While I was in college, I initially worked as a salesperson at Thom McAn’s Shoes, where I was a standout salesman, specializing in ladies’ footwear. It wasn’t a bad deal for me, because I have always appreciated women’s legs, which are best presented wearing a nice, expertly-crafted pair of shoes (preferably heels). So one might think I would have been in heaven there, on my knees, helping women find the perfect pumps.
The reality, however, was that many of the women who came into Florin Mall in Sacramento, where I worked, were not looking for pumps. Most were simply hard-working, responsible women, looking for sensible footwear. And too often, when I was down there, slipping on the disposable try-on sock, sometimes the leg position would shift, exposing me to the startling aroma of an eight-hour workday. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t the sexy job I imagined it would be.
At the same time, my brother, Jeff, and friend, Jim O’Connor, began working at a place in Old Sacramento called China Camp, owned by the Fat family. They worked as dishwashers and then as “busboys” (currently called “bussers”), but they told me there was a “waiter” opening (currently called “servers”) at the family-owned Fat City next door. I applied and got the job, discovering immediately that I loved the restaurant business.
Fat City was a turn-of-the-century styled café on the corner of Embarcadero and J Street in Old Sacramento. On weekend nights, it was always a glorious venue, with a lounge area featuring a piano, Tiffany-style lamps and the imported one-piece Pioneer Bar from Leadville, Colorado that was owned by Titanic survivor, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” the heroine in a movie by the same name, staring Debbie Reynolds.
I actually met Debbie Reynolds when she visited the restaurant, and I met many other celebrities, including Liberace, Marie Osmond, Casey Kasim, Joe Kapp (football coach at Cal, a regular customer) and other famous people who frequented the restaurant. I also met California State Assembly Member Willie Brown, for the first time at Fat City.
While at Fat City, I got to know the Fat family, including the patriarch, Frank Fat himself (see Frank Fat legacy, Frank Fat mini biography). There was Wing Kai, ten years the eldest, and then (in order of height) Ken, Mabel, Tommy, Jean Ann and Jerry (not pictured).
Early on, I was closest to Jean Ann, who owned a novelty store between the restaurants called The Eclectic Company. I was good friends with her daughter, Susan, and often walked Susan or her mother to her car after the store closed. One time, when Jean Ann and I were confronted by a street person demanding money, she told the man that I was her son, and since that time, I have always called her “Mom.”
I had my first legal drink at Fat City, bought for me by under-aged busser, Robert Buckner, though I detested the taste of alcohol (in this case a Chevas Regal 12-year-old scotch) at the time and secretly poured the drink into the planter.
Truly in my element, I made many good friends, including Robert B. Rutter, the symbolic mayor of Old Sacramento, who largely financed my first play, Stevie, the Eighth Wonder of the World, at the Sierra II Theater, off Broadway in Sacramento, in 1983.
I left Fat City in order to direct and direct and produce Stevie, the Eighth Wonder of the World, and then I moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in entertainment. While there, I was forced to deal with issues that I believed had become better in my lifetime—those relating to the relationship between black males and law enforcement (see Niggers and Squirrels).
When I had a gun pointed at my head by Los Angeles area police (Buena Park, Wittier, Norwalk), I realized, in veracity, that even for well-meaning law enforcement officers, “state-of-mind” matters—that my life mattered, and it mattered all the more for officers when their fingers were on the trigger and the person on the other side of the barrel was brown or black. After that experience, I moved back to Sacramento, traumatized.
Weyland Fat was my friend from my Fat City days, so I asked him for a job at Frank Fat’s. He immediately hired me, though his father, Wing, was not happy about the development. Wing told me on my first day there that the restaurant was for “Chinese boys” and that I, as a “black boy,” would be better off in the garage, parking cars.
Weyland, a true friend, stood by me however, against the wishes of his father. In fact, he waited until his father was in southern California working on the Cathay Bank board to train me as a server for nights.
I knew Wing Fat did not want me there. In fact, he openly berated me at morning waiter meetings because he wanted me to quit. One time, he took me outside the front door of the restaurant and asked me why I hadn’t picked up the cigarette butts before the shift (something servers were not expected to do), while suggesting I look for work elsewhere.
Leon Tam, the executive chef, was equally uncomfortable with me being there—he jokingly told me he would give me a manicure with the cleaver if I did not learn the extensive menu.
I learned the menu. In fact, after two weeks, I knew the menu better than anyone at the restaurant in terms of descriptions and cooking styles. My saving grace was my static memory, so that within a month, I was providing all the servers’ written descriptions for daily specials and I was always among the top sellers on shifts. Norman Kwong, another server, befriended me and made sure I was accepted by the rest of the staff.
Eventually, I became a favorite with customers—especially with Wing’s friends, who included lobbyist George Steffes, Frank Murphy, Jon Smock, George Wendt, Ken Maddy and others. African American legislators and staffers also praised Wing’s “decision” for hiring me. So over the course of a year, Wing and I became close friends—not merely in name, but we truly liked and supported each other.
It was only a matter of getting to know each other. Over time, Wing became something of a second father to me. When I launched Pegasus Books, Wing Fat and George Steffes provided the loan for initial capital. Wing also offered to help put up the down payment for my first home.
During all that time, I had also developed a relationship with the elder Frank Fat, who encouraged me as a writer and shared his life story as we both imagined I could write it. What a life! Sai Dong (Dong Sai) came to San Francisco at age 16 in 1919, an illegal alien who could not speak a word of English. After working for four years in America, he returned to China, leaving a bride and a first-born son, my future boss, Wing Kai.
With the goal of bringing his family to America in mind, he returned to America, working various jobs, which took as far as Kansas City, Akron and Detroit, which he told me sometimes involved working as a dishwasher and sleeping in the dish-washing area at the restaurant.
According to stories I heard over the years, Frank Fat eventually settled in Sacramento, where he got a job as the host at Hong King Lum restaurant at 304 I St, and while the story differs depending on who’s telling it, the one I heard most often (though not from Frank Fat himself) was that a man, supposedly a doctor, was at the restaurant, gambling at the bar. By the time the night was over, he was so intoxicated that he left his winnings there, oblivious to the fact that he had won any money.
Frank Fat, the erstwhile-popular host, set the winnings aside, and when the man returned to the restaurant, Frank presented them to the astonished man, who impressed by Frank’s honesty, offered to partner with him in his own restaurant venture.
Frank chose a location at 806 L Street, between 8th and 9th, one and a half blocks away from the California State Capitol, where he was well-liked by friends made in his former job on I Street. Seeking to appeal to the American legislators, lobbyists and business persons in the area, Frank’s first menu sought to appeal to American cuisine preferences, though his Chinese cooks were very capable at Chinese cuisine.
While the Capitol crowd loved the American dishes, they signaled a preference for Frank’s exotic Chinese dishes, which transformed the menu to a blending of American-Chinese cuisine, though the restaurant was careful to preserve its authentic Chinese offerings.
Some of the most popular items on the menu were a result of Frank Fat’s unique circumstances. The Frank’s New York Steak, the most popular item by many, was not a traditional Chinese menu item, and neither was Fat’s Brandy-Fried Chicken (though the spices involved were very Chinese).
I can say this as a fact because I was there—but Frank Fat’s was the first restaurant in California to offer Honey-Glazed Walnut Prawns (circa 1989), à la chef Leon Tam, and in the ensuing years, no one has done it better. And the Banana Cream Pie—definitely American, but the best ever (and a answer/question on television’s Jeopardy)!
An interesting story: when Frank Fat decided on 806 L Street in 1939, that particular location was not a great place to open a restaurant. According to the stories I heard, people said “a hungry dog wouldn’t go down there to eat.” Is it turns out, 806 L Street had formerly been a “Speakeasy,” owned by Italians until the repeal of prohibition in 1933, so after the city’s reputable establishments could finally sell booze legally, the illegal operation went out of business and the “building” fell into disrepair.
As it turns out, the building wasn’t actually a building at all. The former owners had merely put a roof over an alley, and then they created front and back walls. It wasn’t until the a remodel decades later that the family realized and established the building.
One of the reasons I chose Frank Fat’s was for its proximity to the Sacramento Convention Theater and its clientele, who no doubt attended theatrical events. I hoped that by working there, I could garner an audience for No More Cheesecake!, a musical I planned to stage in March, 1990.
The play, a benefit for the local NAACP, the Urban League and the United Way sold out, and while I had ambitions of creating a tour for the show, I was unable to obtain financing. During that same time, I decided to write a biography about Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, a restaurant regular and a man who I greatly admired.
Thus I began writing Willie, the Man, the \Myth and the Era in 1990, an exhaustive work in terms of interviews (hundreds) and research(over one thousand articles), which stretched for six years. When I first proposed the book, Dotson Wilson, then Mr. Brown’s chief-of-staff, invited me in to offer me a job.
I chose to remain at Frank Fat’s, however, because I wanted to maintain an air of objectivity in the work. The finished product was over six hundred pages, but I have made many of the individual chapters available on eBook platforms.
In 1990, I considered leaving Frank Fat’s, but Wing insisted that I stay while offering me a job in management. I accepted, and from that time on, I spent no less than fifty hours a week at the restaurant. I worked nights and weekends, with Tuesday and Wednesday off, so for many customers, it seemed I was there all the time (some even asked if I slept there). Frank Fat told me that his friends were all old, and that I should focus on bringing new people into the restaurant.
The family encouraged my ideas and paid for me attend industry seminars, where I learned “the first seventy-five cents of every advertising dollars should be spent within the four walls of your restaurant.” So my focus was on intuitive, outstanding table service from the servers (close to 60% French service at nights) and the rest of the staff focused on dining experience from entry to exit.
Hoping to imitate Frank and Wing Fat’s style, I took the time to get to know all the regular customers beyond the superficial level, and I saw any customer complaint as an opportunity to make an new friend (regular). On some nights, I knew just about every single person who walked in the restaurant.
I created a Concierge Program, wherein I invited concierge staff from the Hyatt, the Sheraton Grand, The Holiday Inn and the Ramada West (about forty persons) to Frank Fat’s twice a year for an appreciation dinner. At the dinner, I presented a brief history of the family and the restaurant, highlighting our signature dishes, which they would enjoy at dinner.
Requesting their rosters, I explained that the restaurant would be offering gift certificates, based on the number of customers they sent us (there was a $50 gift certificate for every fifty customers a staff member sent us). For me, it was a way of putting Frank Fat’s on the mind of every concierge staffer in downtown Sacramento when asked for a recommendation. In the second quarter of the program, one member of the Hyatt’s staff sent us 352 guests in one month!
Enough on those issues!
Collaborator feature (for Frank Fat’s customers): Do You Remember That Time (in Frank Fat’s) …