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How Kelly’s Roast Beef Soared From Simple Sandwich to State Icon

Everything you need to know about the roast beef sandwich at this Massachusetts legend.

Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

Dan Doherty loves his job. He's the director of operations for Kelly's Roast Beef, an iconic Massachusetts mini-chain that's been family-owned and operated since the early 1950s and has become an icon in the area for its roast beef sandwiches. Doherty started working for Kelly's as a high school sophomore in the late '70s, taking orders at the front counter. His personal go-to is a small roast beef sandwich with barbecue sauce, mayo, and cheese. "I've live off it. I've been working here for 36 years, and been eating it before that."

"I’ve been working here for 36 years, and been eating it before that."

On the company website, Kelly's proudly claims to have invented the thin-sliced roast beef sandwich as it's now known across Massachusetts. The story, as Doherty tells it, is that founders Ray Carey and Frank McCarthy first worked together at the Paul Roger House, which was owned by Carey's family. They then went into business together, opening a hot dog stand next door and continuing on at the restaurant, where Carey was a manager and McCarthy the chef. One night, a wedding booked for the Paul Roger House was cancelled, leaving the duo with several roast beefs. "They ended up taking the roast beef over to the hot dog stand," recounts Doherty, "serving it on a grilled hamburger roll, and began their roast beef endeavor from there," reinventing the stand into Kelly's Roast Beef in 1951. Doherty also notes that Arby's has publicly cited Kelly's Roast Beef as an inspiration, quoting a section of the book Arby's Great Taste Endures: 35 Years of Success. He has the book handy.

Today, a busy location during its peak season can sell upwards of 20,000 roast beef sandwiches a month. Across its multiple locations, Kelly's estimates a staggering one million sandwiches sold a year. The figures are impressive, but equally impressive is that even in the face of tremendous volume, Kelly's hasn't gone towards a commissary set-up. Instead, each location roasts its beef in-house all through the day, ensuring that sandwiches can still be carved to order has they have been for decades. That, in and of itself, is the hallmark of a Kelly's sandwich, says Doherty. "It's never sitting," he emphasizes. "It's a medium rare, melt-in-your-mouth roast beef."

Below, the elements of the Kelly's roast beef sandwich:

1. The Bun

"It's a top-quality roll," says Doherty of the daily-baked Piantedosi Baking Company rolls Kelly's uses for sandwiches. Another longtime, family-owned Massachusetts business, Piantedosi has been operating for nearly a century. The bakers work to Kelly's specs, supplying a knotted seeded roll that Doherty describes as firm enough to hold up to being buttered and griddled on the flat top.

2. The Beef

If there's one defining feature of a Kelly's roast beef sandwich, it's that they're made to order. It's not just that the sandwiches are assembled to order, it's that each location is roasting its own beef on a finely tuned schedule, ensuring that there's always a fresh roast to carve from. The cooking part of the operation is simple. Twice a week, Kelly's receives delivery of 25-day aged beef knuckle (sometimes known as sirloin tip). Doherty notes that this cut makes the Kelly's sandwich a standout in the region — it's a more expensive cut that competitors seem to shy away from.

Seasoned with only salt and pepper, the beef roasts in the convection ovens on a low temperature for three to four hours, creating a medium-rare roast. After roasting, they are "held" or rested for an hour before they are ready to be carved for sandwiches as ordered. The complicated part is the "fire chart," the roasting schedule that ensures that there's always a roast that's fully rested at the moment the previous roast has been totally carved. "We've been at this so long, we know our history," explains Doherty.

3. The Toppings

Toppings on the roast beef sandwich are optional. Doherty says one popular order is a "three-way": barbecue sauce, mayonnaise, and cheese. For the barbecue sauce, Kelly's uses James River, a decades-old brand that has become the standard sauce for Massachusetts roast beef sandwiches. "It's what the customer likes," says Doherty. "It's something that we've had for decades, and it's something that's an acquired taste for the customer. It's something that we'd never change." When it comes to cheese, Kelly's doesn't do "fussy." It sticks with basic Land O'Lakes white American cheese, which melts fast and "connects to the meat."

4. The Assembly

With the goal of serving each guest within five or six minutes of ordering, the assembly line at Kelly's Roast Beef is a well-oiled machine. When an order comes in, it goes to two places: the slicer and the dress station. "It's quite an operation," Doherty beams.

When the order comes in, the team jumps into action. Buns are buttered and griddled. The bottom bun gets a serving of lettuce and tomato.

A small sandwich gets five to six ounces of roast beef, while a large gets seven-and-a-half to eight-and-a-half. Whether the slicer weighs the portion depends on how busy the restaurant is. "The customer makes out well when we're busy," Doherty chuckles.

The sandwich is finished with any condiments the customer ordered plus a slice of cheese. "Some people say 'the messier the better'... We hear our roast beef sandwich is a 'two-hand sandwich,'" says Doherty. Clearly, that makes him happy.

Kelly's Roast Beef (Saugus)

595 Broadway, Saugus, MA 01906 (781) 233-5000 Visit Website

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