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Prep Magazine – Passion for Work Pays Off

By Nancy Miller

Jack Fry’s serves its signature dishes like shrimp and grits, pork chops, salmon and warm brie salad.

Jack Fry’s is part of Louisville restaurant lore. First opened in 1933 and shuttered for a time in the late 1980s, it established a presence and following that has been the envy of chefs and restaurateurs across Kentucky, and beyond.

Owning a successful restaurant requires considerable knowledge of food and wine and good business practices, as well as an ability to deal with staffing issues. A rich history and clientele that expects a top-tier dining experience elevates the challenge. Though Stephanie Meeks had never owned a restaurant when she purchased Jack Fry’s in 2008, she wasn’t an industry novice. She started as a server at the restaurant 10 years prior, advancing to host and manager, each year falling more in love with the restaurant business and with the history of Jack Fry’s.

“When Susan Seiller [the former owner of the restaurant] called me to her home, I was taken by complete surprise when she said she wanted to sell the restaurant and that the only person she wanted to sell it to was me,” Meeks said. “I had to get a loan and that was quite a process in itself. She and I had to lead double lives for about a year and a half because we didn’t want anyone to find out about the sale before it took place. I gained confidence and knew it was an incredible opportunity and I knew I would make it work.”

The new owner immersed herself in the workings of every department, each staff member’s responsibilities and in understanding how each piece fit into the grand scheme of the restaurant’s operation.

“Having a passion for the business is critical to owning a restaurant. I have to be active in it 100 percent, seven days a week. I absolutely love and believe in it. If I’m having a bad day and go to the restaurant, and am around customers and employees, I realize why I love it so much. But I’m not the only one who has that passion. We’re all there to achieve the same goal: to produce consistently amazing food and to make people feel at home and welcome,” adds Meeks.

Often asked by budding restaurateurs for advice, she tells them to believe in themselves, to be clear in their vision, to research and get advice from other business owners, to be honest and fair, and to hire the most capable and talented people.

It was only in the last decade that the 98 seat restaurant began taking reservations for fewer than five people, often leading to waiting times of two to three hours. Operations have since been streamlined and the New American bistro now has 46 employees and Chef Sean Ward, who has been at the kitchen helm for 18 years. Appetizers range from $8 to $15, and entrees are offered at $16 to $24.

Meeks and Ward constantly collaborate on the seasonally changing menu, trying to use local products as much as possible.

“We are extremely lucky that we didn’t really feel the down economy. It’s not inexpensive to dine out, and I think people are still going out but are making sure to go to a place and spend their money where they know they would have great food and an excellent overall experience. They weren’t trying as many new places because they wanted to feel they were spending their money in the right restaurant,” observes Meeks.

When asked the key to Jack Fry’s success, she is quick to reply in plural. “Our restaurant has evolved over many years and people have such special memories of being here. Also, we have a true passion to serve fantastic food and to make people happy. It’s a place of history, talent, energy, sincerity and love,” she is quick to say. With such an impressive track record and accolades from critics and customers, it isn’t surprising that there are frequent inquiries about franchising. That’s not part of her future plans as they now stand. She does, however, plan to buy the building in the next couple of years. And because she has to turn down numerous requests for a private dining room every week, she wants to add a private room to the back of the restaurant to accommodate about 40 people.

“Buying the restaurant was a huge jump. I feel like my story is the perfect example of not knowing where life will take you,” says Meeks.