There was a time when Kelly’s Roast Beef in Revere sold more Coca-Cola than any restaurant in the world.
Kelly’s Roast Beef never closed for the Blizzard of 2013 last month, or for the famous Blizzard of 1978; instead loyal Kelly’s employees lodged themselves at the Revere Beach restaurant, and fed grateful plow-drivers, emergency crews, and newscasters.
Hockey Hall of Famer Ray Bourque always orders two hotdogs with mustard and relish at the drive-through.
The Patriots stopped winning championships the day Robert Kraft decided to keep all concessions within Gillette Stadium, and Tom Brady stopped ordering Kelly’s Roast Beef for the team.
Steve Scali, chief financial officer, and Dan Doherty, director of business development, told me these stories seated at a table in the Saugus restaurant one snowy day last week. Scali is new to Kelly’s operations, but Doherty has worked for the family-owned business for 30 years, since he was a sophomore in high school. I was there to talk about the restaurant’s history, how deeply it’s cherished in the community, how the family-owned restaurants, which began on Revere Beach in 1951, are a great variation of what’s best about “local food.”
“Everyone has a Kelly’s story,” Doherty said, “usually something about the first time they drove up to the Revere restaurant with their family in a paneled station wagon and ordered fried clams, or about a first date at Kelly’s; there’s almost always a story about a french fry-stealing seagull.”
“Kelly’s is a culture,” Scali said. “Customers are loyal to the point that they pride themselves in which restaurant they go to.” (There are five: Saugus, the busiest; Natick; Danvers; Medford; and the original site in Revere.)
With the faux frustration of managing a success story, Doherty added, “we can’t change anything on the menu without causing an uproar.”
By 11 in the morning the Saugus restaurant, a surgically immaculate galley of seats interrupted by enormous, vivid fish tanks, was already filling up with people of all ages settling into booths with their cokes and roast beef sandwiches, with brimming plates of fried clams and cups of coffee, with hot bowls of buttery-white chowder studded with clams. The clam chowder and the roast beef sandwich recipes have not changed since the Revere restaurant opened its doors decades ago.
In 1951, Ray Carey and Frank McCarthy owned a hotdog stand on Revere Beach, but they also worked at a neighboring restaurant called the Paul Rogers House. When a wedding at the Paul Rogers House was cancelled, Carey and McCarthy brought the abandoned roast beefs to their hotdog stand, sliced them, laid the slices on bread, and began the Kelly’s Roast Beef sandwich empire. Carey and McCarthy didn’t want their names on the restaurant, so they named the business after their friend Kelly, who went on to be a florist in Dorchester.
Kelly’s clam chowder — minus flour or fillers of any sort — just beautiful clams, potatoes and light cream, is still McCarthy’s recipe from 1951. The beef, from North Dakota, aged up to 45 days, is seasoned and cooked at Kelly’s, and sliced to order for every sandwich. Kelly’s onion rings are hand-cut, tossed in cornmeal and flour, and fried to order, a labor intensive effort for such a busy operation. The fish for their fish and chips is North Altantic pollock. The clams and scallops, from Ipswich Maritime, were plump, sweet, but crisply uber-fresh when I tasted them, exactly what a fried clam and scallop in New England should be. The lobster roll was chunks of lobster and a little mayonnaise on a buttered, toasted bun, the way experts say it should be. Scali brags that all Kelly’s seafood was swimming in the ocean the day before it is served.
A long aisle of pristine steel fryers, separate ones for fish, french fries and onion rings, stretch behind the order counter. All the frying oil is pumped directly into the building, stored in tanks, and cleaned every day.
Kelly’s has its challenges: the cost of food is high, particularly seafood. Rather than cut back on portions or quality, Kelly’s keeps its margins slim, and must make its profit in volume; Kelly’s has thus mastered the art of the drive-through window.
“We have to produce every meal in five to six minutes, and everything is cooked to order,” Doherty says. “Forty-fifty percent of our business is drive-through; we have to be good at it.”
The Saugus and Medford drive-throughs are open until 3 a.m. In Revere, the whole restaurant is open until 3:30.
Of the 350 to 550 Kelly’s Roast Beef employees, 250 to 300 are full-time. Forty percent of them have worked for the business for more than 20 years. Bobby Best has been slicing roast beef for sandwiches in Saugus for 48 years. He was there the day I visited. The drive-through window has its own cache of full-time employees.
But there are shifts happening in the Kelly’s culture. As Dan Doherty says, “when I was a kid a bucket of fried clams was $2.95 or $3.95; I grew up on them. My kids aren’t going to run out and spend $16.65 on a plate of fried clams, so kids aren’t acquiring a taste for them.”
“A lot of our drive-through customers are getting older; they want to sit down and have dinner in a nice place now,” he added.
That Coca-Cola business? Bottled water does very well at Kelly’s now.
Doherty and Scali say they feel subtle pressure to address the national nutrition conversation. (Answering customer demand, they also sell salads, wraps, and offer gluten-free bread.) Fast-food chains are already providing nutritional information for their products; while Scali and Doherty say they have no concerns about any great nutritional surprises in their food — they stand by its quality — they are concerned about the cost of providing this information.
“It costs $4,000 to $5,000 an item to get its official nutritional breakdown; if we had to do that with our whole menu, that would be a huge expenditure!”
“Local food” means a lot of things. Kelly’s is a local business, created and still owned by the same two families. Kelly’s uses Pantedosi’s rolls from Malden, Old Neighborhood corned beef from Lynn for its Reuben sandwich, Kayem hotdogs from Chelsea. The crackers that come with the chowder are made in Vermont.
Kelly’s gives back; along with the dozens of local sports teams, Kelly’s sponsors events for HAWC, North Shore Hospice, the Special Olympics, even the Massachusetts Poetry Society. Describing one more benevolent gesture, Scali told me that the signature Kelly’s fish tanks average $75,000 a year to maintain, and yet how many thousands of children have pressed their noses to that glass, mesmerized by mysterious coral reefs and circling fish schools, sparing their parents a few extra moments of quiet while their kids are entertained?
There are all kinds of good ingredients in this family business, from the roast beef, to the onion rings, to the good will. It might be good luck if Robert Kraft treated the Patriots to Kelly’s every once in a while.
Rockport resident Heather Atwood writes the Food for Thought weekly. Questions and comments may be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her blog at HeatherAtwood.com.