Q & A | FAITH WHEELER
Rare is the restaurant in San Francisco still going strong after 30 years. But Jackson Fillmore — the beloved, quintessential neighborhood Italian spot at 2506 Fillmore, now under new ownership — remains noticeably unchanged. That’s thanks to the brother-sister duo Kelly and Casey Sullivan, lifelong family friends of original owner Jack Krietzman. Kelly Sullivan remembers coming to the restaurant the year it opened when she was a 4-year-old and eating cold zabaglione.
How did Jack come up with this concept?
Jack is from New Jersey, but he traveled a lot and gravitated toward cooking Italian and Spanish cuisine. He can still make a mean paella. When he moved here from the East Coast in the ’70s, he initially worked at MacArthur Park and then at the famous Vanessi’s. I don’t know how he found this location, but the opening was pretty turn-key. We still have a sushi counter from a previous owner. That is part of the charm of this place. We’re old school. We take what’s available and re-purpose it.
After leaving Vanessi’s, Jack was ready to bring some of the great Italian dishes from there over here. He then brought his pasta chef from La Fiammetta [at Bush and Octavia] in 1989, who makes our gnocchi, mezzaluna and tartelli. He hoped to name the spot Jack’s on Fillmore, but got some pushback from the then-renowned Jack’s on Sacramento. So a neighbor who’s one of our regulars said, “Why don’t you take out the apostrophe and name it Jackson Fillmore?” And the rest is history.
How did you and your brother end up running the restaurant?
Our dad had a retail tennis store, the Tennis Shack, originally on Taraval and then on Sacramento between Pacific and Walnut. Jack would come in, and soon enough Dad and Jack became tennis buddies — they still play together. We would come into the restaurant with our parents as kids. Jack would tuck us up by the window, give us pencils to draw, and ensure we were well behaved. We still keep pencils so the kids can play and we save the collection of drawings. No iPads here.
I had been working in the restaurant business in Sonoma, at Cyrus, and then at Harry’s Bar. My brother was at Cucina in San Anselmo. About four years ago I walked into the restaurant and Jack was at the door. I said to Jack: “Someday when you’re ready, if you ever think of selling this place, don’t. Don’t ever sell it. Don’t close it even for a day. My brother and I want it.”
And so, six months later, I got a call that Jack was ready to give Casey and me a chance.
I knew I had found my home. We formulated a three year plan: First year, the three of us would do everything together. Second year, mostly Casey and I would run the floor, with Jack overseeing here and there. And then the third year, we were on our own. Now we are in year four.
What is the magic recipe that keeps a restaurant around for 30 years?
Restaurants are successful for different reasons. Each one has its own recipe. For us, we are who our neighborhood is.
The people who sit at the bar have been coming for generations and they become the stewards of the next generation. I’ve been coming here my whole life. I’ve seen entire families grow up, get older and get married, and now they bring their kids.
Who we are and who our neighbors are is what makes us strong. People are coming to our house. We welcome you like friends and family. Our guests are our family, the people who understand our vibe. They want to come and hang out with us.
How about your staff members — have they been here a long time?
Absolutely. Our newest guy has been here five years; the entire kitchen staff has been here for at least 10 years and one waiter for 23. I guess she’s not staff exactly, but our mom does a lot of our pastries — cheesecakes, biscotti and ice cream sandwiches made with lemon sugar cookies. Our busser, who started at 17, is now married, and about half of our guests bring gifts to his son.
It’s all about consistency. Our staff ensures that you will have the same experience time and time again.
What about the food?
We really don’t change the core of the menu that much, but we might change some items every couple of months just to introduce people to new things.
Our signatures will always be there. I grew up eating the zucchini carpaccio, a favorite of thinly sliced grilled zucchini, pecorino cheese and toasted almonds with a little bit of olive oil. Some people ask me what’s the best thing on the menu and it’s impossible for me to pick. People tend to have their favorites and it’s all over the map.
Some people must have the spaghetti carbonara or the pesce fra diavolo. Others crave the bombolotti sugo de carne, a rigatoni in a rich spicy meat sauce with ground beef, sausage, mushrooms and mascarpone. We are willing to make people what they want, even if it’s not on the menu. That has always been our philosophy: If you don’t see it, just ask. Our pasta guy will make it for you. We are here to take care of people with comfort food, good wine and a smile.
How about the bruschetta — do you still have that?
Absolutely. The bruschetta is complimentary. Heaven forbid I forget somebody’s bruschetta. I hear about it!
What about the wine list? It’s primarily Italian?
Yep. Only eight bottles of domestic red and maybe six South American. But our servers are very good with customization. My brother is a bit of a wine geek, so there’s lots of staff education. Sometimes a guest says, “We love wine, but we’re not familiar with any of these.” That’s when we’re there to help with some options. I often say, “Let me pick you out something. If you don’t like it, I’ll drink it.” We try to listen to what our guests like in different varietals and match them to what we offer. Wine is an adventure.
Our guests are very helpful as well. Our regulars have no problem jumping in, guiding new guests through the menu. It’s a team effort.
How regular are your regulars?
We have one guy who comes in three nights a week at 5:30 p.m. sharp and a couple of families once a week like clockwork at 5:30. We have every-week regulars, once-a-month regulars, some every six months. I joke that I recognize 70 percent of the people who walk in.
We have a little girl who is 13 who has come in so often, always ordering the breaded chicken with lemon wedges, that we’ve named it Chicken Virginia after her.
And you still use the old fashioned ticket system — no computer?
Yes we do. My brother and I don’t really like change. We run tickets the old fashioned way, by hand. And it saves a lot of time. We don’t need to hover over a computer waiting to input the order. There’s no particular formula; every waiter writes every ticket differently.
You still don’t take reservations for parties of two?
No, we run a wait list unless you are a party of three or more. But you are welcome to call a little bit ahead and we’ll put your name on the list. We are always busy. People are always standing and waiting, and that’s part of the fun. We train our guests to enjoy the experience, start them off with some wine to get them going, and no one seems to mind.
Would you ever consider opening for lunch?
No. We’re open Wednesday to Sunday, dinner only, and the reason we do that is to guarantee our staff has 40-hour shifts. This way they are all full-time workers and all have full benefits.
What do you wish for the future?
Just to continue to keep the Jackson Fillmore tradition alive, keeping our eyes on all the little details and knowing our guests. This restaurant is our family. It’s our home. We want to be what people expect us to be and trust us to be.
I want it to be the same restaurant I went to when I was 4.
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