In the pecking order of Main Street businesses, there is nothing more foundational to local ecosystems than the restaurant industry. There also are few industries as risky or volatile, as the past two years of pandemic America has demonstrated.
And yet, somehow, Jim Keet makes it look easy.
Keet, an operator of some 50 years with 155 restaurants to his credit, is one of the most successful restaurateurs in Arkansas. Along the way, he’s launched family-run companies, JTJ Restaurants, Keet O’Gary Construction and Keet Management Company, which directly or indirectly employ thousands. During the most tenuous days of the pandemic when many eateries closed, Keet was opening new ones and continues to do so, even as 2020’s wake continues to rock the restaurant industry’s boat.
It’s a simple formula that drives his success, though one not easily executed: Invest in what matters, surround yourself with talent exceeding your own, and never, ever give up.
“I started when I was 15 at a Kentucky Fried Chicken and worked my way through SMU at Steak and Ale and then Holiday Inn,” Keet said. “I learned early on that there is no substitute for hard work. You can have a great concept and have all the pieces of the puzzle in place, but if you’re not willing to personally commit yourself to excellence every day with every guest, ultimately you will fail.
“We also believe in always reinvesting in our business. That is true for investing in our staff, which was particularly important during COVID. When many people were laying people off forever or for extended periods of time, we did our very best to keep our restaurants open against all odds. We actually raised the salaries of many people. We had welcome-back bonuses for people who were laid off temporarily. That’s paid big dividends today, because our turnover rate is dramatically lower than most.”
Keet is joined in the business by his two sons, Tommy and Jake, who assist in overseeing existing properties including Petit & Keet, Taziki’s and Cypress Social, as well as new concepts such as Waldo’s Chicken and Beer, coming to North Little Rock in 2022. His daughters-in-law, Stephanie and Suzanna, also play key roles in the family business.
“I have the privilege of working with two amazing sons and partners in other businesses that I learn from every day, and I hope they learn from me every day,” he said. “I still pride myself in working hard all the time and enjoy being around my boys and my daughters-in-law. It’s a joy to come to work and be surrounded by smart people who happen to be related to you.
“We’re committed to being best in class, and there is no substitute for being in the restaurants, for anticipating problems rather than reacting to them and being very proactive in terms of how you’re viewed by the guests through social media and advertising aggressively.”
Keet has been in the industry so long, it’s given him a front-row vantage point to the changing landscape of America’s dining out habits and the establishments that have evolved to meet those needs. When he and business partner Gerald Hamra opened a Wendy’s in North Little Rock in 1975, it was the state’s first, and would at one time be recognized as the top franchise in the nation.
In total, he and Hamra would own and operate a total of 27 Wendy’s and Sisters restaurants in Arkansas and Texas. It was here that he learned the devil was in the details when it came to food service, a foundational lesson he still applies today.
“I have to confess that it is very difficult for me to relax in one of our restaurants because I’m always looking for that small detail, that ‘je ne sais quoi’ that often guests can’t point to but is what brings them back,” he said. “It’s a culmination of all the small things that when combined is what makes for return guests.”
In between terms in elected office — including winning seats in both the Arkansas House of Representatives in 1988 and the Arkansas Senate in 1992 — Keet never slowed down in his business activities, including becoming chairman of Florida-based chain Maxie’s of America, for which he negotiated a merger with Rally’s Inc. He followed that up with becoming chairman of hotel licensing company GuestHouse International and after that, served as president and CEO of Barnhill’s Buffet Inc. A little more than a decade ago, he and his sons became heavily invested in what are their most locally visible restaurants, Taziki’s Mediterranean Café. In 2017, he joined with another legendary figure in the Central Arkansas food scene, Louis Petit, to open the stylishly upscale restaurant, Petit & Keet.
“I’d met Louis at my place down in Destin for a glass of wine one night at 6:30 p.m.,” Keet said with a grin. “He brought a bottle of Corton-Charlemagne, which is this beautiful white burgundy. We ended up having four and a half bottles of wine. At midnight, I said, ‘Louis, with your reputation in fine dining and my family’s reputation in fast casual, we should do a restaurant called Petit and Keet.’ And in a very heavy French accent he says, ‘Why, Jim, that’s a very good idea.’ We polished off another bottle of wine.”
A chuckle. “So that was the start of it. We bought the old 1620/Savoy Restaurant building, completely gutted it and imagined what it could be, not what it had been in the past, but what it could be. That vision proved to be very successful.”
With past as prologue, Keet’s next adventure would be to transform the longstanding Cock of the Walk restaurant in Maumelle into the showpiece Cypress Social, to great acclaim in mid-2020. Without missing a beat, he moved into more concepts. Tennessee-based Waldo’s Chicken and Beer is on pace to open later this year and after that, brick-and-mortar incarnations of the beloved food-truck barbecuer, Count Porkula. And yet another concept, which Keet won’t talk about in detail yet, will follow that.
It’s a lot of moving parts to keep track of in a business where people are often much faster to complain than to praise, especially with the rise of social media. But that’s just the kind of challenge that moves Keet forward each day, with the support of people he loves most.
“I’m very thankful for the success we’ve enjoyed,” he said. “We just keep working hard at it every single day. I look back over 155 restaurants and what I’ve learned in each one of those is, I’m just very blessed. Besides being able to work with my sons and family, I’ve had a supportive wife who has stuck by me in good times and bad, allowing me to pursue these dreams. She, believe it or not, is very risk-averse, and I’m in a very risky industry. But she’s been very supportive, and I’m grateful for that.