Words & Photos by Nur Kausar

I’m convinced Jennifer Swiryn bleeds maple syrup. The 34-year-old former waitress, now co-owner of retro-inspired diner The Morning Fork, cannot stop showing her excitement about her restaurant dream coming true, even three months after opening.

“I know, I’m creepy!” Jennifer laughs loudly in between happy tears as she stops a passersby outside 1111 21st St. to invite them in while we talk. “She’s making me cry!”

A man rides by on his bicycle and waves.

“See, that’s another one of my regulars,” she says with pure happiness. She includes her “regulars” as the patrons she served for nearly a decade working at the former Lucky Cafe in the same location before the 55-year-old diner shut down in 2017. “There are these constant little energy exchanges. I get so overwhelmed everyday, I cry at least once every shift.”

Her infectious laugh, iconic red lipstick and bright eyes greet customers as she talks about how long she fantasized owning Lucky Cafe.

“It was kind of a creepy obsession,” she says. “My friends—I used to get made fun of by them. We tried years ago to take over but the owners of the building would have no part of it, so we moved on, like, OK we won’t get to own Lucky Cafe.”

The Swiryns looked for other locations to lease, applying for five in all, but they all fell through. Finally, husband and chef Keith Swiryn suggested Jennifer call about Lucky Cafe one more time. This time, it worked. The Swiryns opened the diner doors July 21, celebrating their son’s birthday and the summer solstice and honoring the passing of Jennifer’s grandmother.

Today, it feels like Morning Fork has always been a Sacramento staple—something Jennifer and Keith strive for—with customers cramming in to get a bite of their sage fried chicken with waffles and what Jennifer calls “hella good bacon and eggs.”

The Morning Fork has the ambiance a local diner should have. It’s a cross between a familiar greasy spoon for a hangover cure and eating a home-cooked meal in a close friend’s cozy kitchen. The Swiryns did their best to preserve the charm of the diner’s predecessor with a similar outdoor sign and colors, and the same bar and booth layout.

They added personal touches like picking leaves around town with their children and placing them on the bar to honor the Tree City, Jennifer says. A “fork wall” adorns the back of the long main dining area. Funky wallpaper next to artwork for sale by local artists in a second dining room gives the space a lived-in downtown feel.

The menu stays true to old school diner eating, but with culinary flair, Jennifer notes. Think edible flowers in a ginger beer brunch cocktail, pickled green apple and Gruyere on your tuna salad sandwich, and red and purple country potatoes.

Keith trained at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and has worked in kitchens around Sacramento for more than a decade. His menu, with everything made from scratch, packs in flavor in surprising ways. The sweet brioche French toast is balanced perfectly with savory salted maple butter. The hash browns are the right amount of crispy on the outside and topped with bacon. Want bacon cooked into your waffle? Go for it.

“We put our heart and soul into this,” says Jennifer.

They put in a lot more than that. The Swiryns successfully secured a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan, a rare and difficult feat for a new restaurant. They needed all the money they could get after seeing the poor condition of the space.

“It took us to a whole new level,” says Jennifer, recounting contractor difficulties and unforeseen repairs. “Keith and I had been saving our money for a long time. We got approved for an SBA loan and I was so proud. It was a very hard process.”

Despite getting the loan, additional repairs set the couple back more than they had planned.

“At the last minute, we had to ask our family and friends, and everybody came together and helped support our dream,” says Jennifer through tears. “The support we are getting from people in the community is just further proof of how special this whole project is. We had to put our house on the line, our cars, my wedding ring, we put every single thing on the line, but we know it’ll pay off.”

If the busy weekend brunch hours and steady stream of new regulars continue, The Morning Fork will hopefully continue to make the Swiryns dream of being a Sacramento staple come true.

YUMMY. To cater to early risers, and downtown and midtown workers, The Morning Fork (1111 21st St.) starts breakfast service at 7:30 a.m. daily and offers lunch salads and sandwiches Monday through Friday from 10 a.m.–2 p.m. To avoid Sunday brunch crowds, try heading in before work, or opting for the $11 early bird special of three sides and coffee or juice from 7:30–8:30 a.m. For more info, visit Themorningfork.com.

**This piece first appeared in print on pages 14 – 15 of issue #303 (Oct. 23 – Nov. 6, 2019)**

    Nur Kausar

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    Born in Pakistan. Raised in Las Vegas. Settled in Sacramento. Muslim American Feminist. Housing California staffer. Submerge Mag freelancer.