Yacovelli's Restaurant Closing After 95 Years
After 95 years in business, thousands of customers, and hundreds of employees, the well-known Yacovelli's Restaurant in Florissant will close its doors Jan. 1.
The Italian restaurant and banquet center has been in the Yacovelli family since 1919. But owners Jack and Jan Yacovelli decided in September that it was time to close the iconic eatery.
"We’re tired, we want to have more time," Jan said. "We both have our health. It’s time to enjoy life. We’ve worked really hard our whole life."
Indeed, the couple has owned the family business for 37 years, expanding the building to seat 500 people in the banquet center and 175 more in the dining room and bar.
Over the years, they’ve built a loyal following that doesn’t seem quite ready to let such a St. Louis area dining institution go.
"People for the last three months have been saying, 'This is the last time,' and all of a sudden, I'm seeing them again," Jack Yacovelli said, laughing. "I've seen people for the last time, probably four times already."
Since they announced the closing, the restaurant has been “slammed” with at least triple the business, Jan said. Waiting lists and long lines now require five hosts at the door. Jack said the response is “beyond my wildest imagination.”
"I thought people would be kind of sad about it, and my business might go up a little bit with people wanting to come up for the last time, but I never in a million years thought it would be like it has been the last three months," he said.
Perhaps what’s made people love the restaurant all these years is its “Cheers”-like environment, Jan said.
"It’s not like a chain that you go in," Jan Yacovelli said. "We know their names, their families. Everybody gets a hug. We want people to feel special. We’re loving people and giving people. People who come in for first time, they can feel it."
Now, regular customers and former employees are coming in for one last meal at Yac’s. That includes a pair of brothers who worked as bus boys and servers in the '70s; the granddaughter of a former chef who took his photo off the restaurant’s wall; and the three daughters of a 40-year patron who came in for dinner the other night to reminisce.
Perhaps the most moving was an email Jack received from another former busboy, who is now a chef in Texas.
"I got an email that said that working here gave him his future, and he thanked us," Jack said, choking up. "I don’t know…I just never really thought until now…I guess that we really touched people’s lives. I mean, they touched our lives always, but I guess we touched theirs, too."
For Mark Matter of Florissant, the restaurant has played an important role in his family. His parents have been customers for years, because of its “excellent food and excellent service,” and the family’s had several big events, including a wedding reception, there.
That’s why he stopped by recently to make one last reservation.
"It was a priority of my mom and dad; they wanted to get here before they closed up," he said. "We hate to see this place being gone."
That same day, Yacovelli's was busy hosting a birthday party-turned-funeral luncheon after the guest of honor passed away. Jack had offered the family their money back, but they wanted to celebrate their patriarch at his favorite restaurant.
"The family has done everything here over the last 30 years," Jack said. "They wanted the same menu they were having because he picked it out."
Jack gets choked up as he talks about all of the customers who have celebrated their weddings, birthdays and other milestones at his place.
"It's things like that that just are very hard," he said. "I never really thought it would be such a emotional time, you know, for us and for our customers and friends.”
He adds it’s been hard on Jan as well.
"My wife cries all the way home every night, just because there's memories that you maybe haven't thought of in a while, and all of a sudden, somebody comes in and you reminisce and it's so sad. It's happy but sad," he said.
“It’s been overwhelming,” Jan said. “I don't think we've ever felt so loved."
A family history
Founded by Jack’s grandfather John Yacovelli, the restaurant has always been a family business, maintaining the name even as it switched locations.
At 16, John Yacovelli came from Italy to the United States where Jack’s great-grandfather had already found work as a lamplighter in Clayton. By 18, John was working as a server at the restaurant of a man called the “Count.”
One day, the Count couldn't afford an olive oil order coming in, so Yacovelli's grandfather loaned him the money for a percentage of the restaurant. Eventually, he took over the Count's restaurant, sold it and opened his namesake restaurant in 1919. That building is now owned by St. Louis University located where Cardina; Glennon Hospital sits now at the corner of Grand and Park.
"They knew a lot of doctors and during final times, Grandma and Grandpa would keep restaurant open all night, and have coffee and feed them," Jack said.
John’s other half was grandmother Filomena, who Jack called “a worker, all the way up to the very end." Though she lived in a nearby nursing home for the last eight years of her life, she was often found visiting with regulars and made fresh ravioli weekly, even three days before she died at 95.
Eventually, John retired and Jack's father opened his own Yacovelli's location in Kirkwood. He would later move the restaurant to Florissant in 1965. Jack’s brother and two sisters were raised in the restaurant business, but it was Jack who came to love the kitchen.
"I started working in the kitchen when I was about 9 years old, (standing) on a milk crate, and I’ve been here ever since," Jack said. "It’s just hard to imagine I'm not going to come in."
But Jack owes the restaurant more than just his career; it’s also how he met his future wife.
Jan was in ninth grade when a friend who worked at the restaurant first told her about his boss, Jack. She assumed he was a grown man, and thought it was strange when the friend invited Jack along to go swimming one day. But once she met the teenaged Jack, the sparks flew.
"We went on our first date on my 16th birthday, and we've been dating ever since," she said.
The couple, who will be married 44 years in July, took over the restaurant from Jack’s father in 1977.
"Jan and I were very lucky," he said. "We worked side-by-side forever. In this kind of business, you need that or it wouldn’t last."
And they’ve kept Yacovelli’s a family affair. All of their children and many of their grandchildren have worked at the restaurant at some point in their lives, and son Joe has been manager for 10 years. In the last three months, even more of the grandkids have come in to make ravioli, bus tables and work the front door. Recently, one granddaughter lamented that the youngest grandchildren will never know the restaurant.
Jan said she doesn’t want people to blame her son for not taking over the business. Jan said working in the restaurant is hard for Joe, as his wife is a teacher with an opposite schedule. With a new 5-week-old baby, Jan said it’s time for her son to use the finance and business degree he got from SLU and to pursue a career in IT.
"He is going to try his hand at something else, but he would not put his applications in until Jan. 1," Jack added, tearing up. "He would not leave us."
Nor would many of the restaurant's longtime employees leave before the restaurant officially closes. Two employees who have worked at the restaurant for more than 30 years will retire, and many other employees, some who have been with the restaurant for 10 or 20 years, have found jobs elsewhere. But they will be on hand until the last day.
"When we announced this...to our employees, I told all of them go out and find a job. Don’t give me notice, you take care of yourself. Not one, not one employee left. They all want to be here to the end," he said. "This was beyond my wildest dreams."
Ready to retire
But while it is “bittersweet” to say good-bye, Jack said the couple is ready to retire. With five children and 10 grandchildren all in the St. Louis area, Jack and Jan said they are looking forward to having their weekends and nights free to spend time with family.
"We've missed so much," Jack said. "My grandson plays select baseball, I've only been to one game. My granddaughters play select soccer, and I've seen just two games. We're looking forward to it."
And the couple has gotten the blessing of Jack’s 91-year-old father, who once ran the restaurant.
"I have been in the restaurant business longer than my grandfather was and my father -- that’s why my dad said he knows we’re not going to miss the long hours, the weekends, the holidays," Jack said. "We’re going to miss the people."
After the official closing, Jan and Jack have only a few set plans, including a yoga class, a family birthday party and a possible weekend trip to Memphis. Jack is most excited to continue working as an usher at St. Louis Cardinals baseball games.
As for Jan, she plans to make a book about the restaurant and its history "just so she can show our grandchildren when they grow up," Jack said. Jan said she is collecting stories from former employees and will explain the origins of the names of some of the restaurant’s staple dishes. For example, Shrimp Pontchartrain is Jack’s dad’s approximation of a dish Jack’s parents had at on Lake Pontchartrain on their New Orleans honeymoon.
The couple also plans to get together with regular customers, only at a different restaurant.
"I can’t imagine not seeing some of these people I've seen twice a week for 30, 40 years," he said.
As for the restaurant itself, the building is for sale, and Jack hopes someone who wants to open their own restaurant will buy it. But if it doesn't sell, Jack said the furniture and fixtures will be auctioned in the spring.
But before all of that, the Yacovelli's are throwing a "Last Dance, Last Chance" party on Dec. 26 to celebrate their nine-plus decades in business. The ticket-only event will include a special menu featuring the restaurant’s signature Prime Rib buffet, specialty desserts, and a DJ. Special memorabilia will be given away. Jack said so far, 300 people, many former employees, are attending.
Jack said he intends on having fun during the last hurrah party. But he expects tears will flow on the last night in business.
"Dec. 31, it's going to be like a funeral home,” Jan said.
But she said it’s been wonderful to see how the restaurant has touched so many hearts.
"All I hope, when I close the doors and lock the doors, is that we touched people’s lives, and I think we did," she said.