When asked to reflect on what it means to have so much support from those who have dined at his Italian restaurant Fritto Misto over the last 29 years, Robert Kerr transforms from a calculating business owner into a big softy, fighting back tears while apologizing for "getting emotional."
It's totally understandable when he tells the story of a young man who recently proposed to his girlfriend at the restaurant, a staple in Downtown Santa Monica, known for its generous portions and familial atmosphere. The man's parents first met at Fritto Misto decades ago. Kerr catered their wedding. Their son grew up eating Kerr's food following little league games, and now he was so fond of Fritto that he chose it as the place to make one of the most memorable moments of his life happen.
"I get very emotional. I know it may sound corny or silly, but I have an emotional commitment to them," Kerr says of his loyal customers, many of whom he knows by name, as well as their favorite dishes. "There's a difference between a city and a community. A community is made up of places like this, where people can come together, be themselves, be comfortable, see people they know and get appreciation and recognition. That's unique, and it's becoming rarer and rarer these days."
(Fritto Misto is known for its signature pasta dishes and for providing its customers with large portions.)
It's those relationships that prompted Kerr to remain in Downtown Santa Monica after the building where he's been serving his famous Pink Pillows, pumpkin ravioli and, of course, the restaurant's namesake, fried octopus, was purchased and the new owners received permits to replace it with a mixed-use housing project. He will soon be relocating to a former restaurant space at 620 Santa Monica Blvd., next to the Santa Monica Main Library.
Kerr was contemplating retirement or moving the restaurant to a space further east on WIlshire Boulevard. He knew his regulars would always support him no matter where he went, but it was the occasional diner he was concerned about. He began surveying them and learned that roughly half of those eating there were tourists or people who either lived or worked in the neighborhood. Not wanting to disappoint them, and lose half his customer base, Kerr made the smart business decision to stay in downtown even though rents are higher.
He promises not to change prices, nor reduce portions, important principles that have contributed to Fritto's longevity. It was during his college days at Cal Poly Pomona that Kerr and his close friend, Chaz Gaddie, who originally founded Fritto in 1990 after buying out a former restaurant named Florentyna's, developed their four pillars of success — offer a great value to customers, be consistent (ingredients are weighed so you get the same experience ever visit), recognize customers as individuals and treat them well, and maintain quality control.
"It's never been about how much money we can squeeze out of it," said Kerr, who believes it's better to focus on the years ahead and not the next quarter's profits. The idea is to have people keep coming back, not stop in once, have an average experience and then never return.
(Fritto Misto owner Bob Kerr and his son pose in front of his decorative plates.)
Fritto plans to move to its new location after the holidays, with some special events planned to reward those who visit. He will ensure the new restaurant looks and feels just like its predecessor, including bringing in his hand-crafted decorative dishes that hang in the main dining room, his signature wine-crate tables he built, and the rotating art pieces from locals. The only significant difference will be the new location's bar, which has a full liquor license.
"We want to reassure people that it's the same old Fritto," he said. "You can still come in with flip-flops, but now you can have a margarita if you want."
Kerr's son plans to take over the business in the coming years, with the goal of sticking around for another 30 years.
"I like to say that we've reached cult status," Kerr said. "Places like The Pantry, Cole's, we've been around for so long that we've become part of the fabric of the city. When restaurants achieve that, if they don't do anything really stupid, they will continue to succeed. Well just keep doing it right."