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Ithaca, NY – With its sleek look and clever take on greasy spoon grub, Jack’s Grill is shaking things up on the hill.
“In Collegetown, a far as American scratch cooking, the list is pretty short, people just don’t do it. We’re doing as much of it as we possibly can,” said owner Kevin Sullivan.
With the success of a similar aesthetic at Luna Inspired Street Food down on Stewart Ave., Jack’s adoption of scratch cooking and locally sourced ingredients is giving upper Collegetown dining a wake-up call.
Streamlining and shareables
Walking into the Dryden Road eatery, one of the first things diners will notice are the belly busting options seemingly custom built for hangry (or hungover) college students.
The Pacman burger comes with local pork belly, hoisin, sesame teriyaki slaw and chipotle aioli; the Mac Daddy is slathered in mac and cheese, pulled pork and bourbon barbecue sauce, while the Renegade Burger has a piece of chicken skin double battered and breaded, deep fried, on top of a burger ladled with tasso gravy.
“The flavor is out of this world, you’re not going to get it anywhere else, anywhere,” Sullivan said.
There are three types of mac n’ cheese, six varieties of fresh cut fries and seven kinds of milkshakes, plus ‘grown up’ grilled cheese, veggie burgers, cheese steaks, and an all day breakfast menu.
However, the shareables section and increased local fare is where the revamped menu really shines.
All of the beef and chicken Jack’s uses is ‘all natural’, but an additional $2 will get you humanely raised, antibiotic-free meats from local and regional small family farms.
The beef is grass fed and grain-finished from Schrader Farms, and all of the chicken is from Murray’s.
“It costs a little more for us but it allows us to keep our burgers priced competitively and it allows the local option. We have a lot of people jumping on it; it’s a different flavor,” Sullivan said.
As the name suggests, the shareable are smaller items designed for a few friends, but that doesn’t mean they’re not as delightfully sinful as the pumped-up mains. (To try a few at a time, head for Jack’s Pub happy hour from 4 – 8 p.m. for half-priced shareables daily.)
For this part of the menu, Sullivan put on his thinking cap, and also communed with his fryer, for dishes like chicken and waffles, beer battered onion rings, and deep-fried dill pickles.
The steamer sliders are snack-size beef patties steamed with onions, with the cheese melted over to form crispy edges. The pork belly deviled eggs are actually pieces of grilled pork belly with devilled egg mixed piped right on top.
The real tour de force, in our opinion, is the waffle iron fried cheese: an unholy melty daydream.
“We actually take fresh Grande mozzarella, batter it and bread it with panko on the outside and then actually fry it in a waffle iron,” said Sullivan. “It comes out and it’s a giant waffle shaped mozzarella stick. It’s ridiculous.”
The other thing diners will notice are the new digital ordering kiosks.
“Part of our big goal was to really streamline things,” Sullivan said. “We still have somebody on counter, but you don’t have to wait in line for five minutes. You don’t have to deal with the misinterpretation of ‘no lettuce’ when you’re speaking to someone.”
The kiosks are meant to do a lot of things, Sullivan said. Part of his goal was to eliminate what he considers ‘wasted labor’.
“We’ve combined our expediting station with our counter station so now that person is a highly skilled member of the team — checking orders for accuracy, making sure that the food is coming out right, in fact a lot of the time it’s the manager who’s doing it.”
This allows Jack’s to shift the balance of labor cost in favor of the back of house kitchen staff, who more often than not in the industry, are overworked and underpaid.
“That’s what we need, a better pay right for them and just good quality staff,” said Sullivan.
Jack’s first opened in August 2008, at the cusp of the ‘better burger’ movement, typified by the likes of Five Guys and Shake Shack.
“The trend has kind of leveled, become saturated,” Sullivan said. “People want something kind of different from just a better burger on a bun, they want something more innovative. We’re going to try and fill that desire.”
Sullivan and his business partners opened Jack’s Pub, the sports bar next door, in 2012. But as the only fast casual American restaurant in Collegetown, Jack’s was becoming pigeonholed.
Taking a cue from its sister restaurant Luna, Jack’s remodeled in 2015 with an industrial look replete with galvanized roofing and exposed ceiling and high-top tables.
This summer, Sullivan became the sole owner, and decided to take a sledgehammer to the menu as well.
“For the first time ever we’re really doing scratch cooking here; we’ve never really done that before, not here. I’ve decided to do that after the project with Luna and all the success we had down there, just kind of stepping up our game,” said Sullivan.
“We brought those same values and concept here.”