FRAMINGHAM — Before the high-end Back Bay steakhouses wined and dined the city’s elite on aged and grass-fed beef, Ken’s Steakhouse reigned.
The restaurant, established on Route 9 in 1941, is celebrating 75 years in business. In its heyday, says George Zanella, in-house butcher for nearly six decades, “We were selling 800 to 1,000 steaks on a Saturday night.” Other places depended on entertainment, says the butcher. “The old Monticello and Chateau de Ville brought in nightclub acts, and the celebrities came here to eat. We had Engelbert Humperdinck, Diana Ross, Ted Williams. Wayne Newton was a regular.”
The nightclubs and celebrities are gone, replaced by chain restaurants and strip malls. Ken’s Foods, a separate company that makes Ken’s famous dressings, has become a multimillion-dollar empire, while the steakhouse’s faded facade and sign are easy to miss, even in rush-hour traffic. Zanella now cuts just 200 of his aged steaks for the Saturday night crowd.
But something else is cooking in Ken’s kitchen. Last month, the grandson of the original owners launched a five-year, $4 million renovation aimed at restoring the centerpiece in his family’s legacy.
Ken and Florence Hanna opened Ken’s Steakhouse, which is now co-owned by their son, Tim, and his wife, Darlene. “There are few family-owned restaurants left,” says Darlene. “It’s not easy to compete with corporate giants who pour millions of dollars into their advertising.”
Tim and Darlene’s son, Tim Jr., 42, recently took over operations for his parents. The Hannas’ 20 percent stake in Ken’s dressings has kept the restaurant afloat (part of a deal with former customers Frank and Louise Crowley, who founded Ken’s Foods in Marlborough). Now the younger Hanna is preparing to reinstall Ken’s in Boston’s pantheon of chophouses.
“I’ve had every birthday, Christmas Eve, and New Year’s Eve at Ken’s since birth,” says Tim Hanna Jr. “My cousin and I would go there with my grandfather and play after the restaurant closed. By 10, we were driving his new Cadillacs around the lot.”
Hanna’s very personal project means overhauling the 450-seat, 17,000-square-foot building. Cafe V, one of the restaurant’s four dining rooms — the Roman numeral stands for its being the fifth addition to the original steakhouse — has already been restored with a classic mahogany bar, leather seats, and a modern kitchen. Next up are renovations to the remaining dining rooms, lounge, and main kitchen, new function hall entrances, and finally, updates to the building’s exterior. Hanna says the project will be financed through a business loan.
Together with executive chef Rick Brown, Hanna will also update menus with seasonal offerings such as shepherd’s pie, but maintain his grandfather’s insistence on making everything on the premises, from the lounge’s potato chips to the pastas and desserts.
Zanella, 68, who calls Ken Hanna “a second father,” still arrives at 5:30 every morning to whet his knives in the restaurant’s meat cellar, just as his father and brother did for 43 years. He hand-selects, cuts, and ages beef from the Brockton company T. F. Kinnealey & Co. in a
climate-controlled locker. The result is
tailored cuts of aged sirloin, filet mignon, rib-eye, porterhouse, and prime rib. Ken’s “signature sirloin” is a 1-inch-thick, marbled, grilled New York strip steak. It comes with a salad and, of course, one of Ken’s dressings. A side of grilled asparagus, though out of season in September, is bright green and crisp.
Baker Jason Hoffman started at Ken’s in 1979. At the time, he couldn’t get a car loan, so Ken co-signed. “The Hannas have always been very good to me,” he says. At dawn, Hoffman makes the restaurant’s doughy onion rolls according to Florence Hanna’s original recipe. He bakes pies and cinnamon rolls, and cornbread on Fridays.
Brown, 54, says Ken Hanna gave him the raise he needed to purchase a house after his son was born in 1984. Brown worked in the kitchen for 21 years before leaving for the corporate world. He returned last year when he heard about Tim Hanna Jr.’s plan to revive the ailing steakhouse. “I’ve always been a making-it-in-house kind of guy,” says Brown, “and this is almost all homemade food.”
Dining room menus include practical dishes (cheddar cheeseburger, angel hair primavera) and pricey ones (scallops with shrimp risotto, prime sirloin). The ritzier Cafe V offers baked escargots on Parmesan crostini, salmon with a plum-chile glaze, lamb loin chops, and grilled duck breast.
Bob Fine of Robert Fine and Associates, an insurance company two miles west of Ken’s, has been courting clients at Cafe V for more than 40 years. “You want to make sure there’s little chance of having a bad meal, and I can honestly say I’ve never had a bad meal at Ken’s,” says Fine.
Frank Lupis, known as “Lupi,” has been going to the restaurant since he delivered his first case of liquor there more than 50 years ago. The Framingham native and former member of the local Teamsters union, is now 91. “My wife and I used to go up there two or three times a week, and we’re not well-to-do people.” He’s seen fast-food places “come in and outta there, but old Ken’s is still there and tried to keep the old style to it.”
The biggest challenge now is retaining longtime customers while attracting a younger crowd. A decade of mixed online reviews critique everything from the food to the dated decor. Resurrecting the legendary steakhouse will take more than money. “Every owner of a business has to take responsibility for changing with the marketplace,” says Fine, “and they were a little late doing it.”
Local officials are behind the young restaurateur. The board of selectmen recently approved a permit for outdoor seating. “Whatever the Town of Framingham can do to support Ken’s and encourage locally owned businesses, we’ll do it,” says board chairman Charles Sisitsky.
The multimillion-dollar project is not Hanna’s first foray into reviving a struggling restaurant. He is founding owner of Angry Ham’s Garage, a nearby bar and grill that overcame its own challenges and was featured on the reality show “Bar Rescue” in 2011. He says Angry Ham’s now has annual sales of $2 million.
Hanna’s biggest asset, though, may be nostalgia. That, and a fierce pride in the institution. “It’s a family thing,” he says. “My grandfather worked at Ken’s seven days a week until the day of his passing. That’s the type of dedication it takes to survive this long.”
More in Food:
Lorne Bell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.