Proud Larry’s owner Scott Caradine reflects on how he’s kept the business growing and thriving for nearly 30 years.
Written by Liz Barrett Foster | Photographed by Joe Worthem
After graduating from the University of Mississippi in 1993, Scott Caradine and two of his friends looked around and noticed that Oxford was missing the exact thing that the three hungry college students craved.
There was nowhere to grab pizza by the slice while enjoying a beer and listening to live music. In fact, while there was live music in Oxford, no one in the South was offering pizza by the slice or an interesting beer selection at that time, according to Caradine. The concept behind Proud Larry’s was born.
Nearly three decades later, Caradine, who now owns the business with his wife Lisa, has persevered through 29 years of school breaks, along with an incredible influx of restaurants to the city (100 and counting), to be one of the longest-running establishments in Oxford. And he didn’t get there simply by loving pizza.
Q: What steps did you take in the beginning to make sure Proud Larry’s would survive Ole Miss school breaks?
A: I’m not real sure how we made it, to be honest. Summer in Oxford and Ole Miss was much different in the early to mid-’90s, and even early 2000s, than it is now. You just had to plan for it. In the early years, the sales used to drop 25% when college was out for the summer. You had to be really disciplined. (I was terrible at this, but we somehow made it!) You had to know that when business was flourishing in the fall and the spring, you had to store away and plan for the summer.
Oxford is such a cyclical business, as most college towns are. But Oxford really was quiet when there wasn’t football season going on or spring going on, where people tend to really get out and eat and drink a lot. There were plenty of years that we stressed a lot through the summer and Christmas holidays. Oxford stays fairly busy year-round now. There’s a period in January that’s hard because college students are gone and families get back into the routine of school after the holidays, but it’s nothing like it was long ago.
Q: Do you think managing cash flow is the main challenge for new businesses in college towns like Oxford?
A: For Oxford at least, I don’t think the problem is cash flow. I think the issue now is too many restaurants. The landscape of Oxford is much different now. Another big issue we find is keeping qualified staff and finding new eager staff that wants to work and learn. We’re willing to take people with very little experience and teach them what we need. Ask any restaurant owner and they’ll all tell you they will hire anybody that wants to work, show up on time and come to work with some energy and enthusiasm.
Q: How do you continue to attract a mix of customers to Proud Larry’s?
A: You have to diversify what you do to attract all potential customers. We have a lot of retirees in Oxford. We also have a lot of young families. And that means being kid friendly and adult friendly. A big part of our business is parents with kids. We’re relaxed around here. Meaning, kids at tables that might make noise or a mess are OK; we’re here to have fun. We also do kid-friendly menu items like chicken tenders and kid-portion pasta.
We do a lot of live music in a dinner setting, where at 7 o’clock, people can come in and hear some music, whether it’s jazz, blues or regional touring acts. No matter the music style, it’s a little more of a dinner-appropriate volume.
Q: What are some of the big lessons you’ve learned over the years?
A: When we opened, there wasn’t a lot of competition here. We had banging sales even though we weren’t very good at managing a business. It was difficult, and we’ve grown up as the business has grown. We learned that our clientele grows up with us, and it means being accommodating to everyone. We’ve also learned to create a mix of locals and students on our staff. College kids who work typically like to go home over Christmas and spring break, so you need a good mix of students and locals who want to stick around and work during the holidays.
Q: What advice would you share with someone considering opening a restaurant in a college town?
A: Make sure you can accommodate a diverse customer base, whether it’s an adult, a kid or a college student. Accommodate people of all socioeconomic strides as well. We have price points that are great for people on a budget, but you can also come in and spend 20 bucks on an entree.
If you have a bar, make it clear from the beginning that you will not cater to minors. We’ve been very fortunate to not have a lot of problems with that. It comes from being diligent and consistent.
There are all kinds of ways that you can build your business in a college town without just being a college hangout. We reach out to banks and other local businesses with catering and have secured regular catering customers that way.
We do more to attract locals when we know that college is out. It may mean booking a local band that has friends and family that want to hang out with them. It may be doing something with the local high school or catering to kids. During the summer and other slow times is also a good time to ramp up advertising and social media communications.
Q: Between baseball weekends, Double Decker and the Grove Bowl, this April is going to be really busy in Oxford. What can locals and visitors expect at Proud Larry’s?
A: Friends can expect lots of patio weather for eating, drinking and hanging out, a strong mix of shows, and our friendly staff to serve you along the way! And definitely large crowds!