Sacramento’s dining scene has undergone significant growth and change over the past decade, but a few things remain the same:
Honey walnut shrimp, N.Y. steak with onion and oyster sauce, banana cream pie for dessert.
These are the hallmark items of Frank Fat’s, the downtown restaurant celebrating its 75th birthday. This milestone comes just a year after the restaurant earned an “America’s Classic” James Beard Award.
Frank Fat died in 1997, but the restaurant is still run by members of the Fat family, including president Jerry Fat and food director Lina Fat. The family also oversees a group of restaurants including Fat City Bar & Cafe and Fat’s Asia Bistro. Here’s what Jerry Fat says about Frank Fat’s past and present, and the future of the family business.
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Do you remember the first time you had a taste of the restaurant’s banana cream pie?
My first taste was probably when I was born. When I take friends to dinner, I’m still eating it, and I still like it. It used to be made a little differently. In the old days they used lard. But now, Lina helped tweak the recipe. It’s a little more healthy alternative without losing any flavor.
How about the New York steak? Was that always a fixture of the menu?
If you look at my dad’s old menus, it said, “Chinese-American.” It wasn’t the typical chop suey house. His early menus had hamburger, veal cutlet – we always had American food. I don’t know why. I think it was the clientele he was trying to attract.
I remember growing up in the 1950s and thinking my dad had some of the best steaks in town. We used to age and cut our own steaks back in the day. Before we did the big remodel in 1984, I used to say we had over 30 years of flavor cooked into that grill.
At what age were you put to work in the restaurant?
Like most immigrant families, whether you’re Chinese or Irish, you’re expected to help out. I probably started working at 12 or 13. I remember growing up that we all hated the business. ... I didn’t appreciate it growing up, but 40 years later, the business gave all my siblings and myself not only a good foundation but an appreciation of our employees. We’ve washed dishes. We’ve bussed tables. I wasn’t treated like the boss’ son.
Is there someone in line to take over when you retire?
We had a big family meeting two or three years ago and asked, “Are we going to continue, or look to sell down the road?” Kevin is Lina’s son, and he came back to the family business about 10 years ago. He said, “I’ll continue if the family wants to continue.” Kevin’s the next in line. He’s COO and already in charge of the operations restaurant-wise. I’m mentoring him.
The family must’ve been pretty excited to win a James Beard Award. What are your memories of that time?
Thirteen of us went to New York. I accepted the honor and made a speech, and lo and behold, I’m at Lincoln Center and I think 2,000 people were there. I’m seeing all the famous people in our industry, and it was quite an honor. It was quite an achievement.
As the years go along, do you lean on any particular advice from your father?
You have to evolve. ... Gluten-free, farm-to-fork – that’s what’s popular now, and you have to adapt. I always remember my dad saying, “Good food, good service, good value.” Never shortchange the customer, and they’ll keep coming back.
Call The Bee’s Chris Macias, (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias.
President and CEO of Fat Family Restaurant Group, Sacramento
Frank Fat’s celebrates its 75th anniversary with food specials featuring its signature dishes through the month of October. Jerry Fat, son of Frank Fat, reflects on the family business on this key anniversary.