An institution’s final days are near: Kelly’s Restaurant will close on Dec. 23 unless a buyer steps up 

  • Steve O’Brien, owner of Kelly’s Restaurant in Amherst, makes breakfast for the 8 a.m. crowd. O’Brien is closing the restaurant Dec. 23 unless a buyer steps up. “Everybody is part of the Kelly family,” said O’Brien. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Kelly’s Resturant in Amherst owned by Steve O’Brien, may close on Dec. 23. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jim Jackson at Kelly’s Restaurant with his wife, Millie Jackson. The couple say have been eating and socializing at the restaurant for years. When asked why, Jim replied, “just read the mug,” which says “Where friends come to meet and eat.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Steve O’Brien, owner of Kelly’s Restaurant in Amherst, works on a cheetah pancake for a child at Kelly’s who was there with his grandparents. O’Brien, who is known for making animal pancakes, recalled when “a child came in and told me I am famous in the elementary schools.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Steve O’Brien, owner of Kelly’s Restaurant in Amherst, works on a cheetah pancake for a child at Kelly’s there with his grandparents. O’Brien is known for making animal pancakes. He acknowledged it can get tough when he is really busy and the griddle is full but, “a child came in and told me I am famous in the elementary schools,” said O’Brien. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Steve O'Brien, owner of Kelly's Restaurant in Amherst, works on a cheetah pancake for a child at Kelly's there with his grandparents. O'Brien is known for making animal pancakes. He acknowledged it can get tough when he is really busy and the griddle is full but, "a child came in and told me I am famous in the elementary schools," said O'Brien. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Allison Terry, a waitress at Kelly’s Restaurant in Amherst and close family friend to owner Steve O’Brien, shares stories with regulars Chris and Cheryl Mattocks over breakfast on a recent morning. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Steve O’Brien, owner of Kelly’s Restaurant in Amherst, makes breakfast for the 8 a.m. crowd. O’Brien, who’s run the classic short-order eatery since, 1993, is closing the restaurant on Dec. 23 unless a buyer steps up. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • David Evans and Gretchen Rosssman say goodbye to friends at the next table over, Sue and Fred Korenewsky and John Kenson. “It’s a real community. It’s much more of a community center than a breakfast place,” said Evans. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Saturday, December 03, 2022

AMHERST — Six days a week, Millie and Jim Jackson of Hadley enjoy breakfast and the company of their friends at Kelly’s Restaurant.

“We’re here every morning,” Millie Jackson says after sitting down at a table at the 314 College St. restaurant and placing an order for a blueberry muffin, home fries and bacon. “We’ve done this for years and years.

“There are such nice people here. We love them,” she said.

But as Jim Jackson shows pictures and videos of raccoons, skunks and wild turkeys his wife has been feeding from the deck of their home, Millie Jackson laments that the days of coming to this establishment may end next month.

That’s because Steve O’Brien, who opened Kelly’s in the fall of 1993, has been looking to sell the business, but so far has been unable to find a buyer. O’Brien, 66, said he intends to close the restaurant after business on Dec. 23, though he is not calling it a retirement — just a change from being on his feet 10 to 12 hours a day preparing all the food on two large skillets, and never having weekends off.

An Amherst native who grew up on South Pleasant Street, O’Brien bought the business and named it after his then 10-year-old daughter.

“Everybody knows everybody here,” O’Brien said. “This is like a big, happy family.”

A sign over the counter, as well as on the diner-style mugs the coffee is served in, proclaims “Kelly’s: Where friends come to eat and meet.”

O’Brien has been in food service for much of the past 52 years, beginning as a cook at McManus, a 24-hour restaurant situated between Stop & Shop and the former Zayre at the Campus Plaza in Hadley, when he was 14. After 15 years working for Atkins Farms Country Market, O’Brien returned to food preparation, a schedule that calls for him getting to the business around 4 a.m., with the doors opening at 6 a.m., though some customers, like farmers, arrive earlier, knowing that he will be ready to make orders when they need to be fed.

The storefront at the west end of a strip plaza opened as Eric’s Subs in the 1960s, becoming one of the first grinder shops in town, and then transitioned to Reddy’s for a few years before becoming Kelly’s.

Described in the past as a “working man’s restaurant,” the inside features mostly tables, with a handful of seats at the counter, where customers can check on O’Brien frying the meats, potatoes and eggs, making them any style requested. On the walls are murals completed by Becca Wheeler, reflecting the four seasons, with images of birch trees prominent on one.

Kelly’s was closed during the first few months of the pandemic, but O’Brien was not idle, working on his farm in Shutesbury until he could resume restaurant operations with some safety precautions in place. At the time of reopening, he eliminated lunch and streamlined the menu, though all the breakfast basics remain.

O’Brien has seen changes — for example tradespeople are now available via cellphone, rather than people trying to track them down at Kelly’s.

“If you needed an electrician, a plumber or a roofer, you knew right where to find them,” O’Brien said. “All super nice people who would do anything for you.”

Even now, the first people in each day are the blue-collar workers, followed by police officers and schoolteachers, then office workers and academics, followed by the retirees. On weekdays, a handful of families may also drop in before school.

Bob Cowles is among those who joined the Jacksons to socialize, pushing together three tables. “I’ve been coming here ever since it opened — I’ve known Steve ever since high school,” Cowles said.

John Kenson of Pelham said even in retirement, he comes in to talk to the servers and O’Brien.

“It’s a place to just gossip, have fun with it, and solve the world’s problems,” Kenson said.

“It’s the best breakfast in town,” said Jon Anderson, who calls it a way to start the day on a good note. He came in after running errands and getting his children, 6, 4 and 2, off to school.

As Gus Peabody, the retired Hopkins Academy athletic director, removes his jacket and sits down at a table, he is greeted by server Allison Terry.

“How you doing, Gus?” Terry asks.

He talks a bit about the Christmas lights he will soon be putting up at home and then regales those present with his thought of the day.

“I come here just about every day,” Peabody said. “I like the people in here, number one, and I like sitting at the table and reading the morning paper.”

Ordering a toasted English muffin, with peanut butter, Peabody also chuckles about Millie Jackson’s encounters with wildlife. “I also get to listen to Millie talking about feeding her raccoons and skunks,” Peabody said.

Terry said the 2½ years she has spent at Kelly’s have been a pleasure. “I like the people — everyone becomes a big family, everyone knows what’s going on in your life, and shares what’s going on in theirs,” Terry said.

If Kelly’s closes, she will miss the people and knows she won’t see some of them again.

“It’s like Cheers, without beer,” she said.

O’Brien understands that while he has loyal customers, he also has lost some of his aging clientele. “The sad part is a lot of customers have passed away,” O’Brien said.

Still, enough newcomers find Kelly’s and, while not overly popular with college students, some pop in during the weekend. O’Brien said there is consistency in being mostly a spot for townies, meaning no lull during winter break or over the summer.

Molly Murtagh, a UMass student who began as a server in September, said those she has gotten to know make it worthwhile to get up early.

“I love working here,” Murtagh said. “I love both the customers and the people I work with.”

Harold Cannon of Amherst, who said he started coming a week ago, is already enjoying the “friendly atmosphere.”

“The food is great here and so is the coffee,” Cannon said as he finished drinking coffee from a mug and eating a meal that included pancakes, sausages and eggs.

Those who bring their children and grandchildren may find another reason to enjoy Kelly’s, as O’Brien makes a pancake shaped like a cheetah, placing chocolate chips in the animal shape to complete the look.

O’Brien said while being asked to make a “funny pancake” may be appealing to the youngest, his longtime customers aren’t shy about requesting pancakes in the shape of a fire engine or excavator, or perhaps a character from Star Wars, so long as he gets a picture of what he is supposed to make.

“You name it, we’ve tried,” O’Brien said. “Kids think it’s fun.”

O’Brien, who has three children and two stepchildren of his own, all worked at Kelly’s at one time or another, as well as a woman who became his daughter-in-law.

“This has helped out all the kids through college, so I can’t complain,” O’Brien said.

He understands why there could be challenges to finding a buyer, observing it is not a turn-key operation. Even with a number of people expressing interest in buying and running the place, he understands, they would have to meet new rules and regulations, some set by the town, The regulars recognize the effort that O’Brien has put into Kelly’s, keeping it affordable, with the breakfast special at $9.50 the most expensive item, with low overhead from doing so much work on his own.

“It’s a tough business — he’s put in a lot of hours, and he’s worked hard for it,” Cowles said.

“I’m going to miss this place, Steve and the waitresses,” Peabody said, though he will continue to have evenings at Joe’s Cafe in Northampton to commiserate with friends. “I’ll need to get therapy somewhere else in the morning.”

Millie Jackson, too, isn’t sure where she will meet up with friends. “I guess we’ll have to find another place to go,” she said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.