Kelly’s: A Fun Place to Eat and Drink…and Work

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The newly-remodeled dining room at Kelly's.

If you’re going out to eat on a Friday night in Quincy, expect to wait. It doesn’t take much to convince the people to wait more than thirty minutes for a table when going out to eat.

Our lives are seemingly busier every day, and the convenience and time saved by choosing the dine-out-route is absolutely worth those awkward thirty minutes spent at the front door waiting and making awkward eye contact with the already seated (I’m not really giving you dirty looks. Promise!).

It’s clear I’m not the only one who doesn’t want to cook and clean after homework and practice as I see other parents from the community wrangling their little ones in the crowded foyers. The most successful in convincing us to wait are the McClean establishments. There are no reservations when getting a table at one of Rod and Jeff’s places, and yet we have no reservation when it comes to waiting at our favorite restaurants, provided we can grab a drink at the bar (which is encouraged).

Time is precious, even more valuable than those 2023 recession eggs. 

But what’s the old saying? Good things come to those who wait.

Jeff and Rod McCleanand some dude in the background.

“Good things grow with time” is another aphorism in this story. A long time ago, the McClean family planted a dining dynasty that started with a sprout. In 1940, Cecil “Sprout” and Evelyn McClean started Sprout’s Tavern. It became a family business with their children all having a hand in the restaurant.

Eventually, the youngest two brothers decided to follow suit and open restaurants of their own since Jeff and Rod McClean grew up in the industry. Today, the McClean brothers’ team holds the biggest share of the local dining industry. Between the two of them, they own town favorites Kelly’s and The Abbey along with Tower of Pizza and Gem City.  And more recently, long time Abbey abbot and Jeff’s son, Gabe McClean, has reanimated Brad’s (or is it Gabe’s) Silver Dollar. From single Sprout to a melting pot of great food, the McCleans know how to show us a good time.

The first venture the brothers made together was in 1982 when they opened Kelly’s Tavern, an Irish-inspired restaurant located at 2902 Broadway.  With over forty years in business, time has created a lot of connectivity with the community. Whether it be eating, drinking, or working there, everyone has a Kelly’s story. Maybe you dated a girl who served tables there, your brother was a cook, you fell off a bar stool at one of the wild Christmas parties, or maybe something as simple as a food-with-flavor coma. For myself, I spent most of the year 2006 working as a hostess and simultaneously learning both the tricks of the trade in service and nursing education. One of which was a success. 

Kelly’s is known for its famous salad bar. There you can find cheese soup that is said to have healing powers and cinnamon rolls that are to die for. Both are served daily. These cinnamon rolls are so fire they’d melt the plastic baby Jesus in a King Cake. A rotation of hot foods changes daily, providing the salad bar with various proteins. Chicken Drummies day has everyone doing the chicken dance. Order a side of buffalo sauce and you’re welcome. The homemade dressing smacks on the flavor and turns a plain salad into tasty vegetable nachos. But I don’t need to convince you to come and eat. The place is always packed and business is good. The wait at the door is all the confirmation anyone needs.

If ever you find yourself waiting for a table at Kelly’s, check out the framed ancient newspaper article hanging in the front foyer that was written by Muddy River publisher Bob Gough almost twenty years ago (He was the same age when he wrote that story that I am now. You do the math).

A much better written article than this one.

Twenty years is long time. Enough time that I convinced Bob to let me revisit this story in the hopes to both update (could never replace) the great words of Gough; and to attempt to unveil what’s behind this McClean magic.

I had the opportunity to interview Rod McClean a little before the holiday, when the Christmas lights were up and there was extra sparkle in the air. Fitting because I was there to inquire about magic. Upon my arrival to the interview, I went directly to my natural habitat and asked the bartender for Rod, knowing good and well that he was probably busy despite our scheduled meeting. He’s always busy. And like working too, not just hiding in the office like that restaurant manager stigma you see in comedies. A manager with ownership in the business really makes a difference. 

Jessica Richmiller was the bartender that day. She told me he was cutting steaks and would be right out. I was getting nervous preparing to interview my old boss. Jess could tell.  She made me a drink, chatted with me, and set me at ease. Ah bartenders…got to love them. 

Jessica Richmiller is the Wednesday through Saturday day shift bartender. She has been with Kelly’s for 14 years.

People were coming and going from the bar, purchasing Santa Picks. They are the highly coveted gift cards good at any of the four places and sold during the holidays. My family likes to joke that our holiday gift tradition is to exchange McClean money with each other. It’s observational comedy, because it’s true.

Rod didn’t keep me waiting. He graciously offered me another drink and I told him only if he’s having one. Jess made us mind eraser shots. It’s a dessert shot that was introduced to me by one of the servers there one night as an epic upsell that I will never forget. 

After I shot all hope of a smooth interview, we set up in Rod’s office. The office door refers to his title as Principal and says that his hours are by chance. The nostalgia filled my head. It felt like I was visiting my old school. It’s where I learned that the little things mattered like speed, pre-bussing, and keeping a clean floor. Oh, and beverage napkins are life. He joked and called it his cracker box. He wasn’t wrong. If you ever wondered what’s inside, it’s a lot and not much at the same time. Truly a coat closet full of all the important paperwork and a pair of sweet office chairs. On the white walls hang some Elvis memorabilia that was gifted to him. He’s a big fan of the King of Rock and Roll and my guess is his family goes that route instead of Santa Picks for Christmas. 

Brittany and Rod…epic minderasers!

We started the interview trying to remember my time working there. Almost twenty years is very long time and that was mind erasers ago. After chatting for a bit, I remember why I enjoyed working for Rod. It’s because he cares. He cares about Kelly’s and about the people that work there. Rod didn’t brag or go on and on about himself. In fact, it was difficult to get him to say much of anything in regard to himself. Much like Bob’s interview where Evelyn reflected on her pride in her kids’ hard work, he boasted about his daughters and told me how much he enjoyed being a grandfather.

The historic barber pole.

Rod told me the story about how he acquired the barber shop pole that originally hung outside his parent’s tavern. And the one about the sweet old lady who told him he’s been a bus boy all his life after she saw him bussing tables at Kelly’s and asked if he was the same bus boy from Sprouts. A cute elderly insult joke which was really a tribute to his work ethic. His stories were the same for me as they were in that article twenty years ago. Like I said, he doesn’t really like to talk about himself. During our interview, he had to stop and help someone figure out a Tower of Pizza reception party order because customer service comes first, an understanding that we both value. His work ethic is the same and rather contagious. Hard work isn’t for everyone, but he makes it inspiring. 

The McClean establishments are ever-evolving entities that always remain consistent. 

The most impressive consistency with Kelly’s is the staff. It completely defies the normal restaurant turnover rate, adding to the magic of the place. Customers choose to become regulars at places with familiar faces. Some of the staples that set the tables have been there for decades.

Marcy Hess is still the chef and the creator of all things sauce. Basically, she is Back of House royalty from what I gathered. Shirley Miller is the pillar of the front and Rod’s backbone. She runs the day to day and simultaneously serves the floor. They both have been there for more than thirty years. There are many other mainstays behind the staff.  Debby Rhinberger, Dana Eckler, and the late Donna Seckman make up the 3Ds. A trifecta that many people both respected and feared.  Those ladies formed a friendship so strong; you’d swear they were sisters. Donna left this earth after her battle with cancer in July of 2020. It was a dark year for the Kelly’s crew. 

The 3-D’s: Dana Eckler, the late Donna Seckman, and Debby Rhinberger.

Post covid shutdowns resulted in a period where Kelly’s decided to close on Tuesdays. Times were changing and the mentality of hard work seemed to slip in the world. When working there in 2006, the only reason I moved on was because there were so many servers on staff, and there was no room for me to serve. Times were different way back when. People wanted to work. The decision to close their 7-day-a-week model was a difficult one to make but one that helped them weather the storm. This past holiday Kelly’s re-opened on Tuesdays along with introducing a few new members on staff.

Some of the great members of the Kelly’s crew.

So, what is it that makes most people stay?

Christmas bonuses are basically unheard of in the service industry but not for those in the McClean models. Outside of holiday bonus, I remember both Rod and Jeff handing out $20 here and there to the hostesses when they were working extra hard. Rod is the kind of boss that will help you out when you’re in a bind. Understanding and positive praise, not just in monetary form, can go a long way in the work world. 

The money is good. Most of the people that start there find themselves never wanting to leave because they’ve grown accustomed to the income. Kelly’s is a place to make service a career.

Hillari Miles works the bar on the Tuesday dayshift and serves the floor regularly throughout the week. She has been with Kelly’s for 11 years.

I asked Hillari Miles why she continues to work there after moving even further out of town (she makes a 45-minute drive daily to and from work to Kelly’s). Miles said, “It’s because Rod knows how to treat his employees. I love it here. I love my regulars and the people I work with. We are family.” 

It’s funny how those chain Italian restaurants will fill the customer full of breadsticks and call them family while the local Irish tavern will give you a job and make you a family. Other staff members said the same things. They all mentioned Rod first. And not because he signs the checks or passes out the bonuses. It’s because he cares.

I asked him about the future and his plans for Kelly’s and he said there were no clear plans other than on his retirement day, where he plans on working a half day that day and then dying. 

I told him I wasn’t going to grill him for too many top secrets. I wouldn’t even attempt to ask for that cheese soup recipe. I joked and told him about how my uncle worked there and so I already had it.

He shot back, “I mean you could give someone a recipe and they can try to follow it, but if they don’t understand food, they’re gonna screw it up. It’s not going to be the same. You add certain ingredients at certain times.” That’s when I think it clicked for me. There wasn’t really an exact equation to the magic.  Instead, it’s all about the timing. It’s about adding things at the right time from the call to hire right down to the smallest detail with the cheese soup.

Time is a tricky thing to master. But Rod McClean has mastered it in the service industry. It can also be a very tricky thing to manage. That is something I’ve yet to master as a writer.

I told him I was going to gift him this article for Christmas and here we are almost a month into 2023. Merry Christmas, my Scottish friend. I was a bit peely-wally over break so, Erin Go Bragh, instead.  Call it Irish luck, but with St. Patrick’s Day right around the corner, there has never been a better time to join the Kelly’s family. If you’re interested, stop on in and grab an application from the bar. Try a mind eraser while you are there and tell them Britt B. sent you.

Brittany Boll writes and co-hosts for Muddy River News. When she’s not creating content for Muddy River, you can find her doing her part for the service industry at her beloved Spring Street Bar.

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