The smell of fresh food, the friendly wait staff, the soothing atmosphere of '80s music and clanking silverware, and the family friendly ambiance. These things are what have helped make Ol' South Pancake House a nightlife fixture for generations of students.
The popular pancake restaurant celebrated its 50th anniversary this summer, and a lot has changed since the Benson and Brozgold families opened shop in 1962, according to CEO Rex Benson.
The changes included adding healthier menu items such as Greek omelets and salads, ramping up the restaurant’s social media presence and focusing marketing on students. The biggest change was adding a point of sale system to track orders, which helped to ensure better service.
“I came in and took over around April of 2008, and I tried to change it up a little bit but still keep that nostalgic feel to it,” Benson said. “All of those were just subtle changes because we have people eating here that have been with us since its inception. And if you change one little thing, they think we’ve turned into a sushi bar or something."
That fan base has kept coming back to Ol’ South because of its familiarity and accessibility. People such as former mayor of Fort Worth Mike Moncrief could be found sitting a booth over from college kids and a table away from a family of four.
Benson co-owns Ol’ South with his first cousin, Marvin Brozgold. The restaurant has been completely family owned and operated for 50 years.
Ol’ South was started by Rex’s father, David Benson, and aunt, Betty Brozgold, in 1962. Its first location was where Romano's Macaroni Grill on South University is located now. The location moved to the space it currently occupies right next to Romano's Macaroni Grill in 1973.
The menu has had few additions since the restaurant's founding, and the walls are still made up of the wood paneling that was in style almost half a century ago, according to Benson. Ol' South prides itself on making all-natural food 24 hours a day, all year long. Even the ranch dressing is made from scratch, according to Benson. He said the healthier foods were a new idea when he took over ownership.
“We are not a health food store, but at the same time, we want to have a good variety for the people that eat here," Benson said. "If you want to eat healthy, you can eat as healthy as anyone in town. If you want to have a nice southern homestyle meal, you can do that as well."
Menu staples include pancakes, German pancakes, Dutch Babies and chicken fried steak. For the more health conscious, there are Greek omelets, salads, and fruits and vegetable sides. All are available at any time of the day.
The feel of the restaurant is more down home diner than franchise chain restaurant, Benson said.
“We’re not a chain restaurant; we’re unique. We know that we’re different, and that’s the thing. We want to try to stay different," Benson said. "We want you to feel like you’re getting pancakes at your grandmother’s house. You can’t get that by walking into a Chili’s or something like that.”
Located on South University Drive just before the on-ramp to I-30, Ol’ South’s close proximity to the university has ensured it is frequented by students in need of a late night meal or a quiet place to study.
Students now make up a key part of the restaurant’s demographic, but before Benson began a heavier social media marketing approach in 2008, that was not always the case.
“We kind of lost TCU for a while because they built a lot of on campus eateries that cut into our business. Back in the early '80s, this place was considered TCU's study hall," Benson said. "One of my main focal points was to market more to TCU, get back involved into Frog Alley and hand out coupons during football games, things like that."
One of the restaurant’s big draws for college students is the quiet studying atmosphere late at night. Compared to other restaurants that are open 24 hours, Ol’ South is the study spot of choice because of the free Wi-Fi, free coffee refills and friendly service.
This student-friendly reputation was in place long before the current generation of TCU students was even born.
Barry Lewis, a 1987 alumnus whose niece, Zoey Murzyn, currently attends the university, said that he would always go to Ol' South to study.
"When I was at TCU, we would frequent the place, especially late at night. I think the only time I would ever go there during the day time was Parent's Weekend," Lewis said. "My most vivid memory of the place was that it was the place to go for late night studying, especially right around finals time."
Lewis said that those late night excursions were always more about studying than actually eating.
"Yes, we would indulge in some pancakes at some point, but it was more about the coffee. It was darn good coffee, and for a cheap price, you could have coffee refills coming all night long as you were studying," Lewis said. “I remember the mismatched tables and chairs, the booths with the tears, the wooden chairs that just didn't sit right until you found just one position to be in, the inevitable smoke and the over-the-top personalities you'd get with the wait staff, especially those that took your order with the cigarette in their hand."
The days of waitresses taking orders while smoking cigarettes are long gone, but the mismatched tables and chairs, cheap coffee and over-the-top wait staff personalities are still alive and well.
Zoey Murzyn, a junior religion and sociology double major and Lewis’ niece, said that she can identify with her uncle’s stories because she has experienced the same thing.
“It’s always funny hearing him tell stories about going to Ol’ South late at night because I’ll just sit there and smile and nod. The late night studying, the coffee–it hasn’t changed much over the years from what I can tell,” Murzyn said.
Shift manager Heather Jones said that the staff enjoys serving students.
“We kind of cater to the students. We have a back dining room that’s closed during the evening and overnight shifts so that people can have a quiet place to come study,” Jones said. “And the proximity to TCU definitely helps with business.”
According to Benson, business has definitely been booming, even in the current economic recession. Benson said that sales have grown into the double digits in the last four years, and sales keep increasing.
Those increases are also due in part to a friendly wait staff that also understands the concept of family.
Barbara Marsh, an Ol' South waitress, began working at the restaurant in the summer of 2012. Marsh's mother, Phyllis, worked at Ol' South for 18 years.
This story of family members working side by side is the same for much of Ol’ South’s wait staff. A majority of the employees have been employed by Ol' South for more than 20 years, some in the same family.
Benson said that he personally knew of at least four or five families that have worked together at Ol' South and span multiple generations.
This type of loyalty was summed up in one word by Marsh: family.
“It really has played a big part in my life and my family. When I had kids, they would eat here, grow up around here. It’s like home," Marsh said. "I worked at a Denny’s for two years, and I never forgot this place. It gets in your blood, and it’s all a part of you."
Saturdays and Sundays are the most hectic days to work, Marsh said, with at least 20 servers on the clock at all times in order to handle the amount of customers. Sometimes the line to get a reservation can stretch out the front door.
According to Benson, an average of 7,300 people walk through the doors every week.
Another way that Ol’ South engages the community is through the Pancake Challenge. To complete the challenge, a customer must eat eight pancakes, weighing two pounds each.
If the customer finishes the challenge within an hour, they do not have to pay for their meal. Since the challenge began in 2009, only one person has successfully eaten all eight pancakes.
“He had to roll the pancakes up like a taco and dip it in his glass of water to finish, but he did it. I thought here would be more people to finish it so far, but he’s been the only one,” Benson said.
Another secret to Ol’ South’s success is management. Managers may change, but the owners haven't. Ol' South has been owned by the Bensons and Brozgolds for all 50 years of its existence, a continuity they want to keep.
“That example comes from the top with me and Marvin. We’re family, and that attitude carries over to the staff as well. We always want to keep it in the family for sure,” Benson said.
Ol’ South has been a fixture in many people’s lives for quite some time and should be for years to come, Benson said. In fact, it may be a fixture in many other people’s lives across Fort Worth as well, since Benson said he has been thinking about expanding for a while now.
While he does not want to lose the integrity of the original restaurant, Benson said he feels that Ol’ South’s business model could work at any location.
“A goal of mine was to take this and multiply it, and there’s so many different locations we could choose because this concept would work in so many environments. We could work anywhere, really. Even if we weren’t open 24 hours, we would do well because of our demographic,” Benson said.
The restaurants' success shows no signs of slowing down, and neither does Benson.
“We’ve been here for 50 years, and we hope to be here for 50 more,” Benson said.