James Conley of Keens Steakhouse in NYC on Staffing and Supply - Wine & Spirits Magazine

James Conley of Keens Steakhouse in NYC on Staffing and Supply

Keens Steakhouse has been an institution in NYC’s Herald Square district for more than a century, counting Teddy Roosevelt, Babe Ruth and Albert Einstein among the members of its Pipe Club. The restaurant still maintains a collection of more than 90,000 numbered pipes, some 40,000 of which adorn the dining room ceilings. James Conley has become something of a Keens institution himself, having worked as its service director for 19 years before becoming the wine director in 2018.

How are things currently? Is Keens getting back to a more special dining experience?

Certainly, the way things looked through October and November, even early December, I thought we were in line to see something close to a standard fourth quarter. Even in December, we started to do well with lunches, which has been slow to rebound because there are no office workers. But even before anyone caught Omicron, that word got out there, and we had lots of cancelations, and the momentum faded overnight.

Keens is place where people have rituals, they might come every year for New Year’s Eve or Thanksgiving, but we were forced to close on Christmas due to staff illnesses. We were all vaccinated, which probably made it less bad, but we still had to close, and re-opened right before New Year’s Eve. Since then, dinner service has been terrific, and wine sales with it, though lunch sales are still lagging.

We’ve had several iterations of outdoor seating. At one point we had to take down two of six booths for a big plumbing project. They were supposed to be back last week, but that hasn’t happened. There’s less demand for outdoor seating now; in really frigid weather people seem to overcome their apprehensions and move inside.

We are just grateful to the public for finding a way to patronize us again. It’s a great feeling to look around and see a full dining room.

On staffing

We’re still a bit shorthanded, and a fair number of staff are new hires. We have certain standards of how we speak to guests, and we make a real effort to have managers enlist these newer people into our culture of hospitality. Keens is a bustling place, and things move fast here. We’re working towards getting to the place of having good things happen.

On shortages

Something that’s put a lot of pressure on the restaurant is the price of prime beef. We’ve never seen prices like this before. Also, we have two ice machines that make one-inch cubes; one has broken, and they’re telling us it’ll be five to six months to replace it. Other items like avocadoes can go up in price too, all these things have an impact. We couldn’t get Diet Coke in the classic 7.5 oz bottles for a while. Our beer list was unchanging for years, now we hustle to get what we can. All that is manageable, but the price of the beef is the big dagger.

Have there been changes in the types of wine you’re buying?

In the fourth quarter (of 2021) there was some pent-up demand for really high-end wines. We had several sales of DRC last fall. That’s really uncommon. We have a deep inventory, but I’ve been here 20 years, and usually it’s one or two bottles a year; last quarter, we sold five. It’s the most expensive wine on our list at $3200 per bottle. We also saw things like Shafer Hillside Select became a big mover, The Mascot from Harlan, some Bordeauxs at $600-700 a bottle, …people really wanted to go out last fall and have a great experience, price be damned. Even now we have a really healthy mix of people buying reliable, food-friendly wines and splurge wines as well. As the person who writes the list, I try to figure out what is that sweet spot that people don’t think twice about spending. Before it was maybe around $80; now it can be higher, like the Matthiasson Cabernet at $135 that was flying out the door. In terms of business dinners, people are kind of like, let’s mark this reunion by cracking some good corks.

In the darkest days of COVID isolation, when allocated wines were offered to me, I had to take maybe less than I wanted or less than was offered. Now I’ll take every drop I can get and ask if you can get me more. I know that I’m selling the back inventory of 2010s, ‘11s and ‘12s, so I’ll take the newer vintages of Spotteswoode or Plumpjack or Shafer to put away, because I have the space and also can handle the expense.

Our house Keens Cabernet will be significantly more expensive this year and we’ll have to raise the price of a glass from around $11 to $13. Part of Keens philosophy is that we understand walking into a steakhouse is an expensive proposition, we don’t want guests to feel like we’ve got them over the barrel, so we try to keep wines that are around $40 per bottle and some $11 glasses.

is the Italian wine editor at Wine & Spirits magazine.

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