By Nick BeJeaux
Heading into Restaurant Week, Ralph and Kacoo’s may not top everyone’s list.
If you’re in your early twenties you may remember going to Ralph and Kacoo’s with family, though all you can recall is the kitschy gift shop, neon lights and hot pink walls. If you’re slightly older you may remember that when you found out Piccadilly bought the business in 1988, you decided it would be a good idea to eat dinner elsewhere.
What you may not remember is that the cafeteria-style Picadilly sold the company in 1999, and ever since then the company has been dealing with a major image problem.
“To a certain extent, it did hurt the business,” said Rob Irwin, General Manager of the R&K Bluebonnet location. “Ralph and Kacoo sold the company to Piccadilly in 1988 and it was sold again in 1999, so it actually has been a long time since we’ve been associated with them, but people still think ‘Piccadilly’ when they think of Ralph and Kacoo’s. They did standardize recipes and other things, but at times being associated with them has been an image problem.”
Now owned by Great Texas Foods Corporation, an investment company based in Nacogdoches, Texas, R&K is working hard to modernize its image and, more importantly, its menu.
“Piccadilly is an older brand and people think we’re an older brand now too, but I think we now have a lot to offer to everybody,” said Irwin. “We’re in the process now of retooling the menu and while we’ll still have some older dishes we’re going to have more updated dishes suited for today’s tastes.”
Today, fresh and locally sourced food is everything. If you’re getting your ingredients from out of state, you may as well be a fast-food drive through. Irwin says that R&K is working hard to locally source ingredients and push the fact that everything they serve is made from scratch.
“Many people don’t realize that we are a 100 percent scratch kitchen,” he said. “Most of the recipes we have date back to 1969 when the company was founded. We’re proud of that, our history and heritage, but we’re doing dishes as well like our new Shrimp Verde which is fresh grilled shrimp with herbs.”
R&K is a seafood restaurant, but historically has had a heavily fried menu. As much as many Baton Rouge crowds enjoys fried oysters, catfish and shrimp, an increasingly health-conscious culture has produced a greater demand for grilled and roasted options.
“We are known for our fried items, but that isn’t what people want today so we’re getting away from that,” said Irwin. “Also, it’s very important that we serve fresh, local food; all of our shrimp is Gulf shrimp. All of our crawfish is local, our catfish is caught in the Mississippi — we don’t use farmed swai and call it catfish like a lot of restaurants do — and our mahi and redfish are all caught in the Gulf.”
Besides fresh food, the restaurant is looking to freshen its look as well. Gone are the garish pinks and blues of the ‘60s, now replaced with elegant earth tones. The (in)famous wall of mounted guns has been removed and there are fewer taxidermy fish and animals adorning the dining rooms. Still, the restaurant is holding on to a few of the traditions that have made it famous, like the gift shop, the stuffed tiger in the foyer and, most importantly, it’s old-school hospitality.
“Too many restaurants are not placing enough emphasis on [hospitality],” said Irwin. “For example, we don’t have a dessert menu; we bring an entire tray of desserts to your table and you choose what you would like. It’s things like that that get our servers more involved with the table. That’s really what people want nowadays, and big corporations are more concerned with labor than they are about servers being at the table. That’s never going away here.”
Even without articles and advertisements lauding the modernization of Ralph & Kackoo’s, the full parking lot shows that the restaurant is outpacing its past, if it hasn’t already.
“We’re turning a corner on a lot of that,” said Irwin. “That’s why we’re really excited in doing Restaurant Week, we want people to see who we are now, not who we were then. We’re a lot more modern and we still have our scratch kitchen and that’s something that not many restaurants can say.”