The bright yellow sign in front of Happy Jack’s bills it as a biscuits-and-gravy joint, but this description doesn’t tell the whole story. While there are definitely both biscuits and gravy worth bragging about at the Tunnel Road breakfast-only restaurant, it seems likely that owner Kevin Lee lavishes just as much attention on Happy Jack’s other offerings.
With its simple, well-thought-out menu; reasonable prices and friendly, unpretentious atmosphere, Happy Jack’s, which opened quietly this summer, aims to make itself at home alongside some of the area’s other classic breakfast spots, like The Mediterranean (a.k.a. The Med) downtown and Kosta’s Kitchen in Fletcher.
Lee admits he doesn’t take breakfast lightly. “I’m pretty serious about most things I do. I guess I’m a little intense,” he says with a grin. Having just swooped in with several hot plates of food balanced deftly on his forearms and briskly delivered them to a nearby table of diners, he has paused briefly in his cheerful, efficient orbit of the restaurant to talk about his new venture, which apparently got off to a bit of a rough start.
“We opened on July 2, then closed on July 3 because the motor on the exhaust fan went out. So I took the motor out … drove to Greensboro to pick up another, I put it in, and we reopened on the Fourth,” he says.
Bumpy launch notwithstanding, Lee says business is growing steadily, and he estimates that 70 percent of his clientele is made up of repeat customers. “People come in and try it, and they get the wow factor, the OMG. They’re happy that they tried it,” he says.
Lee is no stranger to food service — after moving to Asheville in 1983, he spent 13 years working third shift with Waffle House, both behind the grill and as a server, a few more years with Huddle House, then another 13 years as a server at the Biltmore Estate’s Stable Café. And as a hash-slinging veteran, he is canny about his restaurant’s menu and service. His goal, he says, is to serve high-quality, locally sourced breakfasts — with that “wow factor” — at an affordable price.
The menu, Lee says, is intentionally trim and straightforward, featuring eight main items including the biscuits and Hickory Nut Gap Farms sausage gravy, plus flapjacks, eggs, home fries, four different omelets and a good variety of sides. In addition to the sausage, the free-range eggs are sourced in Asheville, and the cheese is Amish white cheddar from the Troyer Cheese Co. in Ohio. Everything is made fresh daily.
There is a selection of hot teas and other drinks, but the coffee is a point of pride with Lee. “It’s the best that I’ve had here in the States — a blend of Sumatran Mandheling with Colombian Supreme,” he says.
Prices run from $5.75 for various breakfast combos to $10.75 for the fully loaded Happy Jack omelet with home fries and a choice of biscuit and gravy or two flapjacks. The servings are generous, and Lee is fine with doing substitutions so customers can have just what they want.
Although it’s housed in a former Pizza Hut, Happy Jack’s has a comfortable, homey feel, which probably stems from the fact that it’s a family affair. Lee’s wife, Betty, originally from Ecuador, is the hostess and cashier. She also makes the vibrant salsa that accompanies Happy Jack’s open-faced omelets. Daughter Laura Thorpe puts her 15 years of serving experience to good use front-of-house, while the youngest son, Mike Lee, works the grill.
The dining room at Happy Jack’s is modest but clean and welcoming, with décor consisting only of a few colorful paintings from Ecuador and hundreds of neatly displayed photos that chronicle Lee’s other passion: a charity called Kevi Bear’s Kids, which provides soccer balls and Barbie dolls to impoverished children in Ecuador.
Lee, who grew up in poverty in New Jersey, says he started the charity seven years ago with his wife and her family as a way to give children in need something joyful to focus on. “When I was a kid growing up, if I was playing a game I would forget about how hungry I was. So I thought if I gave a kid a soccer ball, it might have the same effect. It’s fighting hunger, but doing it through a soccer ball or a Barbie doll,” says Lee.
Happy Jack’s is tucked behind Applebee’s by Innsbruck Mall on Tunnel Road. Hours are 6 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday and 6 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. 252-7989 or Facebook.com/HappyJacksAsheville
For details on Kevi Bear’s Kids, search for “Kevi Bear’s Kids” on Facebook.