Smith said, which were available at UA Little Rock. Smith and his team were able to take a deep dive into his operations and his menus.
“Wes Hall was really a master marketer,” Smith said. “He was the first guy to partner with [Coca-Cola] and do a signature glass with Coke.”
Hall, a World War II veteran, had as many as 52 Minute Man restaurants at his peak. “That is a number for consideration,” Smith said. “The range that I’ve seen has been [between] 52 to 57.”
Hall was one of the first restaurateurs to use microwave oven technology. Radar technology from WWII was used to develop the microwave. Hall teamed up with Raytheon and received a RadaRange microwave oven that he used to warm up fruit pies. An old menu from Wes Hall’s Minute Man had the pies listed as “hot deep dish pies from the RadaRange.”
“It was really an exercise in being able to make these homemade/mass produced pies that people would remember,” Smith said. Each of the franchises would bake their crusts using rolled dough. Three to four-inch discs were cut out that were either crumbled or put in the bottom of a paper cup. The pie filling was made with canned fruit, sugar and clear gel and topped with a buttered disc of pie crust. It was served with ice cream.
“There was a secret way to order radar pies that Hall would honor where people would ask for two crusts for the top,” Smith said. Smith said he’ll honor the request at the new Minute Man as well. The radar pies being served at the Jacksonville store are slightly bigger, Smith said. “Before they were in five to six-ounce cups, so we made them a couple ounces bigger because a lot of the original portions for Minute Man were just smaller. Obviously, QSR [quick service restaurants] portion sizes have grown.”
Smith said the pies are served à la mode. The new Minute Man also debuted a shake last week that Smith said was kind of a secret item. It’s a radar pie milkshake, essentially. Radar pie filling is mixed in with vanilla ice cream and radar pie crust crumbles. A whole radar pie crust goes on top of the shake for added flair.
Hall created the slogan “Old Fashioned Hamburger” for Minute Man and later sold it to Wendy’s. He was also the first person to bring the “kids’ meal” into quick-service restaurants with the “Magic Meal,” a concept that he sold to Burger King. He also wrote jingles:
“Share a minute with a friend at the Minute Man!
And you’ll be back for seconds at the Minute Man!
There’s no bigger, better burger than the Minute Man!
It only takes a minute, man!”
Minute Man burgers were ordered by number, so old fans of the franchise remember the number associated with their favorite burgers. For example, the No. 2, with hickory smoked sauce. Or the No. 5, with chili cheese and onion. I’d like to go for the No. 6, “salad burger” with lettuce, tomato and relish sauce. The No. 12 — Big M — Gourmet Burger had two big patties, a slice of American cheese, relish sauce, chopped onions, pickles and tomato slices, which, at point, went for .69 cents. All four of those burgers are on the new menu in Jacksonville, only the Big M is now the No. 8.
“When I fear change or I fear innovation, I kind of wonder, when [Hall] would take an item off the menu or leave an item on the menu — he had a system for that — there was a reason why he did that. And a lot of that has to do with customer perception and how he’s running his business, so we look at things like that and we say, ‘Let’s make a smart decision,’ and I hope that we’ll be making good decisions. We’re not gonna make perfect decisions, but they will be along those lines, and we’ll use him as a guide,” Smith said.
Minute Man No. 14, in El Dorado, was the last location in the franchise until the Jacksonville location debuted this fall. Linda McGoogan has been the owner/operator of Minute Man No. 14 since 1984. She started working there in the ’70s. McGoogan is an operating partner with Minute Man Arkansas and will continue to run the El Dorado store.
“The way that we’re seeing it, McDonald’s has done things like this with their older stores, is to make that a legacy store and really just go in and work on the management piece of that store and then do some improvements along the lines of food quality and things like that,” Smith said.
“The Mexican menu that’s present in El Dorado was the last iteration of Minute Man and that came around in the early ’80s,” Smith said. “They were serving tacos, burritos and tamales. The run-of-the-mill taco places, Taco Bells and things, hadn’t quite gotten a big pull in the market, and so again, they were very innovative and ahead of the curve. Well now, things have changed. We looked at that portion of the menu, and while it’s tradition and it stayed the same for El Dorado, there’s no way to come up and expand Minute Man with the level of competition that’s out there.”
Smith saw another opportunity to innovate, though: While living in Maryland, he observed the popularity of Peruvian chicken. “The Peruvian chicken thing blew up about 10 years ago on the East Coast because there were more concentrations of Peruvians moving into the area. The larger operators in that market were doing about 800 chickens a day. You can’t look at that and say there’s not something going on here.”
For the new Minute Man location in Jacksonville, Smith had a special rotisserie built in Texas for $20,000.
“We can do about 38 chickens [at once], and it takes about an hour and five minutes to bring them to temperature,” Smith said.
Minute Man offers a quarter chicken with white or dark meat and two sides, a half chicken with two sides and a whole chicken “fiesta meal” with four sides.
Right now, except for a few outdoor two-tops, the Minute Man location in Jacksonville is closed for dine-in. Take-out, delivery, online orders and drive-thru are available.
“We’re telling people that what we’d like to do is have the dining area open by November,” Smith said, “but COVID threw us a big curve. We knew when we signed the lease that we could be potentially getting into some rough ground, but we worked with the landlord, we committed, then we essentially reallocated some of our build-out assets to focus more on technology to make sure that our drive-thru was going to function. … Managing a sit-down section of a restaurant as you know is very difficult these days, but it’s definitely in the works. We’ll plan to get there when we get there.”
Smith said that he would love to bring Minute Man back to Little Rock. He’s already looked at several locations, and his personal preference would be a spot in the West Little Rock area.
“We wanted to be in Jacksonville because I think for the long-term future with Minute Man and the association with Minute Man and the armed forces, it’s a wonderful location for us. We can be a service to them and the community.”
With the re-launch, Smith feels a responsibility to bring Minute Man into the 21st century the right way.
“It keeps me up at night,” he said. “I think about what we’re trying to do, it sounds corny, but I tell my staff, ‘If you think you’re going to get locked up on a decision, think about what Wes Hall might’ve said or what he might’ve thought about.’ He was a guy who took chances, he was an innovator and an operator. And he got it right. … Because he changed it over the years; it didn’t stay the same. He would change his stores, he changed the architecture. Most people get that it can’t be what it was in 1968, but Minute Man would’ve continued to innovate had he and his family retained control of it. Minute Man was launched the same year that In-And-Out burger launched in California, so look at what happened. People remember the good but they don’t know why it went away. So we feel pressure, but it’s exciting. I’ve got a hell of a team.”
Smith comes from a family of educators. His father was an attorney who worked for the Arkansas Public Service Commission and taught at UA Fayetteville. His mother taught at Shorter College in the ’70s. His grandfather was the head of the history department at Hendrix College in Conway and his grandmother was the head of the English department.
“My thing is, I want to educate people out of a job. I encourage them to go to school, to learn what they’re doing on the job and say, ‘Listen, if you can walk out of here with the understanding of how a business works or how to learn a technique, then you have that technique in your toolbelt.’ And I’m pretty firm in my approach in that I will challenge you. You’re not just here to flip burgers. That’s not what we’re doing here. … I tell them if you leave us in six months because you’ve found another opportunity and you can take a skill or technique or a sense of discipline to that job, I will tell you, ‘Please, go to that job. Elevate yourself.’
“So I look at it as always an opportunity to educate. That’s really what I enjoy doing. I studied history in college, so for me, this is the best history project I could ever have. This is a living breathing history project.”
120 Harden Drive, Jacksonville
11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Thu.
11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
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