On a wall behind the checkout counter of the Longhorn Fish and Steakhouse, there are autographed 8×10 glossy photos of celebrities like country music legend Dolly Parton, comedian Ray Stevens and Tennessee gospel group, The Perrys. Some of the people in the pictures have ordered from the Becker restaurant’s menu, and others are just keepsakes picked up from here and there.
While celebrity sightings have been rare in the Longhorn’s 21 years, one former server/cook has been known to sign an autograph from time to time this year.
“If I could, I’d still fill up their tea and ask them how they’d love their steak cooked, but I’m kind of busy these days,” said Season 15 “American Idol” winner Trent Harmon on April 22, just before an autograph session that catered to more than 1,000 people in the restaurant’s backroom.
Formerly cooking and filling in for his wife, Cindy’s, final few hours of shifts at her mother’s restaurant, Amory Barbecue, Trent’s father, Randy, caught the restaurant bug in the 1990s and never looked back.
“I went from cooking barbecue to grilling steaks. We always grilled hamburgers,” Randy said of the Longhorn’s humble beginnings. “I went to the Western Sizzlin’ the next day and asked for advice on how to cook steak.”
Tucked away off Weaver Creek Road, a couple miles off Highway 25, the Longhorn’s popularity swelled quickly among locals, but its clientele has shifted since Trent’s January debut on “American Idol.”
“We’re not really doing a lot more business, but we’re feeding a different crowd. Half the people could be from out of county, and a fourth are from out of state,” Randy said.
The Longhorn made a name for itself early on with a 16-ounce ribeye special and an all-you-can-eat steak, fish and shrimp special, but during night one of Trent’s January performance at the restaurant just after his national television debut, Randy had to rethink those deals.
“We realized we were so busy, and the grill was so full that we couldn’t do it. I tell people, ‘Blame it on Trent.’ We’re not being greedy, and we still put plenty on people’s plates,” Randy said.
He says volume is a secret to the restaurant’s success.
“A kitchen that’s working is like a machine. Your food is better, you turn your salad bar over, and your waitresses are busy,” Randy said.
The Longhorn’s salad bar is full of options, and Randy credits employees boiling and peeling eggs, making homemade dressings, chopping lettuce instead of getting it from a bag and pork ham as elements that set it apart.
Since Randy’s father shooed him in the way of the west at an early age by raising cattle, he decided the steakhouse’s name needed to stay true to that theme.
“When I answered the phone, I’d say, ‘Angus,’ ‘Holstein,’ but Longhorn had a great ring,” Randy said. “When I was trying to name it, I had no clue there was a Longhorn Steakhouse already, so when I went to get our checks, we added fish and steakhouse. If I had to do it again, I’d call if Beefmasters.”
Going with the cattle theme, there are horns hanging on walls throughout the restaurant, and a Western mural and a painting of a bull adorn a couple of walls. They’re among several other conversation starters visible in the Longhorn’s interior.
While Team Trent T-shirts have become Monroe County’s biggest fashion craze of 2016, the Longhorn also has its own signature shirts, one with the reading, “I’d rather have steak than crabs,” and the other with the phrase, “The Longhorn: Where you can shoot the bull and eat, too.”
Just before The Longhorn’s exit on a prominent place on the wall, there’s a medium-sized Urban Outfitters-style T-shirt touting the Second Amendment with a man with bear arms. The shirt originally belonged to the late Daniel Knox, Trent’s best friend and brother in music. Their friendship was explained in a video introductory before Trent covered Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Simple Man,’ his most emotional performance on ‘American Idol.’
A stage behind the restaurant was built with Randy’s vision that Trent would one day do great things in music. Even though that original vision with the stage didn’t materialize the way he thought, Trent would still perform acoustic sets at the restaurant to help provide mood music and be an outlet to give people music.
Even though those regular gigs are now rare, frequent business from Harmonies, the designated name for Trent fans, helps provide for busy nights. There’s a cutout of Trent’s face ideal for photo ops, and from time to time, people ask for a selfie with Randy.
“I guess I’m the replacement for what they can’t have,” he said with a laugh.
Visitors have come from Missouri, Tennessee, Louisiana, Arkansas and Wisconsin in hopes of a celebrity sighting but a guaranteed good meal.
Growing up in the restaurant, Trent knew the ins and outs of the Longhorn and what many of his regular customers typically liked to drink. After graduating from the University of Arkansas-Monticello, he returned home to work for tips and a weekly salary of $200.
“He started kicking around taking over the Longhorn and playing for tips, but I could tell it wasn’t what he wanted to do. I quit paying him the $200 I had been paying him for 18 months and told him I’d pay him $10 an hour. I wanted him to earn what he was working for. I literally pushed him out.
“I cried for three days, and he said he’d have to move back to Arkansas and find a job. He was 24 and at home, but I wish he stayed at home until he was 40, but he said he was going to move and pursue his music,” said Randy, as he was fighting back the tears.
About the time he was finishing that story, Randy got a text of a picture of Trent, the Longhorn’s most famous alumnus and the last ‘American Idol’ holding a Wheaties box with his picture on it.
Photos by Lauren Wood // Story by Ray Van Dusen