Bonanza closes in Pine Bluff at nearly 50 years

First, the sagging economy made business lean. Then, the rising cost of food knifed into profits. And finally, a change in customers’ eating habits branded the long-time Pine Bluff restaurant as “done,” the owner said.

After nearly 50 years at the same 2922 Olive St. location, Bonanza Steakhouse has closed. The landmark eatery, which was opened by International Venture Inc. in 1967, ceased operations after serving supper on Sunday. Thirty workers were left unemployed.

“I’m going to miss my crew and our customers, the people of Pine Bluff and White Hall and the surrounding area,” said Joel Lloyd, who had been Bonanza’s proprietor the past 24 years. “I’ve had lots of friends, lots of good relationships here.

“I’m going to miss the atmosphere of the restaurant’s business,” continued Lloyd, who will soon be leaving to take over a Colton’s Restaurant in Batesville. “I enjoyed working here, the multi-tasking. There were always lots of things to deal with, multiple things to do, customers to serve and employees to work with.”

Lloyd said Bonanza’s fortunes began slipping in 2009, after the initiation of the state’s education lottery, the opening of a competitive restaurant nearby and an economic downturn.

“We had been including the buffet as secondary to our steak and other dinners for years,” he said. “But people got to where they wanted to make meals off the buffet and take their dinners home, and we couldn’t afford that and our customers couldn’t afford for us to increase our prices enough to keep up.”

As a high school student, Lloyd worked at Stuttgart’s Bonanza from 1979-81. Later, he was assistant manager at Jacksonville’s Bonanza from 1986-88, leaving there to assume command at the Pine Bluff location. At its peak under Lloyd’s watch, the local operation counted 43 employees.

Lloyd said his Pine Bluff work experience has been “good.”

“I think I developed a lot professionally and improved my people skills,” he said, “and the job gave me a solid income.”

Lloyd said there’s no doubt that the low-point of his local career occurred in 1998 when a young couple leaving the restaurant gave a ride to a man who greeted them on the parking lot and later robbed and shot them. The woman was killed while the man survived.

“That was horrible, so sad and totally senseless” said Lloyd. “Even though nothing had happened in the restaurant and nothing happened until they had driven away, people were afraid to eat with us for a year or more. They were afraid to be in our area. Our business really fell off for a while.”

Lloyd said that while he’s eager to start his new job, he’s finding it difficult to leave his White Hall home and “all my friends and customers” behind.

“I just want to thank everyone for their support and friendship,” he said. “I want to thank everyone for being so good to me.”

Relatives of a previous owner remember the business well.

“It’s the end of an era,” said Jeremy McCool, who along with his brother, Jason McCool, grew up working at Bonanza.

The brothers now own and operate Country Kitchen Restaurant at 4322 Dollarway Road. “We learned it was closing a short time back, and thinking about it has brought back a lot of pleasant memories for us.”

The brothers’ grandfather, Harry McCool, and father, Mark McCool, purchased the business in 1970. Several years later, the younger McCool’s wife, Vickie McCool, joined the operation as the elder McCool exited. The McCools sold the restaurant in 1987 and immediately took over Country Kitchen.