Longtime upscale Ithaca restaurant John Thomas Steakhouse will not reopen its doors and owner Michael Kelly will retire after nearly six decades in the restaurant business.
Over the weekend, Kelly, 72 years old, said that the coronavirus outbreak had made the business too unsustainable and, additionally, too dangerous to continue in a comfortable manner for staff and patrons alike. He held a meeting last week to furlough staff members. From here on out, Kelly said the restaurant will pivot to selling its steak inventory, which has been vacuum packed, frozen and preserved, online at www.johnthomassteakhouse.net until their supply is gone, as well as certain wines for curbside pick-up.
Kelly said he had made the decision over the last several months, since the restaurant closed in mid-March. Obviously, another business is sure to take over the spot at the La Tourelle Hotel & Spa, but Kelly said it wouldn’t be operated by him or his children.
“I’ve had at-length discussions with my wife and children, all of whom have worked at the restaurant over the years—my son Devin currently being one of the managers, my wife Barbara being the original pastry chef,” Kelly said. “I’m humbled to say that they believe my hard work and attention to every detail over the past 26 years is the reason for the restaurant’s success, and in their words ‘John Thomas should retire when you do.’ My partner Walter Wiggins’ family is not interested in taking over the operation. However, I’m certain someone with a different concept will occupy the space down the road.”
John Thomas Steakhouse was one of the staples of the upper end of the Ithaca dining scene, ranking among the 30 best steakhouses in the world in a Bloomberg article in 2017.
When the colleges began moving their graduations from their normal late-spring dates, annually a very busy time for the steakhouse, Kelly said that spurred him to prepare for the worst by individualizing beef cuts himself in case the shutdown lasted longer than the business could handle.
“Once the colleges cancelled their respective graduations, and as the beef was coming up to the six week mark, I began butchering the primal cuts into individual steaks, immediately vacuum sealing and freezing them,” Kelly said. “Steaks last up to six months stored this way. In preparation for Summer BBQ season, and as a thank you to all those in the community that have dined with us over the years, we will be selling our USDA Prime butchered steaks and select wines curbside starting Thursday of this week and continuing until we’ve sold out.”
The combination of the outbreak’s widespread financial impacts, plus concerns about how to healthily bring back staff and safely serve customers, eventually convinced Kelly that it was time to step away ,and that it was no longer possible to bring the John Thomas experience to customers, he said.
“With Ithaca College cancelling graduation, the rescheduling uncertainty of Cornell’s commencement from this past May, the upcoming semester changes, need for social distancing, loss of capacity, and my increasing concern for our staff as COVID-19 persists throughout the world, the decision was made for me,” Kelly said. He additionally mentioned that other restaurants have discussed the possibility of not reopening until a vaccine is available. “I agree wholeheartedly with them in that fine dining will certainly need to be reimagined in the immediate future. If I was a younger man not already planning to retire in the coming few years, my feelings may be different. I certainly have tremendous respect for my fellow local business owners as they continue to move forward through these uncharted waters.”
While staff members were saddened by Kelly’s decision, he said they were understanding of the situation given his age and the overwhelming uncertainty the COVID-19 outbreak has introduced to the hospitality industry, which Kelly’s worked in constantly and joyously since the mid 1960s. He said he would most miss the camaraderie of the restaurant atmosphere, working with young people just starting out in the industry and the satisfaction of serving a large, busy crowd.
“Being a glutton for punishment, I’ve worked in the restaurant business since 1965, starting as a busboy at The Park Lane, a five star restaurant in Buffalo, NY,” he said. “I’ve owned restaurants since 1976…the first being Scotch ‘n Sirloin on Long Island, Dar Tiffany in both Long Island and Puerto Rico, The Nautilus Café on Long Island and John Thomas Steakhouse here in Ithaca. My passion for the business has kept me going all these years. I love it.”