Ireland natives John and Josephine Phelan found comfort in the Famous Amos menu.
The mashed potatoes were familiar. So were the fresh vegetables, baked chicken, pot roast, fried fish and beef stew.
Then there were the chicken gizzards and grits. “We didn’t hear about grits until we got here,” said John Phelan.
Yet the restaurateurs by trade realized their familiarity with most of the popular menu items at Jacksonville-based Famous Amos restaurants made their acquisition of the company in 2009 a logical step.
“People love them,” Josephine Phelan said of the home-cooked country-food restaurants.
Of course, the gizzards and grits remain strongholds on the menu.
Famous Amos was founded in 1967, led by Edna Moise, and had grown to 10 area restaurants at the peak.
The Phelans had moved to New York and then back to Ireland, where they operated the high-end, historic The Reginald Bar, Restaurant and Night Club in Waterford, which they sold in 2007 for a record price for the area.
Having vacationed in Florida, they decided when they returned to the U.S. to choose “a better climate.” They settled on Jacksonville because they sought a market “where people live 12 months a year” rather than an area with a stronger reliance on tourists or second-home owners. They have two sons, ages 23 and 21.
John Phelan said they found that Famous Amos was for sale and, while it was in decline, had a strong and loyal customer base.
The Phelans bought the six restaurants still operating and set about renovating and upgrading them, investing an estimated $2 million in five of them. The Cesery Boulevard location in Arlington is next for remodeling.
They upgraded the properties with new booths, interior walls, new air conditioning, equipment and ADA-compliant bathrooms. One needed a new parking lot.
On Wednesday, the Phelans opened the city’s first new Famous Amos in what they believe is at least 20 years.
They didn’t advertise the opening, but business was steady all day at the 11565 N. Main St. location near Cedar Bay. Word spread because customers had been checking progress with the construction crew.
The Phelans had been looking for a free-standing restaurant site, like the others, but became aware of the shopping-center location.
“We were looking for a while and putting it off because of the economy,” John Phelan said. Yet, the Cedar Bay space, a former barbecue restaurant, made sense because it gave Famous Amos a North Jacksonville presence.
It’s at Eastport Road, near the Anheuser-Busch and Bacardi plants and convenient to some residential communities.
It also has a smoker from its barbecue days, which they intend to fire up.
They invested about $400,000 into renovations, adding brighter wood and accents than the darker tones in the other Famous Amos restaurants. Josephine Phelan describes it as “more trendy, country cozy.”
It seats 138 customers. Of the 4,200 square feet of space, half is for the kitchen, which turns out the extensive menu of salads, vegetables, chicken, fish, pork chops, steak, liver, burgers, sandwiches, desserts and breakfast.
There’s a regular menu and daily specials, including 27 sides of vegetables, fruits and starches.
Specials include items such as a Reuben sandwich, ham and red beans, country-fried steak, chicken and dumplings, grilled tilapia, spaghetti and meat sauce – and fried chicken gizzards. Specials generally range from about $6 to $10.
The restaurants are open 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Breakfast is served all day.
Famous Amos employs about 190 people, including 30 at the new location.
Of the other six restaurants they bought, the Phelans own five of the site locations and lease the Normandy space. The six are at 3911 University Blvd. W.; 6315 San Juan Ave.; 10339 San Jose Blvd.; 8265 Normandy Blvd.; 1111 Cesery Blvd.; and 342 Blanding Blvd. in Orange Park. The corporate office and catering department are at 9310 Old Kings Road S.
They would like to expand Famous Amos to 10 locations, perhaps adding one in St. Augustine and elsewhere in Southside.
They’re also expanding the menu.
The Phelans said they haven’t removed items from the menu, because they’re all popular, but they’ve added at least one. Corned beef and cabbage.