For most people, the familiar is ideal. You pick a path in college or your early 20s and stick with it. But Fran Scibelli’s preferred type of comfort is of the food variety, served in the form of meatballs and other classic dishes found at her restaurant, Fran’s Filling Station. But as far as career ventures go? Fran mixes it up. She spent a portion of her career as an attorney in Washington, D.C., before deciding to pursue her passion for all things culinary as she moved to Charlotte and founded Metropolitan Café and Metropolitan Bakery. In 2000 she sold the restaurant, which became Barrington’s, and she reinvented herself again when she became a consultant to Dean & Deluca in Napa Valley. Eventually, Fran returned to the Queen City to open Fran’s Filling Station, her namesake venture. Here’s how the attorney-turned-restaurateur thrives in Charlotte’s evolving restaurant scene and aims to provide sustenance for more than just your rumbling stomach.
Fran Scibelli, of Fran’s Filling Station: FACES of Charlotte
How do your customers react when they find out they just met THE Fran of Fran’s Filling Station?
I had a guy here last night who was like, “Shut the front door!” He seemed more excited than it warranted, but it’s always super flattering when people are like, “Are you Fran? There’s a real Fran?” I think it’s nice that there’s a story to my business. It seems to make it fun for my customers.
Fran’s isn’t your first foray into the restaurant world. What was your vision this time around?
I put a lot of thought into the name. It really meant that I wanted people to feel sustained. For it to fill their spirit as well as their stomach, and that name just came to me. I liked the alliteration. I wanted it to feel like more than a stopping place to get a bite.
Though you’ve got plenty of restaurant experience now, what was it like when you first left the legal profession?
I, like a lot of people, was a lawyer who loved food. I became a young member of the social committee planning parties and menus. As much as I liked practicing law, and I really did, I just thought, “Oh, I love this more.” And at the same time my brother and a really good friend of mine in Washington left their jobs to start food businesses. That helped me say, “I can do this.”
Was the learning curve steep?
No, shockingly. As opposed to the bakery where I felt like it was steeper, it was very intuitive to me.
How has the Charlotte food scene evolved since you opened your original restaurant?
It’s so, so different. It was easy for me to be successful at Metropolitan Café because it was total word of mouth. People had a good meal, and they told a friend, and they told their friend. There was nothing like social media then. Now there are a lot of restaurants, and it’s certainly harder to seem special, but I just put my head down and keep doing what I’ve been doing for a really long time.
What’s the most popular menu item at Fran’s?
Bacon-wrapped tater tots or the meatballs.
What’s your day-to-day like?
I’m a little less hands-on than I used to be, but I definitely come in every day. If I have someone good in the kitchen and someone I trust, which I usually do, I’m saying, “What’s the soup? What do you want to do for the feature?” Then I’ll guide it in a direction that I think will be good. I do a lot of the ordering. I do a lot of quality control in the front. Is my guest getting the experience I want them to have? Is the food coming out hot, fresh, timely? I take catering calls and do event planning and all those good things.
When you’re not at the restaurant, where can we find you?
At my house. Or you can also find me at Barnes and Noble in South Park. I’m a voracious reader and always have been. There’s nothing I like more than a cup of coffee and getting into a really good book.
What’s one thing you wish you’d known before starting a business?
Everyone in America should be a small business owner because they would see what it’s like. It’s hard to manage people. You want to be an empathic leader, but you’re the one who sets the standards and the hours and what’s acceptable and what’s not. I think I was automatically a good employee, but I wish I had known a little bit about what it was like to be a manager early on. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve mellowed and it’s good for me. They say lawyers are notoriously bad managers … I don’t know. I think we want to take a vote and get consensus, but with a business you really can’t do that.
What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever received?
A Southern gentlemen once said to me, “Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.” That was a really great lesson. It was like, “Be reasonably priced.” I’ve been looking at menus lately, and I’m amazed at how much people are asking. I want to have a place that’s considered a good value, and I think the key to being a successful person for a long time is setting a fair price, trying to make a decent amount of money, but not trying to get rich off your customers. That’s how people are going to feel that they can afford to come back one or two times a week.
What other restaurants do you love to visit?
Saigon Palace because I like Vietnamese food, and that’s where I’ve found the best experience. They’ve got great owners. Custom Shop if I want a cheese plate and wine. I love Mama Ricotta’s — that’s my brother’s restaurant. I think it’s delicious Italian. I’ve enjoyed Haberdish and Kindred. I love Sabor.
If you were hosting a dinner party, what would you make for your guests?
I think that’s a function of who they are and what they like. I like to make beef bourguignon. I also like to make roast chicken. People really love the crab cakes, so I would consider making that as a first course.
What’s one dish everyone should be able to cook for themselves?
Roast chicken. People make a big deal out of it, like they don’t know how to do it, but it’s easy. Slap it in a pan. Put butter, salt, pepper and herbs on it, and put it in the oven. I like a canvas like that because you can make it taste however you want it to taste.
What should you do if you want to get better at cooking?
I love the books of Laurie Colwin. She was a writer for Gourmet magazine years ago, and she was also a novelist. Tragically, she died when she was in her 50s, but when I was in my teens I would read her articles and it was like, “How easy is this?” It really made food very accessible for me, and you weren’t afraid to try anything. I would definitely read anything Laurie Colwin that you can get your hands on.
What are three things you can’t live without besides faith, family and friends?
French fries, since I’m looking at them and they’re absolutely delicious. Books for sure. And I really, really love my customers. I get a lot from them. As much as I give, I certainly get that back. I feel sustained and really happy when I’m around them.
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