Seven decades ago, Randal Kelly, a native of County Clare, Ireland, started serving beers and shots to Westport Inn regulars.
The former farm boy was said to have never met a stranger and had a way of connecting with people, making them feel comfortable. Soon those regulars were calling the bar Kelly’s and, by the end of the year, he was a partner. In 1977, the name officially changed to Kelly’s Westport Inn.
Randal’s sons, Kyle and Pat, had their stints behind the bar before becoming owners. Kyle’s children, Colleen and Mitch, also now have stock in the company and do the day-to-day operations. So a Kelly is often still behind the bar.
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Colleen remembers being “ridiculously underpaid” to varnish tables as a child. But during Kelly’s 50th anniversary, when the family members wrote notes to their future self to be opened at the 100th anniversary, the then-12-year-old had two wishes: to marry her childhood crush and to own Kelly’s.
Now experiencing the bar business firsthand, she is even more appreciative that her father made it a point to be home for dinner every night. It was around the dinner table that the siblings heard stories about Kelly’s, its culture and traditions.
“We are lucky that we all get along. I kid my friends that I will apologize to Mitch before I will apologize to my husband,” Colleen said. She had warned her husband when they were first dating that she planned to keep her maiden name and secretly takes pride in signing “Colleen Kelly” for UPS deliveries.
Mitch said: “We knew the history, heard the stories. We have a tremendous amount of pride, but it also is extremely humbling. It is not something that any of us ever take for granted.”
A plaque on the side of the two-story brick building is from the Native Sons of Greater Kansas City and the Westport Historical Society. It notes that the building, at 500 Westport Road, dates to 1850 and is one of the oldest commercial brick buildings in Kansas City. It also is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Kellys rented the space for decades on just a handshake with the Wiedenmann family, until they eventually signed a lease in the early 1970s. The Kellys purchased it in 1995 from the Wiedenmann siblings, including George Wiedenmann, who would meet friends there every Friday. After he died in 2007, some of his ashes were stored in a Ten High whiskey bottle at the bar, per his request.
Randal Kelly closed the bar on St. Patrick’s Day for 17 years because it was “just too crazy.” But his sons started opening again on St. Patrick’s Day in 1982. Other than that, they have been reluctant to make a lot of changes. They wanted to keep prices affordable, to keep the tradition going.
Randal did more for some of his cash-strapped customers than keep his prices down: He often had money in his pocket to hand out to people needing help. When he died, he had a stack of IOUs at the bar.
“We’re a ‘playground for the poor man’ as my dad used to call it,” Kyle said. “We’re kind of a shot and a beer bar from the old days. We do a couple of fancy drinks, but we don’t have a blender in the building, so that tells you something.”
When Kyle joined part time in 1971 while in high school, Westport had about a half dozen liquor licenses. Now, according to Regulated Industries, there are 41 liquor licenses in the area, including bars, restaurants and grocery stores. And while Westport has gotten more sophisticated — with upscale restaurants and even a champagne bar — most of the operations are still locally owned and operated, which will continue to make the neighborhood a “hometown destination,” he said.
Colleen and Mitch have added live music Friday and Saturday nights, and they actively promote the bar on social media. A rooftop deck opened in 2010 in response to the smoking ban, “the biggest change in 70 years,” Kyle said.
“But Pat and I don’t do a whole lot of mentoring anymore … the way to get your feet wet is to make a few mistakes and learn from them,” Kyle said. “We let them do what they want to do, and they find out whether it is right or wrong. Fortunately, almost all the time they’ve been right.”
Kelly’s is open from 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. nearly daily, closing only on Christmas, New Year’s Day and “employee appreciation day,” when the owners rent a bus to take their 25 or so employees on an excursion, such as a Kansas City Royals game or bar hopping.
Mark Weber of Lenexa came in for a beer on July 2, 1976, and was asked to fill in as a bartender. He has been there ever since, but as he eases into an August retirement he is working just Monday and Tuesday nights.
“It offered benefits when a lot of bars didn’t. So people stayed. We’ve had a great group of people working there, and our customers come in to see us,” he said. “It has always been a melting pot for all kinds of people.”
On St. Patrick’s Day, Kelly’s will take donations for Welcome House KC and autism awareness. A 70th anniversary celebration is in the works for Oct. 27.
But one of the biggest times of the year for Kelly’s is March’s Big 12 basketball tournament.
In the early 1980s, four Iowa State University fans gathered at Kelly’s the night before the Big Eight basketball tournament. The next year about 100 fans showed up to kick off the tournament. Now about 2,000 to 4,000 Cyclones fans cycle through during the weekend. They have dubbed Kelly’s “Hilton South,” a tribute to Hilton Coliseum, where they play their home games.
“They like to drink beer, they like to have fun, and they are great winners and losers,” Kyle Kelly said. “Most of our family are MU grads, but it is hard not to have an affinity for the Cyclones.”
Kyle still sees some of the Kansas City regulars he started with in 1971. Now their children and sometimes grandchildren are making Kelly’s their own family tradition.
“It’s been carried down through the generations, and it’s been such a tradition with people for one of Kansas City’s most popular watering holes,” Kyle said