For more than 70 years, Kelly’s Roast Beef has been a staple of the North Shore, renowned for its thinly sliced, rare meat sandwiches and its generous platters of fried seafood. The Revere Beach-based brand appeared in the movie “Good Will Hunting” and was most recently name-dropped in a March episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live.
But for all the acclaim, the family-owned business has just four corporate locations, all in a narrow slice of turf north of Boston.
Now that’s about to change: The 71-year-old business is starting to franchise for the first time in its history, based on the family’s belief that it can compete with the most well-known food chains in the country.
“We think there are a lot of people that are going to love [Kelly’s] that may not live within eight square miles of Revere Beach,” said Ray Carey IV, whose grandfather cofounded the business.
Confidence that Kelly’s could franchise, he said, came after the company completed its first licensing agreement in 2018, which led to a Kelly’s opening in Terminal B of Boston Logan International Airport. It was the one time a company not associated with the family opened a Kelly’s restaurant.
In charge of the expansion is Neil Newcomb, chief executive of Kelly’s Roast Beef Franchise, which was founded a few months before the pandemic. A mutual friend connected Carey with Newcomb, a veteran restauranteur, about five years prior in North Carolina, where they both live.
“I was really itching to grow a brand, and this brand is so legendary,” Newcomb said. “We’ve been talking about this for a while. ... Kelly’s, for a small concept, gets a lot of national attention.”
When the first Kelly’s stores open outside of Massachusetts, they will look slightly different.
Kelly’s hired Marlo Marketing, a marketing agency based in Boston, to refresh the dated brand. Marlo Fogelman, founder of the firm, said her team did an “audit” of Kelly’s starting last fall — they visited the stores, sampled the food, and inspected the menu.
Carey said the family had always relied on its strong name recognition and word-of-mouth marketing.
“There’s a lot we know about making a great roast beef sandwich,” Carey said. “That doesn’t mean we’re great at making websites...brand and style guidelines.”
Much time was spent debating whether Kelly’s should associate itself with Boston in general or more specifically its home turf of the North Shore.
“I’ve been here long enough now that I get North Shore, South Shore, Metro West,” Fogelman said. “But there are a lot of people who don’t.”
Ultimately, Kelly’s decided to present itself as a Boston company, though locals will know that’s not technically true. Kelly’s new slogan reads “Kelly’s: Boston’s Legendary Roast Beef & Seafood,” instead of “Kelly’s: Roast Beef, Seafood, Sandwiches.”
“Boston means something nationwide,” Newcomb said.
Fogelman also tweaked the cartoon picture of the chef in Kelly’s logo. He is now depicted in color, holding a frappe, lobster, and roast beef sandwich on a tray.
“With the old one, you’re like, ‘What is he holding? Why is it in a bottle cap?,” Fogelman said.
Perhaps the most controversial decision was Fogelman’s suggestion that the brand go big promoting the “three-way” on its website and across social media. (The Kelly’s three-way is a roast beef sandwich with James River BBQ sauce, mayonnaise, and a slice of Land O’Lakes white American cheese.)
Newcomb originally resisted, insisting that Kelly’s is a family brand. But since the company wants to widen its audience, Fogelman said it made sense to lean into whatever innuendo people might imagine.
“In the world of people who are obsessive about roast beef, a three-way is a thing,” she said. “It’s like, ‘get your mind out of the gutter, we’ve been making it for 70 years.’”
Carey said he thinks the new branding still honors the “history and the tradition of Kelly’s.”
“It also is built for the Internet and online ordering and merchandising...the things that you have to do to, frankly, to be competitive in the modern restaurant world,” he said.
The new website features a section where customers can buy merchandise, from tote bags to hoodies. The new branding will also appear on Kelly’s takeout and delivery containers, and all frappes will be delivered in a reusable souvenir cup.
Of course, Kelly’s is expanding at a time when plant-based food is the trend.
“This would be sort of the antithesis of that,” Fogelman said.
But she said younger generations also care about the authenticity of brands, and she thinks Kelly’s rich history will be a big selling point. Kelly’s was founded in 1951 by Frank McCarthy and Ray Carey, who worked together at a hotel in Revere Beach and ran a hot dog stand on the side.
One night, a wedding at the hotel was cancelled, so McCarthy and Carey took the roast beef that would have gone to waste and — as the story goes — used it to make their now-famous sandwiches. A little more than a decade later, according to more Kelly’s lore, the brothers who went on to launch Arby’s tried the North Shore delicacy, and were inspired.
Now it’s Kelly’s with an aim for bigger things. Newcomb said his first three franchise locations are expected to open later this year — two in Florida and one in Salem, N.H.
“I think half of Florida moved down there from Massachusetts,” he said.
He’d like to open 10 more by the end of 2023, and reach 50 locations within five years.
Business is strong at Kelly’s four existing stores — in Revere Beach, Saugus, Danvers, and Medford — which together sell more than a million sandwiches per year. And for now, they’ll keep their original look.
“At some point we’ll get back to them,” Newcomb said.