SPRINGDALE — When Roy Ritter opened AQ Chicken House on July 20, 1947, one-half a cooked chicken was 65 cents and a cup of coffee was just a nickel. Chickens were raised and slaughtered directly behind the restaurant, which sat on a dusty dirt road that is U.S. 71.
As current owner Dick Bradley prepares to celebrate the eatery’s 65th anniversary this Saturday (July 21), much has changed about the way the restaurant looks, what it serves and the cost of purchasing ingredients for all the tasty dishes on its menu.
AQ, which stands for Arkansas Quality, is treating its customers to a special low-price menu where the highest-priced items are $4.99. These Saturday-only specials include Bradley’s favorite — three pieces of chicken cooked “over the coals” and a healthy portion of spaghetti and sauce, a dish that normally costs $10.99.
“It’s the most popular thing on our menu,” he says.
More than a novelty
When Ritter, the AQ founder and owner, opened for business, he was considered a pioneer in the poultry industry and one of the first to build large poultry houses in the area. From AQ’s spot on U.S. 71, Ritter served southern style chicken dinners to tourists. With few sit-down restaurants north of Springdale, even folks in Rogers and Bentonville were considered visitors back then.
Vice President Alben W. Barkley ate there in 1952, President Bill Clinton gobbled up some pan-fried chicken with friends at the restaurant after dedicating the then-new Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport in 1998 and President George W. Bush was served AQ chicken aboard Air Force One during a campaign stop at the airport in 2000 (the First Lady reportedly had catfish).
A second location opened in Fayetteville in 1991, but it lacked the cache of the one in Springdale, where poultry reigned — and still does. Another milestone worth noting: In 1966, AQ shipped 400 chicken dinners to Miss Universe contestants in Austin, Texas. Apparently, calories didn’t matter to the young ladies competing.
Continuing the AQ lineage after Ritter was Frank Hickingbotham (who went on to create TCBY Enterprises Inc.) and Ron Palmer, who owned it for 17 years before he sold it to Bradley in 1998.
Chicken farmer to restaurant owner
Bradley is a country boy from west Washington County with chicken blood for his own. If the restaurant business has been hard on him — and he says it has — one can’t tell by his looks. He’s tall and lean with a mouth full of straight white teeth and a deep tan.
What he loves most about owning AQ is being his own boss.
His only “job” was working 17 years in the commercial egg business for Cargill Inc. Bradley was also a contract chicken grower for Tyson Foods for a decade before breaking into the restaurant business, opening the Atlanta Bread Co. in Fayetteville in 1997 (he continued with ABC for a year into his ownership at AQ). He paid more than $3 million for the two AQ locations, with most of the money coming from what he made when he sold his Lincoln chicken farm. He has no college degree — just a semester at a Little Rock business school.
AQ opened as a family restaurant and that it will always be. A big part of its business is the Sunday after-church crowd and families gathering to celebrate special occasions, such as birthdays and anniversaries. The restaurant keeps an oversized guest book near the front door for customers to record their dining experiences and their memories.
“I go in there and read it on the weekends,” he says of the book.
“Some of thoughts that get me,” recalls Bradley, “‘We spent our first anniversary here and this is our 50th,” or “I spent my 25th birthday here and this is my 75th.’”
Change of mind, but not heart
Like nearly every other business owner, Bradley was hit hard when the economy went sour in 2008. After two “down” years, business has since started to come back, Bradley says.
As business was sinking, the price of food and cooking oil went up. Several harsh winters — and the ice storm of 2009 — didn’t help. Then and since, icy temps have reached deep into Mexico, where Bradley buys a lot of his vegetables. The price of catfish also doubled during this time, Bradley said.
He knew that the restaurant business was full of ups and downs. But the combination of high gas prices, employment concerns and a shaky real estate market created a new mindset among customers. It caused them to change their eating habits. More families began to eat in, and those who went out to eat chose lower-priced restaurants.
“The homemaker, the family ... it did change them. There’s no doubt about it,” Bradley says.
An influx of restaurants in Rogers and Bentonville has also drawn business away from Springdale — and from Fayetteville too, Bradley said.
“Anybody can say what they want to about it, but I don’t care,” he said. “They took over the market.”
Business has picked up over the last year and two months, and he’s hoping AQ’s special anniversary prices will take take him back to the old days, when the restaurant was “the” place for a good southern meal.