13 Questions with Emmy Kaplan of Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack

If you live in San Francisco and love spaghetti and meatballs, there’s a good chance you’re a fan of Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack, the popular and quirky Mission/Bernal Heights restaurant that serves up tasty plates of carbs and meat to families, late night crowds, and pretty much everyone with a hankering for huge portions of pasta made with love. Emmy Kaplan opened “The Shack” in 2001 when she was 24 and pregnant and, though the restaurant has since moved to a bigger space, the vibe and food is still as warm and comforting as it was 15 years ago. We sat down with the restaurateur to hear the story about how she got started, what keeps her up at night, and what’s always in her fridge at home. (And yes, the latter is exactly what you’d expect.)

YR: How did you get started in the restaurant business?

Emmy: My dad was a restaurateur in San Francisco, so I started working in restaurants when I was 15-years-old as everything from a bus girl, to a hostess and then a restaurant manager. I came from fine dining but also worked at places like Mel’s Drive-In and Johnny Rockets and I realized I wanted to open my own place that was a happy medium between those two concepts. I wanted to have fun with food without being stuffy.

Emmy's Spaghetti Shack, San Francisco

YR: When did you know you wanted to own and run your own restaurant? How’d you come up with the concept?

Emmy: I was working at a restaurant and after work we’d all go out to eat and everyone always wanted spaghetti and meatballs. That was what we wanted after work and we thought it would be fun to have a late night spaghetti place we could go to. That’s how I came up with the concept for Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack.

YR: What is the single most difficult thing about running a restaurant?

Emmy: I think the hardest thing is letting go and trusting the people you’ve hired so that you don’t have to be there every moment of every day and understanding that not everything has to be perfect. That last part’s actually not as difficult for me because I was a single mom for many years, so I had to embrace that. But really it’s about hiring people you trust so you can prioritize your family and put them first.

YR: Many restaurateurs struggle to keep customers coming back time and time again—what advice would you give them?

Emmy: I think it’s about being consistent and friendly. Some people think we’re a little too casual, but we’re not about being snobby. We embrace families. There are so many people in San Francisco who have families or will have families and they want to be able to go out as well. They come with their kids on their birthdays and pretty much for every special occasion because they know they’ll be able to eat good food and relax.

YR: What’s your drink of choice?

Emmy: Champagne.

YR: What’s your guilty pleasure?

Emmy: Getting away. Taking time for myself.

YR: What’s always in your fridge at home?

Emmy: Spaghetti and meatballs.

YR: What keeps you up at night?

Emmy: Worrying about the restaurant. I’m very involved in all of the staffing and I worry about when my staff is having problems. Just caring about people and worrying about everyone getting along.

YR: What food trend are you totally over?

Emmy: Pickling.

YR: If the next meal were the last meal of your life, what would it be?

Emmy: Home cooked vegetable stir-fry

YR: Describe the SF food scene in one word.

Emmy: High-fallutin’.

YR: Why did you choose Yelp Reservations?

Emmy: We only started taking reservations when we moved to the new location because it’s a much bigger space. We noticed a lot of people wanted to be able to reserve a table, so we wanted to accommodate that. OpenTable is much too expensive and I don’t think customers are even aware of what restaurants are charged to use the service, whereas I think Yelp Reservations’ pricing is fair.

YR: What’s your experience been like using Yelp Reservations?

Emmy: Before Yelp Reservations, I was handling all of the reservations myself through our website and email. I started testing out Yelp Reservations and realized I didn’t have to check my email or deal with reservations anymore—that was a big “a-ha” moment. Everything was just in there and I didn’t have to worry about if there was a spot for this person or if I’d overbooked. It was just nice that I didn’t have to deal with everything myself anymore!


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