The Secret to Original Joe's—and Now Elena's— Remarkable Success
While so many other big names are closing restaurants, the family behind Original Joe's, Little Original Joe's, and Elena's is thriving (Isabella M. Funcke).

The Secret to Original Joe's—and Now Elena's— Remarkable Success


It’s no secret that San Francisco doesn’t exactly make opening, running, and actually staying afloat in the restaurant industry easy.

In just the last two months, some of the city’s most illustrious chefs—Michael Mina, Dominique Crenn, Anya El-Wattar—have announced the closure of restaurants with Michelin and James Beard cred.

But even as so many celebrated spots are succumbing to the carnage of the culinary battlefield, one beloved Bay Area brand isn’t just hanging on for dear life, it's thriving.

With the arrival of Little Original Joe’s in the Marina next month, and a slated 2025 opening for a new full-scale Original Joe’s in Walnut Creek, the family behind the growing empire has tapped into an multigenerational zeitgeist that keeps on giving.

Original Joe's in North Beach.(Eric Wolfinger)

“We try to serve more than food,” says John Duggan who, with his sister Elena, is the family’s third-generation to run Original Joe’s. “We serve comfort and warmth and dependability.”

“Many life events happen within the walls of our restaurants, good, bad, and ugly,” Elena chimes in. “We have legions of regulars that have been coming to us for generations. You know that old Cheers saying ‘sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name?’ We try to be that place for as many people as possible.”

But it's not just Original Joe’s in which the community has placed its confidence—it’s the Duggan family. Last February, when the siblings took the risk of changing lanes to open a Mexican concept called Elena’s, the restaurant was an instant success. That it’s located in West Portal, a neighborhood rarely considered a dining destination, made its explosive entry to the SF restaurant scene even more remarkable.

Born, raised, and still residing less than a mile from Elena’s and its older sibling Little Original Joe’s, although the Duggans knew the neighborhood held promise, the new restaurant’s success has been a pleasant surprise. “We just believe so much in the south side of town,” says John. “We felt strongly that if we did our job right, it would resonate with people.”

A selection from Elena's Mexican menu. (Isabella M. Funcke)

And resonate it has. Since opening, Elena’s has been buzzing seven days a week with hungry guests diving into platters of Dungeness crab enchiladas, crispy beef tacos, and house-made pork tamales. With prices that range from $16 for grilled shrimp tacos and burritos mojados to higher-ticket items like whole grilled branzino and a 16-ounce grilled ribeye steak—plus, a range of shareables like chile con queso, chicken tinga empanadas, and ahi tostadas—the menu is accessible to nearly everyone. The margaritas don’t hurt either.

“It’s similar to Joe’s this way,” says Elena. “You can come in on a date night, you can come in with family, you can come by yourself and sit at the bar. You walk through those doors and you can be yourself.”

That sense of comfort, value, and warm hospitality is second only to the Duggan family’s passion for the brand. While John and Elena have been running Original Joe’s for the last 12 years, at 82 years old their father John Sr. still goes to work daily and mom, Marie, whose father started Original Joe’s back in 1937, is always in the decision-making loop.

“This was my grandfather’s life’s work, this was my mom’s life’s work, and Elena and I, it’s our life’s work,” says John. “We love what we do. We love who we do it with. And I really think that is Original Joe’s secret sauce.”

“Comfort-driven food is timeless,” he continues, whether it's pizza and chicken parm or enchiladas. “We’re not going after one type of customer, we go after everyone. I think that’s important for the vitality of a restaurant over the long term. As complicated as the restaurant business is, it’s a beautiful thing to be a part of. We’re just trying to exceed those expectations every single day.”

// Elena’s, 255 West Portal Ave, (West Portal), Original Joe’s, 601 Union St. (North Beach) & 11 Glenwood Ave. (Daly City), Little Original Joe’s, 393 West Portal Ave. (West Portal) & 2301 Chestnut St. (Marina—coming soon),

The family behind Original Joe's and Elena's. From L to R: Marie , John Sr., John Jr., and Elena Duggan.(Eric Wolfinger)

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