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Kelley Brothers: Heres to the first 10 years
Mark Abram, left, and Joe Kelley at one of the bars at Kelley Brothers Brewing Co. & Brickyard Oven Restaurant. - photo by DENNIS WYATT
The El Rey Theatre – gutted by a fire after the screening of “The Towering Inferno on Aug. 6, 1975 – stood for 24 years as a burned out shell at the heart of Manteca.

The boarded up, pigeon-infested monument to Manteca’s grand past was a scar on downtown.

Then 10 years ago it all changed.  And you can credit it with a horrendous traffic jam on the Highway 120 Bypass that prompted Shon Kelley to take Yosemite Avenue to try and get around the mess.

That is how the Kelley Brothers – Joe and Shon – found the answer to their quest of several years seeking the ideal location to open a micro-brewery and restaurant in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

“We weren’t having much luck finding a good location,” Joe Kelley said Monday as he prepared to make more of his trademark brew along with Mark Abram.

The brothers had a restaurant business background from their days in Pennsylvania. Joe had since become a general contractor. Opening a micro-brewery was what Joe thought was a logical progression of a hobby he started in college – making home brew.

They were able to craft a business plan, forged a partnership with Fotios Papadoginnis whom Joe described as a “good and reasonable landlord”, secured $1.4 million, and spent two years turning their dream into reality.

The 360-seat restaurant that features what Joe still believes is home to the largest Chinese wood-fired oven in the United States opened in December 1999 followed almost immediately with the biggest party Manteca had ever seen on New Year’s Eve. The Manteca Chamber of Commerce’s “Party of the Century” had 850 attendees and included a tent in the middle of South Grant Street as Manteca celebrated the ushering in of the new millennium.

Kelley Brothers’ official grand opening was marked on St. Patrick’s Day 2000.    

A lot has happened since then: Sept. 11, 2001, the subsequent recession, and then The Great Recession.

“People say it’s location, location, and location,” Joe said, “but it really is timing, timing, and timing.”

Joe credits several things with helping Kelley Brothers survive what he argues has been a rough 10 years to open an independent restaurant.

“We’ve got a great staff that’s just like family and a great customer base,” Joe said.
He also credited his wife Julie’s help with the financials and overall support as well as the fact Kelley Brothers is big enough to accommodate large parties.

Manteca’s most diversified menu
“When a team (playing at a Big league Dreams tournament) wants to go to a sit down dinner, there are not really a lot of choices as most places can’t accommodate 25 or so people in one party in Manteca,” Joe noted.

It also helps that Kelley Brothers has what Joe describes as “the most diversified menu” in Manteca with 133 selections that he along with Abram are constantly changing.

There are a few more things that Joe believes contributes to Kelley Brothers’ success: A full service bar, maintaining convenient hours, and a willingness to go after business.

“People (when business got real slow) asked us why we stayed open for lunch,” he recalled. “You’ve got to have consistent hours. It would take us years and thousands of dollars in advertising to close for lunch and then open again down the road to get people to come back.”

Going after business is a must as far as Joe is concerned.

Back in October 2008 when Bass Pro Shops had their grand opening weekend, Joe figured that the people expected to attend would be looking for somewhere to eat since there was no restaurant out there. So he had his staff circulate flyers complete with directions that were placed on every vehicle. There were close to 20,000 people – almost all non-Manteca residents – who attended the grand opening event over three days.

“It was a great weekend for us,” Joe said.

Many have become repeat customers when they pass through Manteca on their way to Yosemite. In fact, Kelley Brothers can count a loyal following from the Bay Area and other states such as Oregon.

“A lot of people make it a point to stop here when they pass through Manteca,” Joe said.

Much like the El Rey before it, Kelley Brothers is the main draw downtown. It offers live music Friday nights and has had other evenings with everything from live bands to comedians.

Joe is hopeful that downtown can develop a cohesive team approach to take advantage of not just the opportunities being afforded by Orchard Valley with Bass Pro Shops and the soon-to-open outlet stores as well as Big League Dreams that brings in out-of-town consumers but also Manteca’s growing population. He noted they still will get someone who has “lived in Manteca all their lives” but are a first timer even though the brewery and restaurant has been open for 10 years.

“For downtown to be successful we need more restaurants and boutique or niche shops,” Joe said.

As for Kelley Brothers, Joe hopes to be able to move forward with the vision they had when they first opened their doors.

The idea is to open “satellite” locations where you could drop by and enjoy Chinese oven prepared meats and buy the unique Kelley Brothers beer. Such locations would ideally be within the Northern San Joaquin Valley region at tourist-type locales.

“We have built in oven and brewing capacity,” Joe noted.

And down the road if downtown Manteca takes off, they still have plans for an outdoor garden patio on the west side of the brewery adjacent to Bank of America. They also built the existing patio dining area with the ability to add a second floor and in turn enclose the bottom floor.

Kelley Brothers is open Sunday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. as well as Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to midnight.

They are located in the 100 block of East Yosemite.