Standing only about 5 feet 2 inches tall, Frank Fat left a big impression with everyone who knew him. Arriving in America as a teen-ager, the Chinese immigrant opened a chain of restaurants in the Sacramento area, was active in community causes and built strong relations with everyone from politicians to ordinary citizens.
This year, his flagship restaurant Frank Fat’s in downtown Sacramento two blocks from the Capitol, is celebrating its 80th anniversary. The eatery is rooted deep in Capitol lore. It was the site of numerous political pacts, including the “napkin deal” in 1987, in which insurers, lawyers, doctors and business interests reached a fragile truce on lawsuits.
Fat died in 1997 but that restaurant and others in Roseville, Folsom and Old Sacramento and continue to remain in the family.
“They met face to face and chatted and negotiated over food and drink.” — Kevin Fat
“He was such a personality,” said Kevin Fat, Fat’s grandson and the chief operating officer of Fat Family Restaurant Group, which has 300 employees. “His belief was that because we’re part of this community, we need to give back whether it be financially, investment wise or time wise. That was important to him. We pass that along to each generation.”
The L Street restaurant was a major watering hole for deal-making politicians and lobbyists. Early on, it developed a reputation as the “third house” of the Legislature. Legislators would start their day at their offices, checking in with their secretaries on their schedule, then they would head to a bar for a drink and go to lunch at Frank Fat’s, Kevin Fat said.
“They say that’s how they were able to get things done when they were on opposite sides of the political table,” Kevin Fat said. “They met face to face and chatted and negotiated over food and drink.”
One reporter, skeptical about the restaurant’s reputation as a political focal point, changed his mind after visiting Fat’s for the first time: He saw the leaders of the Senate and Assembly, the attorney general and the governor at the same table, while sitting at the bar were two major lobbyists.
Fat and his staff had a reputation for being discreet. Long before Las Vegas took over the saying, everyone knew that what happened at Frank Fat’s stayed at Frank Fat’s.
One day, a powerful politician asked him to buy a keno ticket from some Chinese gamblers and hold his winnings for him if he won.
Over the years, Fat became friends with the likes of former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, former Gov. Jerry Brown and former governor and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren. Kevin said his grandfather once had a whiskey with Warren in Warren’s office. Fat’s close ties with politicians were especially unusual because he lived in a time of anti-Chinese discrimination. “We can’t dwell on it but we can’t forget it,” Kevin Fat said. “We need to learn from it and try to avoid it happening again.”
Fat was born in 1904 and initially came to America to look for his father, who had come to this country first to seek his fortune. The two eventually returned to China, but Fat returned again, working his way through several states in the jobs he could get at laundries, factories or restaurants.
Landing in Sacramento, he got a job in 1930 at what was then the only Chinese restaurant in town as a server. One day, a powerful politician asked him to buy a keno ticket from some Chinese gamblers and hold his winnings for him if he won. The story goes that the ticket turned out to net $900 and Fat kept his word and held it for the politician until he returned.
Because he was grateful for Fat’s honesty, the man helped Fat get a loan to buy his own restaurant, initially known as Frank’s 806, a reference to the street number.
Doris Matsui joined Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, former Congressman and Senate Leader John Burton and other political leaders at a small 80th anniversary celebration earlier this year.
Fat developed a restaurant that included traditional Chinese fare like egg rolls and chow mein, with American favorites including steak and banana cream pie.
Fat, his wife Mary (who died in 1999) and their six kids were active at the restaurant and participated in Chinese-American causes. Among their many interests included founding the Chinese-American Council of Sacramento and assisting with the Sacramento chapter of the National Kidney Foundation.
Over the years, the family hosted huge celebrations, including blocking off downtown streets to celebrate the restaurant’s past anniversaries.
Congresswoman Doris Matsui, who represents the area, said it seems like everyone in Sacramento knows about the L Street eatery. “It survived because it understands the people it serves- the capitol and community,” she said. “That was the beauty of it- it could reach out to everyone and everyone felt comfortable there.”
Matsui joined Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, former Congressman John Burton and other political leaders at a small 80th anniversary celebration earlier this year.
Kevin Fat said he and his family are grateful that the restaurant has lasted this long. “There were definitely times when we weren’t sure if we were able to go on,” he said. “Today it is great because of the redevelopment of downtown Sacramento and because Sacramento is growing.”
He said the family is grateful for its employees who work hard to serve customers.
“We try to do our best every day,” he said. “If we are able to withstand tough times by doing what we do best and providing great tasting food and friendly and courteous service, we’ll be good.”