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a new way of serving up a local favorite
story and photo by Shaila Creekmore

When Ryan Shelton was just 5 years old, his father, Ron Shelton, opened a catfish buffet restaurant on the west side of Jonesboro. As Ryan takes the helm of the family’s new restaurant, Murdock’s Catfish, he looks forward to combining the family’s reputation for great food and catfish with a quick service style of serving.

As a young boy, Ryan began working in his father’s restaurant, Ron’s Catfish, clearing tables or helping in the kitchen. While he had little desire to join his father in the restaurant business at Ron’s Catfish, the idea of a new type of restaurant appealed to Ryan, who has been working in agriculture for more than three years.

“The change in concepts with this location is something I’m interested in,” said Ryan of Murdock’s Catfish, which opened on April 24.

When Ron opened his catfish buffet in the mid-1990s, the all-you- can-eat buffet was very popular among restaurant types, and Ron’s was one of several located in Northeast Arkansas. Today, it is the only one still serving catfish from a buffet, and the restaurant draws crowds from around the area.

“Hardly anyone is doing catfish on the buffet because of the rise in catfish prices and the cost of food waste, but Ron’s still draws in a crowd – mostly of older customers,” said Ron. “This new concept appeals more to a younger crowd. They are just less likely to go to a buffet, and they want good quality for a good price.”

At 25 years old, Ryan decided it was time to follow in his dad’s footsteps, only his idea was to take the catfish off of the buffet and instead, straight to the customers’ table in a quick service restaurant format. After completing his current position, Ryan will begin running Murdock’s full-time in September. Ron is spending much of his time at the new location through the summer to
ensure the business gets off the ground.

Ultimately, Ryan plans to open Murdock’s Catfish restaurants in various small towns around Arkansas and perhaps beyond as he fine-tunes the current location.

“There are a lot of towns – in other states even – very comparable to Jonesboro in demographics, job market, size and growth that we think we could move into with this concept design,” said Ryan.

“I feel like that’s where the future of our business will be headed,” added Ron. “I am looking at this as my retirement plan.”

This expansion was the key reason the Sheltons did not carry over the well-known Ron’s Catfish name to the new location.“We had originally talked about doing a Ron’s Express, but we didn’t want confusion and comparisons, so we decided to go with a fresh new name, a fresh new look and a fresh new image,” said Ron.

After the family spent two weeks going through about 2,000 names, Ron heard the name Murdock and thought it sounded good for a catfish restaurant. He took the name to the family, and before anyone could object, he announced, “That’s it; it is Murdock’s,” Ron recalled with a laugh.

The Sheltons had discussed opening a quick service restaurant for more than two years and were still in the planning phase when the restaurant space along Red Wolf Boulevard became available.“We hadn’t planned on doing this so quickly, but we could not pass up this space and location when it became available,” said Ron. Since the building had recently been converted to a restaurant, the location only needed cosmetic work and a few kitchen upgrades to accommodate the larger fryers needed for cooking large amounts of catfish.

Murdock’s Catfish still serves the same Mississippi farm-raised catfish served at Ron’s, but it comes in a larger cut fillet at the new restaurant. Catfish plates can be ordered in two-, three- or four-piece plates and are served with slaw, pickles, two hush puppies and a choice of potato. Catfish can also be ordered grilled to top a salad. Po’ Boys have quickly become a favorite at Murdock’s and can
be made with chicken, buffalo chicken, fried or grilled catfish, fried, grilled or barbecue shrimp, and crawfish. Shrimp plates are available in popcorn, butterfly or grilled. Crawfish plates with a large serving of hand-breaded tails have also become a popular item.

At Murdock’s Catfish, customers order at the counter and food is delivered to the table. Ron’s goal is to give the customer time to fill their drinks and select a table with their food coming to the table in approximately three minutes.

“It might take a few more minutes if they’ve ordered a grilled item, but the times average three minutes from ordering to being delivered to the table,” said Ron.

Ron said Murdock’s started off with a very simple menu but that items will be added as they receive feedback from their customers. The restaurant has already started featuring a monthly special that will give customers a special value on a particular meal throughout the month.

One of the most talked-about items on the menu is Murdock’s funnel cake, freshly made and topped with powdered sugar. Ron said the restaurant is already making 50 to 60 funnel cakes each day, mostly at night and on Saturdays.

“A lot of people just drive through at night and get a funnel cake and lemonade,” said Ron.

The restaurant’s drive-thru presented the biggest change for Ron, who did not previously have a drive-thru in his restaurant business.“I think it will be a significant part of our business,” said Ron.

“I am learning that part of the business. The headsets and system (were) already in place. We really hit a home run on this location; everything was already set up here.”

Specifically with the drive-thru in mind, Murdock’s offers a family pack that includes a 16-piece catfish meal with hush puppies, fries, baked beans, slaw, pickle and onion. Sides can also be ordered in family size, as well as individual.

Murdock’s Catfish, located at 2612 Red Wolf Blvd., is open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., on Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, call 206-7822.