To manage everything his way, Clair de Lune was small, very small. And, unlike nearly every restaurant in town, it didn't take credit cards. Working-class Kelly saw that credit-card terminal as a big, fat, lazy, silent partner sucking away half his profits. Fine-dining restaurants typically run on profit margins of 6 to 8 percent. Credit card companies generally take a 3 percent cut of total revenue charged to the cards. Kelly's theory may have sounded reasonable, but in reality, dinner at Clair de Lune usually ran about $120 - without wine. Who carries around that kind of cash?
The bulk of Kelly's business was special occasions. And according to Sean Yontz, Kelly's former Zenith boss, "No restaurant can survive on special occasions." Yontz ought to know. He closed his own fine-dining establishment, Vega, in May 2004. Before that, Yontz was 5280's chef of the year in 2002, while at Tamayo. He has seen a change on the dining landscape since he came up through the ranks in the '90s. He sums it up in two words: The Regulars.
The Regulars are the people who will spend money for fine dining even on a Wednesday night and keep these establishments in business. Or maybe they'll show up and order a late dinner at the bar on a Friday night - but they're not just showing up for birthdays and anniversaries. "When I was cooking at Zenith, a Regular was someone who came twice a week," says Yontz. "At Vega, a Regular was someone who showed up once a month. And we were really happy to see him."
Jeff Von Stein and his wife, Kathleen, are Regulars. They rotate between four core restaurants: Mizuna, Luca D'Italia, Potager, and Somethin' Else. "We probably go out two or three times a week," says Jeff, the director of operational finances at 360 Networks in Broomfield. "What we think about when choosing a restaurant is the quality of food and the service. At some of these places we've known the servers for years and they treat you like family. These places feel good." The Von Steins were Regulars at Aubergine and have continued their patronage of its successor, Mizuna.
The Von Stein's are especially loyal to Kelly. Not only because of his restaurants' food and service, but the personal relationship and community he cultivates. It's the sort of community relationships Kelly shared in his grandmother's kitchen. One night, Kathleen was eating dinner at Clair de Lune with a friend. Kelly saw her and asked where her husband was, and when she replied that he was at cooking school, Kelly said, "Cooking school? Tell Jeff to bring his knives down here and I'll show him how to cut vegetables." Jeff took him up on it; every other Saturday for about six months, Kelly taught him the basics of his cooking. "I didn't pay him, and I mostly got in the way," Jeff says with a laugh. "Clair de Lune wasn't doing well during that time, and he only did this out of the goodness of his heart."