Gary Sleppy has an enthusiastic personality and wears an expression that makes it seem that he’s just heard something clever. Discuss beer with the owner of The Shack, and his energy level swells.
A fine-dining trained chef, Sleppy for the past 13 years has been transforming the old-school, rustic East Sacramento landmark on Folsom Boulevard. The Shack’s been around for 88 years, enduring good and bad owners; it’s flourished as a working museum of Sacramento-restaurant history and it’s floundered in various stages of disrepair.
For years, enormous turkeys were displayed on rotisseries, and were favored by locals who didn’t much care about the grungy kitchen that served exactly what you might expect from a drive-up-only diner in need of a makeover. As long as the meat was juicy, the fries crisp and the beer cold, the formerly named Sub Shack was just fine.
The Shack has retained its character, but Sleppy expanded its appeal way back at the dawn of the craft beer era. Comfort food—a patty melt, Reuben sandwich or rich, hot chili, best served with cheese and onions and a side of sour cream—still rules. And while they might be well complemented with, say, a pint of Pabst Blue Ribbon, Sleppy offers more.
He may suggest pairing your entree with a Belgian wheat such as Chimay Red (nicely priced at $7) or a Westmalle Tripel ($8.50), or a German lager such as Weihenstephaner ($4.50) or Erdinger Dunkel ($6). Or something he’s recently added to The Shack’s vast and varied selections from around the globe.
“The first time I had really spicy chili with a good West Coast IPA, it was like a light went off,” says Sleppy, who talks about beer the way a sommelier talks wine. “It was like, ’Thank you.’ It made the chili taste better. It made the beer taste like beer. It took the hops out of the beer and the spiciness out of the chili.”
Sleppy and his brother grew up in Sacramento and were Shack patrons. He hesitated when he discovered the joint was for sale. It wasn’t what he’d envisioned in his restaurant-ownership business plan.
“The Shack was a wreck and had fallen into disrepair,” he says. “By the time me and my wife got married, she had heard me talking about a restaurant for so long. She finally said, ’Why don’t you just go ahead and get it out of your system and quit talking about it.’”
Under his ownership, some of The Shack’s history has been removed, including the pot-bellied stove and photos of 1950s East Sac. But Sleppy hasn’t forgotten. He has plans to have a revolving video of the past featured on a television monitor above the front door.
It will be a marriage of old and new. The Shack still makes a mean turkey sandwich, and it also offers a nice, nutty veggie burger. With equal care, The Shack makes dog biscuits to encourage canine visitors. It has live music almost every Saturday afternoon. And its draught, bottled and canned beer selection is unsurpassed.
“We’ve been doing craft beer for 13 years and my personal position was to always be an ambassador,” Sleppy says. “It’s almost like a family. I feel like we are partners with our distributors to get the word out. I always consider us like a tasting room.”