Food Insider: Christen Franke of Franke's Cafeteria

Ever wonder what makes some of Little Rock’s food personalities tick? Rock City Eat’s latest series, Food Insider, takes a look at individuals who are helping change the landscape of our city’s culinary scene. Whether they’re in the kitchen, managing a storefront, farming land or running a food truck … we’ll delve into both the professional and personal side of these dynamite people. This week, we have Christen Franke of Franke’s Cafeteria.
Could you give a brief rundown of the history of Franke’s Cafeteria?
In 1919, my great grandfather opened a donut shop in downtown Little Rock, which quickly grew into a large bakery delivering goods to homes throughout the city. A few years later, the first cafeteria was opened at the corner of Fifth and Louisiana. Throughout the years, my grandfather and then my father opened other locations around the city, in Hot Springs, and in North Little Rock. The various Franke’s locations mimic the development and evolution of the city of Little Rock. The maximum number of Franke’s open at the same time is four. We currently have two locations, West Little Rock and downtown.
What is your official title and what generation of Franke are you that has worked at the restaurant?
I am the general manager and the fourth generation Franke to operate the restaurants.
In your opinion, what has been one of the biggest factors in Franke’s longevity?
There is never only one factor. To last in the restaurant business, you need three things: consistently good food, great employees, and amazing customer service. The restaurant gods have seen fit to bless us with all three things.
Are you typically at the WLR location or do you also work in downtown?
I managed the downtown location for about six years and then began moving back and forth between the two locations for about a year or so. I am now mainly at the Rodney Parham location, which keeps me so busy, so I rarely have time to go downtown. We have a great manager running our downtown location and he keeps me up-to-date.
What would you say are the 2-3 most popular dishes at Franke’s?
That is a tough question, as we have such a wide variety of customers and they all have their favorites. But, if I had to narrow it down, I would say our slow cooked roast beef flies off the line. Our from scratch mashed potatoes are really good. We also sell a ton of turnip greens, and of course, our eggplant casserole and macaroni and cheese are very popular.
Who’s responsible for coming up with your famous eggplant casserole recipe?
Mrs. Scott who worked for C.A. Franke beginning with the Fifth Street Cafeteria.
How old were you when you first started working at the cafeteria, and what was your first job?
I started working at Franke’s when I was 15 years old. My father had me fill out an application; he then gave me an interview and hired me to push the cart in the dining room. My job was to walk the dining room, re-filling our guests drinks and making sure they had everything they needed. I worked my way up from there. Ironically, I never had to wash dishes until I became a manager.
What do you enjoy most about your day-to-day work activities?
I love working with our staff. They are like a second family. Most of them have been with Franke’s for many years, some of them have been with us for many decades. We have a lot of fun together. But what really brightens my day is seeing all of the young kids and young families walking through our line. The only thing that makes me happier than a parent telling me their child requested a dinner at Franke’s is when that kid looks at me and asks for a serving of green beans or broccoli.
What is your absolute favorite dish to eat at the cafeteria?
It varies. Right now I’m having a love affair with our buttermilk battered fried pickles, but my two true loves have always been our macaroni and cheese and green beans.
Without divulging too much, what’s the secret to those amazing fried chicken tenders?
There is not much to tell. We use a good quality chicken tender, a basic batter and flour recipe, and great cooks who can fry anything to perfection. But maybe the secret is in the sauce. We make our own honey mustard dressing and it’s amazing. We also make our own gravies, buttermilk ranch, and BBQ sauce.
Did you always want to be a part of the family business?
Yes and no. I have always enjoyed working at Franke’s. I worked during my school breaks and even during my holidays from college, but I never considered it as my future career. For some reason, I always came back to the restaurant. I don’t think a person can know what they are meant to do until they have tried something else and have gained a bit of life’s wisdom. It takes a little traveling to appreciate the peace of mind that comes with being right where you belong.
Are you excited about the new improvements to the exterior of the WLR location?
Yes, I think it will bring in new customers and give people passing by a reason to take a second look at what Market Place has to offer.
What are some of your favorite restaurants in Little Rock?
The irony of being in the restaurant business is that you rarely get a chance to try out other restaurants. There are so many new restaurants in the city that I haven’t had a chance to try. My boyfriend and I have made a running list of restaurants to visit. If I had to choose a few favorites, I’d probably say Taj Mahal, The Faded Rose and Bruno’s.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
Recuperating. When I’m rested up, however, I love seeing my family. On Monday night, we usually get together at my sister’s house and she makes a delicious homemade meal, and I get a chance to play with my adorable niece and nephew. It puts things into perspective.
When’s the last time you had a vacation and where did you go?
In January, my boyfriend and I went to Virginia for “fake Christmas” with his family (he spent real Christmas with mine). We spent some time in DC enjoying the food scene there. We hit up Ben’s Chili Bowl for some Half-Smokes, then a semi-secret, but quite delicious Chinese restaurant, and we went to a dive bar on The Hill called Tune In where I enjoyed my first deep fried burger. The rest of the time was spent sitting around the table with his family eating amazing home cooked meals, playing cards, and when no one was looking, sneaking some more of his mother’s (almost as good as Franke’s) mac and cheese. I’ve found that it really doesn’t matter what state or country you are in, if you are surrounded by family and friends, the best times are always spent around the table.

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