|A TOUCH OF CLASS:
Making patrons happy is the whole idea behind White Oak Grill & Fish House
|Patti Sells | News-Telegram Feature Editor|
Feb. 13, 2004 -- And Ron Robinson, owner of White Oak Grill and Fish House located 9 miles outside of Sulphur Springs on FM 69 north, at one time was one of them.
Once the owner of seven Wendy's franchises throughout Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri, Robinson came to Hopkins County in 1996 by way of the Show Me State. He said he had to rethink everything he had ever learned from his experience with the fast food industry.
"Wendy's taught us that location is very important," said Robinson. "But once we got into this area, we recognized that people would drive a great distance for a good meal."
Robinson and his father, who have always been in business together, bought 387 acres east of Sulphur Springs with the intention of raising commercial cattle, which the family had done successfully up north.
When that didn't pan out for them, Robinson's father began encouraging him to sell out of the franchise business and work towards realizing his dream of owning a full-service restaurant.
"Even though I was a burger man, I had always dreamed of having a full-service restaurant," Robinson said.
They had heard talk of restaurants in Miller Grove, Pecan Gap and Lake Cypress and began visiting some of the establishments.
"You might have to drive 20 miles and use a map to get there," said Robinson, "but when you got there, there would be a line of people out the door. It didn't seem to matter where a good restaurant was. People will drive if they don't even know where they're going, if they've heard the food is good."
So they began building White Oak Grill and Fish House.
"I really wanted it to feel like I was inviting people into my own dining room in my own home," said Robinson.
He constructed a 5,000 square foot building with a large porch, carpeted floors, stained glass windows and a stone fireplace in the foyer waiting area, all with the comfort of his patrons in mind.
"I want them to feel relaxed and at home," Robinson said. "I want them to be able to slow down, enjoy the country view, a nice meal and atmosphere and leave rested."
The Robinsons achieved their desired results. The restaurant has been enjoying great success since August of 2002 - but not without undergoing a few changes.
"My Wendy's background had taught me that in order to be cost effective, I had to get the order in and get the order out - quick," explained Robinson. "So I had set up my kitchen in such a way as to manufacture meals in an assembly-line fast food fashion. But this was not a fast food restaurant, and service times were going to be different. People were going to have to wait. This went against everything I was ever taught."
Also, in the beginning, Robinson was going to have a set menu.
According to Robinson, Wendy's founder Dave Thomas himself had taught him that "menu creep is a sin."
"That's when your menu just keeps getting bigger and bigger," explained Debbie, Robinson's wife of almost 28 years. "It's better to just keep it simple and do a few things really well."
"I soon realized I ... was going to have to once again rethink things and give the people what they wanted - choices," Robinson said. "Customer input is vital to our operation."
After sitting down to talk with patrons and listening to their suggestions, Robinson said they were able to come to a compromise by adding a little variety to the menu.
Their menu offers steaks and seafood using a choice of batters, and also a variety of side orders to choose from. The family also makes their own red sauce, tarter sauce, salad dressings and sauteed vegetables in their own blend of garlic butter sauce, as well.
"I have people that come out here almost every night that we're open," said Robinson. "It touches me that they think so much of our place. Now, they're able to order something new every time, and I thank God that we do have a variety."
Another tidbit of information shared by Mr. Thomas that Robinson did not have to discount was the importance of an MBA - a "Mop Bucket Attitude."
"He said you have got to have a clean restaurant," remembered Robinson. "A good restaurant starts with cleanliness and good employees."
Those are two areas Robinson said he will never neglect. He said he makes it a point to pay his help well and keep the job fun for his employees.
"We are still stretching and growing," he said. "But I realized very quickly, if I was going to be successful in this area, then I was going to have to listen to the people of this area and make sure I didn't miss the needs of this community. I needed to adapt to the area, the area was not going to adapt to me.
Robinson said he had to come to an understanding that he could not be all things to all people.
"People all have different taste palates," he said. "All I can do is be the best that I can be, and make sure that everybody enjoys themselves in some way. Maybe they really enjoy the atmosphere, or a favorite side dish, the tea or the hushpuppies. Or maybe it's the music or the personality of a server they enjoy, or the purified ice in the filtered water. Just so long as we have SOMETHING that everyone enjoys and keeps them coming back. So, in that respect, I guess I can be all things to all people."
The Robinsons also serve as associate pastor and children's director at Elm Ridge Baptist Church in Como. Therefore, they only open their restaurant Thursday through Saturday.
"We Know that God honors that we are not open on Sunday," Robinson said. "God has blessed us tremendously and we just want to be a blessing to others."