Photography by Michelle Kilfeather
Emmy Kaplan and her friends in the restaurant business just wanted somewhere to go after their shifts.
In this podcast, Jeff fulfills a 20ish-year dream meeting and recording with Emmy, the namesake behind Emmy's Spaghetti Shack. Today located on Mission Street just below Cesar Chavez, the restaurant recently celebrated 21 years in business.
Emmy was born in San Francisco and shares her and family's stories with us. Her mom is from Alameda. That family goes back generations in the East Bay, coming from places like Germany, Scotland, and Ireland. Emmy's mom came to SF State in the '60s—"a real, bona fide hippie."
Her parents met at SF State. Later, her dad was a cable car driver. His family also went back a few generations here in The City. Both her parents were young free spirits, and didn't stay together for very long. After having Emmy and her brother, they split up. Then her mom took Emmy and her brother up to Sonoma, where Emmy grew up.
Later in life, her dad owned several restaurants in the Mission—Bruno's and Mission Villa, to name a couple. When she was a kid, Emmy would often join him at his restaurants. When she was 17, after splitting time between The City and Sonoma, Emmy moved back to her hometown.
As a teenager, she started working in restaurants, first in Sonoma, and later, in San Francisco. She realized that she needed to fend for herself at an early age. Without going into too much detail, Emmy says that her teen years were "wild." She and her friends were punk rockers—they went to shows and got into trouble, as you do. Her mom threatened her with either incarceration or joining her brother in Europe. She chose Europe.
Her time overseas taught her that the world is a big place. When she got back home, her priorities had shifted. She graduated high school early and worked a lot in The City. She toyed with art school, but that didn't stick. She took a business class at City College, where she pitched an idea that essentially was the restaurant she has today. The idea didn't go over well in class, though.
She worked at the Flying Saucer, a long-gone restaurant at 22nd and Guerrero. It was while Emmy worked there that the first location of Emmy's Spaghetti Shack opened.
She'd been kicking around the idea of opening her own restaurant. Her classmates had more or less shot it down. Her dad, a restaurant-owner himself, wasn't crazy about the idea either. He couldn't see her raising the kind of money she'd need.
But Emmy started saving. And saving. And saving. She worked on getting her credit score up. And in 2001, one of her dad's spots had an opening coming up. She decided to go for it.
Her partner at the time was a bartender and she asked him to collaborate. They menu planned, got their supplies, hired a chef, brought in decorations Emmy already had, and opened the doors. About a week before they opened, Emmy found out she was pregnant.
She waitressed well throughout her pregnancy, in fact. And after she had her kid, she'd serve tables carrying the child. Maybe some of you reading this will remember that unforgettable and awesome sight.
Emmy says that having her own child inspired her to make her restaurant kid-friendly. But she always wanted to also cater to late-night service industry workers—her friends, essentially. And so she'd bring in DJs in the later hours.
We talk a little about shopping at thrift stores back in the '80s and '90s. Emmy intentionally decorated the place with stuff she'd find at shops that used to exist in San Francisco back then.
Emmy's dad was a tough landlord. He noticed the clumps of folks waiting to get into the Spaghetti Shack and responded by raising his daughter's rent. This happened enough times to prompt Emmy to look for a new location. About eight years ago, she opened in a new space—this time on Mission Street in the former El Zocalo space. The story of how Emmy got the space is one you just gotta hear.
The bigger space meant shorter wait times for diners. In the move, they were closed only one day. We discuss the importance for Emmy of keeping the menu and the decor the same between spaces. Jeff will attest that they've been 100 percent successful at that. One difference is a much bigger kitchen, which has allowed them to expand the menu.
We talk about some of the folks who've worked at Emmy's over the years and then gone on to open restaurants of their own. Sarah and Josey of Front Porch and Jay of Farmer Brown's (among others) come to Emmy's mind.
The conversation inevitably ends up touching on the pandemic. Emmy goes into detail about the struggles that her and other restaurants continue to face. Things like mounting debt due to a lack of government assistance continue to take their toll. Emmy says she's able to retain staff and keep paying them and that's her take-away.
We end the episode with Emmy's thoughts on what it means to still be here in San Francisco running a business.
Follow Emmy's on Twitter and Instagram. Their current hours are Friday/Saturday, 5–9:30; Tues.-Thurs./Sunday 5–8:30; Monday takeout only.
We recorded this podcast at Emmy's Spaghetti Shack in the Mission in April 2022.