Sean and Tien Kelly worked together before they worked out together.
The Boalsburg couple who run Kelly’s Steak and Seafood met in Seattle, worked side-by-side in a kitchen, dated, lived together and, sure enough, got hitched.
They decided to take another leap 11 years ago, buying the Boalsburg Steakhouse and turning it into their own eatery in 2005.
Sean took an unusual seat Thursday, sitting in a booth where patrons are served, to dish on the restaurant industry and how the eatery came together.
Q: Do you ever have time to stop and think about the past 11 years?
A: There is time for it. Every once in a while I will think about opening another restaurant, and then I think about what it has been like for us to do it here. To run a successful business, you need to be there almost all of the time to make sure it’s running to your standards. Our name is on the side of the wall — we’re going to make sure we represent our name. That means we’re here 60 to 70 hours a week. To open another place, this place would suffer if we weren’t here as much. It’s love and hate, because your family time hurts a little bit. I turn around and my kids are really grown up. My oldest was six months when we opened and now he’s 11.
Q: You two worked together before, so did you have a feeling you’d work well together here?
A: It was a crapshoot. You can’t really know, because we had never had a business together. Tien is in (the restaurant) in the morning and runs the prep crew and makes sure everything is in order and set for the night. I come in at about 10 in the morning, we work together until 1 or 2 when she takes care of the kids and has her second job of being a mother. I’m here until 9 or 10 at night. We had an idea, thought it was a good idea and ran with it and hoped for the best. For us, it seems to have worked out.
Q: You renovated this place in 2004. Why renovate?
A: It was around since the 1940s, and it definitely showed its age. The kitchen was set up and the way the dining room flow was, we wanted to update it. It was an old school steakhouse, but it was starting to run down. The roof needed replaced. It was dark and dirty. The bar was separated from the dining room by a door. The bathrooms were cement floors with plywood partitions between the stalls. We wanted to liven it up and give it a fresh feel.
Q: Most small restaurants take a day or two off during the week. You don’t. How do you deal with the daily grind?
A: We are probably open 360 days a year, and I guess you kind of become used to it. After a while you do need some time off. If you love what you’re doing though, it’s not necessarily work. You do love to see at the end of the day that you did X number of dollars in business, everyone was happy to come in, you go home, take your jacket off, have a beer and you’re happy.
Q: A number of months ago the restaurant hosted about 30 local business owners to discuss concerns about small business with Congressman G.T. Thompson. What are your biggest concerns in the restaurant industry?
A: Labor was my primary concern. We went to visit Tien’s parents in Seattle over the summer, and they were starting to pay employees $15 an hour. I guess my main concern was for something like that. You run on very small margins in restaurants. You may think that, OK, they did $2 million in business last year, but then you had to pay $100,000 in electricity or gas alone. Throw on a huge labor cost, you’d have to up your prices. I feel like our prices are already reasonable for the amount of food and the quality of food you get. If we had such a huge increase in labor, the prices wouldn’t be reasonable anymore, which would hurt us.
Q: What’s your favorite dish to make for yourself?
A: I make so much food here, and I’m focused on it so much it changes seasonally. Right now it would be a hearty stew, now that it’s getting colder. During the summer that’d probably change to a fish dish, some sort of salmon or tuna. It changes seasonally, but right now something hearty and warm that sticks to your bones.
Q: What’s with the cow?
A: I think the cow came in the 1960s from somewhere in the Midwest. Right now those are dying things. You couldn’t put a cow on your roof nowadays unless you’re grandfathered into it. Rumor has it there was a male and a female cow that came to the area on a tractor trailed from Midwest. The sister of our cow is in a field somewhere in Potters Mills. I’ve never seen it, but that’s the story. It’s a landmark for Boalsburg and for us, too. I talked to a college student just last week, and they asked what restaurant we had. I told him it as the one with the giant cow on the roof, and they automatically knew what it was. It’s become good for us as our mascot.