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The famous chicken that adorns the roof of Slavko’s. Click to enlarge. (photo: John Mattera Photography)

What came first, the chicken nuggets or the potato nuggets? Unlike the age-old riddle, there’s no debate here. “We started selling the potato nuggets before the chicken nuggets,” says Jim Frlekin, owner of Slavko’s Harbor Poultry, which celebrated its 100th anniversary early last year. “We had French fried potatoes, but people would tell us, we hate your potatoes.” So Jim and his father Slavko, who owned the business at the time, pivoted. “My dad said, go down to San Pedro Produce on Channel Street and bring me a sack of potatoes, and he came up with the recipe. He was really an excellent cook.” 

Though Slavko has since passed, Jim and his son Brian carry on his inventive spirit, with Jim citing it as one of many reasons that has allowed the restaurant to thrive for over a century. But, he explains, it’s not the sole ingredient to success. “The secret in small business is to know your customer,” he says. “Treat him or her right, and they’ll help you succeed. It’s that simple.” Jim has relived the truth in that statement many times over. His best-selling menu item, the chicken nuggets, were born out of a favor to a customer in the early 2000s. “Robert Santich came in and asked if we could do a party for him with boneless chicken,” he recalls. “I said, ‘man, it’s going to be a lot more work,’ but we did it, and he reordered two weeks later.” 

Slavko’s circa 1989. (photo courtesy Frlekin family)

Slavko’s, which began in 1922 as Harbor Poultry, has seen its menu change countless times over the years. The business started as a poultry butcher and was founded by Jim’s father and uncle, both immigrants from Prvić, Croatia, the latter of whom had experience in the poultry industry. During these early days, San Pedrans could drop by for a fresh chicken, duck, or turkey and grab some barbecued chicken while they waited for their bird to be butchered and cleaned. It was in this context that Jim — who began working in the restaurant as a young boy — learned the ins and outs of the business, and he recalls an early customer service lesson from childhood. “Two ladies came in saying ‘Hey, your chickens aren’t really fresh,’” he explains. “So I went and got a chicken out of the cage, and I put it on the scale, and I said, ‘Is that fresh enough for you?’ And they bought it.” 

The family business has of course had its fair share of challenges throughout the years, the first being in the 1950s when they were forced to move from their original location to 1211 S. Pacific Avenue. The change spurred them to stop butchering poultry, and they transitioned to selling already-cleaned birds. They also decided to revamp their menu to adapt to shifting consumer habits — the rise of multi-earner families caused take-out food to proliferate, and the boom of supermarkets meant that their main product could be found cheaper elsewhere. They began selling bone-in fried chicken and later introduced the potato nuggets, a period that again influenced Jim’s philosophy. “A lot of the things that I’ve learned in my business is that it’s an ongoing experiment,” he says. “You’re learning as you go along, you’re taking risks, and having fun with the people around you as you see how life unfolds.”

The Slavko’s family today (l to r): Bobby Hernandez, Brian Frlekin (seated), Sam Rosen, Veronica Ponce, Barry O’Brien, Jim Frlekin (seated), and Michelle O’Brien (Jim’s daughter). (photo courtesy Frlekin family)

Perhaps one of the most vivid challenges Slavko’s faced was in the 1960s, when a fire forced them to change locations yet again to their current location at 1224 S. Pacific Avenue. If it weren’t for the kindness of a customer — and a stroke of luck — the restaurant may have ended there. “Joe Mazza, who was a realtor for Atchison Realty, came into the store,” Jim recalls. “He was a customer, and he had a listing for the property across the street.” With Joe’s help, they purchased the building where their business stands today, which in Jim’s words meant “they could never get kicked out again.” Little did they know that the decision would allow them to weather one of the largest challenges in their history: the COVID-19 pandemic. “We didn’t have a big rental payment to make,” says Jim. “We were lucky.”

Slavko’s circa 1975 with (l to r) Jim, his brother Rey, father Slavko, and first cousin Rick Welle. (photo courtesy Frlekin family)

Soon after the purchase, Jim’s father retired and officially passed him and his brother Ray the reins, and a franchise approached the pair with an offer. “A local guy contacted Kentucky Fried Chicken, and they wanted me to go and show them how we prepared our chicken,” says Jim. “But I wanted to keep our business here. I’m not in this to make money — I’m in it because I like it.” The move paid off, albeit unexpectedly. “Years back, I talked to a fellow that came in that worked for Kentucky Fried Chicken,” he explains. “I told him, ‘What was the biggest order you ever had?’ He said, ‘We had 3,000 pieces.’ And I said, ‘Well we’re not a national company, but we did 18,000 pieces of chicken twice. So, what do you think about that?’”

Despite the nuggets’ success, it’d be doing Slavko’s a disservice to ignore the rest of their menu. The unique collection of dishes — all of which are family recipes — were thoughtfully curated by Jim, Brian, and the late Slavko, and they range from local classics, such as mostaccioli, to forgotten favorites like creamy Jell-O. True to their Slavic heritage, they also serve ćevapčići, making them one of the last restaurants in town to serve Croatian food. Longtime patrons may have even noticed a recent menu addition — lobster — which is caught by Brian and sold the same day it’s fished. With so many family recipes, it’s no wonder Jim struggles to pick a favorite. “A lot of people ask, what’s your favorite? But it’s all good. I try a little bit of everything.”

Slavko (right) with a customer circa mid-1970s. (photo courtesy Frlekin family)

Having landed on a surefire recipe for success, it’d be easy to assume that Jim and Brian’s future plans strictly include business as usual. Instead, they intend to keep experimenting while keeping on. “This January, my son and I are going to go and apply for a license so you can have a beer in the restaurant,” says Jim, “and other than that, just keep selling the products like we’re doing.” 

It’s not hard to see why — when asked about what has made Slavko’s successful after so many years, Jim believes it all comes down to the basics. “Number one, you’ve got to have a good product, and don’t worry about the complications of it,” he says. “Treat people right, give them good food, and give them good service. It’s going to be a little bit of work, but don’t worry about that.” 

Is it really that simple? He has a suggestion for any skeptics. “Come on and see me sometime. You’ll enjoy the food, and the people here will like you.” spt

Slavko’s Harbor Poultry is located at 1224 S. Pacific Ave. For more info, call (310) 832-8171.  

Nadia Nizetich