April 2, 2021

With A Brother’s Help: Jose Acevedo of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana

by Joe Bonadio

What is it that makes a phenomenal restaurant? As someone who has visited more than his fair share, I’ve got some definite opinions on this topic. And the first thing that comes to mind is hard work and dedication: the restaurant business is as backbreaking as any other, and I’ve never seen an establishment excel with anything less than total commitment and boundless energy.

The other thing is an authentic sense of hospitality–which when you think about it, springs directly from family. At its core, hospitality is the extension of the standards of a gracious home to the public sphere. And restaurants that get this right understand that an excellent dining experience is really all about the way you are treated. Of course the food is vitally important–but what brings you back is how the staff makes you feel.

As one of the canniest restaurateurs I know, Tony Gemignani tends to choose people who, like him, exemplify these critical qualities. I’ve written about many of those remarkable people in this space, including here, here and here. Last week, I sat down with Tony’s bartender and OG staff member, Jose Acevedo. Lightly edited for clarity, our conversation is below.

Joe Bonadio: When did you first get started in the restaurant business?

Jose Acevedo: Seventeen years ago. A month after 9/11, I moved to San Francisco. My first job was at Joe’s Crab Shack.

Burrata Burger

The Burrata Burger at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana – not to be missed. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: In Fisherman’s Wharf.

JA: Yes. I worked there for eight and a half years.

JB: Wow. That was a busy place.

JA: Very busy. You could fit more than 300 people in that place. Anyway, one of the managers there moved over to Chevy’s on Third and Howard. I was working down around there, and she ran into me. She liked me a lot, and she was excited to see me. She said, I need your help.

She hired me at Chevy’s, and for a long time I worked at both places. I was at Chevy’s
for six and a half years.

JB: That was a great place at one time.

JA: Oh my god, that place was busy. With the patio, it was even bigger than Crab Shack.

JB: Exactly what were you doing at that point?

JA: First bussing, then barbacking.

JB: Working your way up.

JA: Exactly. But at Crab Shack, when it was slow, I would do everything. I would host, I would wash dishes, I’d do kitchen stuff. Even handyman work, sometimes.

Eventually I left Chevy’s, because there was a manager that was a pain in the ass. He promised us a lot of bonuses, and he never gave us anything. One day, I was just tired of it.

But I stayed at Crab Shack, until the company got into trouble. Then the new managers brought in their own team, planning to get rid of all the employees—the staff was maybe 150 people. They tried to fire me, but they couldn’t find a reason to do it.

Because I did everything there. Every time they needed a key to something, I was the one who had it. They asked me, “Why do you have all the keys?” I told them: because the manager trusted me.

JB: I guess at a certain point, they started looking at you differently. And they kept you?

JA: Yeah. I was the only one.

JB: Out of 150 employees?

JA: Yes.

JB: One person. That is f#cking hilarious!

JA: (Laughter) They asked me to be a manager, but when you’re the manager, any mistake you make, you’re done.

JB: They can hold you responsible for any little thing that might be wrong.

JA: Exactly! So I said, no, thank you—I love my job. They tried to promote me at Chevy’s also, but I told them I was happy where I was.

I love both of those places though. They gave me the opportunity that I needed. When I first came here to America, I had no English at all. Nothing. My younger brother, he went to school in Mexico, a touristic school, so he knew pretty good English.

So we bought a small blackboard, and every day he would teach me English words. Three, four words in English, translated into Spanish.

JB: That’s your younger brother?

JA: Gustavo Angel, he works here as a cashier. He helped me a lot. I couldn’t go to university, because my parents couldn’t afford it. High school, and that was it. The situation in Mexico wasn’t that good, so the oldest brothers had to quit school and find a job—to give the chance to our younger brothers.

It works. We have a teacher in the family, we have a lawyer. Mario was ten years in the military.

JB: How many brothers do you have?

JA: Seven brothers, and two sisters.

JB: Wow.

JA: So after a few months of that, my brother talked with the manager of Joe’s Crab Shack. The manager there said, “Just tell him that I need him to understand what I want him to do. I don’t care if he doesn’t speak English, as long as he understands.”

And I’ve lived here in North Beach for fifteen years, so I’ve spent a lot of time here at Tupelo, at the Saloon, and all these other places. I’ve had the chance to work on my English. To practice–to listen, and to practice.

Jose,Tony and the Crew

Jose Acevedo poses with Tony Gemignani, Robvell Smith, Rafael and a few friendly customers. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: So, how did you end up at Tony’s?

JA: Well, I quit working at Chevy’s, because the new GM was <expletives deleted>.

JB: (Laughter) You mentioned that.

JA: Mario was already working here in North Beach, and when he saw them building out the Tony’s space, he was on it. He was one of the first ones in the door. I was still working at Crab Shack, and Mario came to see me. He said “I need you. I need you to help me train the new people.”

So, I came to meet Tony. He asked me to start that night–but I didn’t have the right shoes. Tomorrow, I told him. The next day I was there. I got my uniform, and I met Nancy, the other partner at the time.

And once I got going, they loved the way I did my job.

Teamwork is the key. At Tony’s, we always say when you work as a team, everything is easy. If you try to do your own thing, you’re going to be in trouble. If you don’t help the other people, you’re not going to get that help back.

JB: Everyone has to be pulling in the same direction.

JA: Exactly! The other places I’ve worked have had handbooks, with all these different rules. Tony really has one principle: we work together as a family. It’s the key to our success. We have a family lunch before we open. We have a family dinner together at the end, and you can have a drink at the bar if you want.

If you want to be in business for a long time, you’ve got to be human, and smart. And you’ve got to love what you do. What really makes your restaurant, what makes you a success? It’s the people in the kitchen, the people serving your customers.

When you’re good to your people, your people are good to your customers. And when you cook when you’re grumpy, the food tastes…

JB: Bitter.

JA: Exactly! But when you cook with your heart, the way you do at home, everything comes out….amazing.

JB: So true. You’ve been at Tony’s since the very beginning, but you didn’t start as a bartender. How did you come to make that move?

JA: Elmer gave me the opportunity to be a bartender. He spoke with Erin, our GM at the time, and she told him I had earned the chance to be a bartender, because “he knows everything.”

There was a guy working behind the bar who objected to serving drinks for religious reasons. He said he didn’t want to poison the people! So he decided to bus tables instead.

JB: You’ve got to be kidding me! (laughter)

JA: No, it’s true. And there was no one else who wanted to do it. Behind the bar, it’s crowded, it’s busy. We had to serve bread with oil when we first opened, and bring ice and set up the bar with wine and liquor. And you have to be fast. It was a lot.

Skyline - North Beach

Another perfect day in North Beach, Jose Acevedo’s home for fifteen years. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: Apparently you picked it up pretty quickly, though.

JA: Yes, and I liked it. But it’s funny, I used to get annoyed with Elmer, because at first I would ask him questions, and he wouldn’t answer me. He didn’t want to tell me the secrets of his cocktails! (Laughter)

I used to barback with Robvell and Elmer on Friday and Saturday, and we’d have a lot of fun behind the bar. But I always would ask Elmer, What’s this? What are you using there?

Then when the liquor delivery would come on Friday, I’d organize the liquor room. And I read everything. For me it was the first step to being a good bartender: you’ve got to know what you have in your liquor room. And no one else knows.

I know exactly how many bottles of everything we have. I’m the only person–I count
the bottles every Friday. I know how many bottles we’ve got, and of what. In my mind.

JB: Between Elmer, Robvell, Stephanie and the rest of the crew here, you were trained by some heavyweights.

JA: Yes, I’m very lucky. On my left hand I had Robvell, the old school style. And that helped me a lot. He taught me how to make a proper Manhattan, the That’s How I Roll, which Robvell created. He taught me about service: to not listen to negative talk, just do your thing, and take care of the people. If you make a mistake, move on. That was so important for me in the beginning.

Then on my right hand I had Elmer, the new school bartender–the mixologist. He has that creativity, the artistry. He takes it to another level.

And all the help I got from Stephanie with wine, and really everything. In the beginning I always had so many questions, and she would help me no matter how busy we got. JP, too. I was so lucky to have all their help, and I’m grateful. Without them, this interview doesn’t happen.

But I want to say one last thing, about Tony. Over this past year, he never stopped, no matter what. He kept going, and was always thinking about his people, and helping everyone. He always does his best–for everyone.

I’m so proud of this place. They gave me the opportunity to become who I am today.

Jose Acevedo and Elmer Mejicanos behind the bar at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana a couple of years back. | Photo: Sarah Inloes