By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor
Known for its fried chicken and complementary potato nuggets, Slavko’s menu is also filled with sandwiches, mostaccioli, ćevapčići and a host of other items that spans Croatian, Italian, and American cuisine. Jim, a third generation Croatian San Pedran, has carried the family’s light of the fire for the past 40 years, after he inherited the business from his father, Slavko, the restaurant’s namesake. When asked who was in line to carry on the light of the fire after him, his faced lit with pride.
“Brian is my right hand guy… my spark plug,” Jim said of his eldest son. “In a small business you really have to wear a lot of hats. Otherwise you wouldn’t survive.”
Jim noted that Brian brought fish; chicken nuggets and most recently lobster.
“All those little things can make it happen. He wants to make it happen, and I want to help him make it happen,” Jim said.
“Passion is like self confidence or experience. You can’t get it unless you do it.”
Brian said he always knew that Slavkos was going to be his life and he reveled in it. Looking like a younger and thinner version of his father behind thick dark rimmed glasses, Brian’s eyes lights up as he talks about what he’s sees in the restaurant’s future.
“I want to see it go to the next pinnacle,” Brian said. “This has a lot of room to grow. You know… when you’re really into what you’re doing, you’re not working. And when you have a business, and you put in a lot of time and energy and you see the successes, it just motivates you more and you just get excited.”
For much of 2012, the popular poultry market and restaurant was closed for renovations to accommodate the 90-plus-year-old building as a sit-down eatery. But that wasn’t the only reason. Installing a larger refrigeration system powered by 156 solar panels brought the market-restaurant into the 21st century, while saving 60 percent off their electric bill to boot. Slavkos Harbor Poultry Co., once known only as the Harbor Poultry Co., has been around since even before the introduction of the ammonia refrigeration system — a time when refrigeration was literally meant a large sealed room kept cool with large blocks of ice.
Jim explained that for the longest time they couldn’t decide on what else to do with the extra space. To resolve their dilemma, they decided to follow the advice of their customers.
“People had been coming in and saying that they wanted to be able to sit down in this place,” Jim said. “So we said, ‘lets put in a few tables and see what happens. We don’t want to pay for things twice, but if it doesn’t work out, we’ll just put shelving in [and turn it into a grocery store]. But so far, it has worked out real good.”
The Story Behind the Slavko’s Name
Slavko’s Harbor Poultry Co. was named for Jim Frelekian’s father, Slavko Frelekian. Before its incarnation into a restaurant, the shop was a place where chicken was slaughtered and sold to local markets and residents.
Before World War II started, Slavko had already opened Slavko’s Best Seafood, right across from the now closed Ramona’s bakery on Pacific Avenue — a block away from the Slavko’s building. He would supply fish to the Japanese American community that lived on Terminal Island at the time. His relationship with them was so close that he learned Japanese. When he was drafted, Slavko served as an interpreter in the Pacific theater of the war.
“Dad didn’t buy the place until after World War II,” Jim said of his father, Slavko Frelekian.
Slavko worked at Harbor Poultry Co. before opening Slavkos Best Seafood.
After the war, Slavko went into business with Harbor Poultry with his brother. He eventually bought out his brother and brought on a new partner.
Slavko’s brother bought Harbor Poultry and told Slavko that when he returned home, they would go into business together.
“My dad, his brother, and his brother-in-law bought this place and they just kept selling poultry products.”
Jim credits his father’s foresight that Slavko’s needed to own its own building if it was going to have any sort of longevity.
My dad told his brothers, we must solidify ourselves. ‘We should either buy this property, where Harbor Poultry is, or buy that property,’” Jim recollected. “Well, they didn’t want to do that. Eventually we bought my uncle out and Earl (uncle by marriage] left.”
Jim noted that patience and perseverance allowed them to buy the building after it had changed hands a couple of times, especially since their first opportunity was missed.
When Harbor Poultry came to be solely owned by Slavko, Jim explained that he believed the place should be renamed Slavko’s because of all the time and effort Slavko spent building the business.
Jim explained that before the advent of supermarkets in the 1960s, small mom and pop markets supplied most of the community’s dietary needs. Combined with the fact that new regulations made it impossible for the Poultry Co. to continue providing freshly slaughtered chickens, the business had to evolve. That next step in the evolutionary chain was the offering of ready-made food. Jim said he got worried when the supermarkets started offering ready-made food too, but it turned out Slavko’s had a better product that local residents trusted.
Slavko was the family’s cook, always coming up with new recipes, but he didn’t often put those recipes on the menu. Jim said he had to encourage, if not push a little to get the elder Frelekian to put some of those homespun recipes on the menu and expand the market’s budding offerings.
Up until 1970, Slavko’s barbecued its chicken. That is, until Kentucky Fried Chicken opened up in San Pedro. Slavko’s got into gear and started frying chicken and potato nuggets of their own. Initially, Slavko’s bought their spuds from Speedy Spuds in Wilmington, but according to Jim, nobody liked them. After the negative feedback, Slavko’s elected to fry their own potato nuggets with seasoning. Jim never dreamed that tasty spuds would become its most potent symbol.
Jim says that the key to Slavko’s success was their ability to give the customer what they wanted. He explained that shortly after they began providing ready-made meals, they would market their product to the holidays that local San Pedro residents celebrate. They would have corned beef and cabbage in March in celebration of Lent, the traditional Italian dish, mostaccioli, and the Croatian sausage, ćevapčići year around.### “When they zig we zag,” Jim explained. Jim says that he may not be the brightest guy, but Slavko’s has managed to stay ahead of the curve with that philosophy.