OLEAN — For five decades, Jim McAfee has been the man behind one of the most popular restaurants in the city, the Beef ‘N’ Barrel.
Today, McAfee celebrates the 50th anniversary of purchasing the restaurant at 146 N. Union St. Together with his sons, Mike and PJ, McAfee’s successful management of the establishment boils down to a few key ingredients: consistency, great employees and a supportive community.
The McAfees’ relaxing demeanor, joking with each other at a table in the original restaurant’s dining area, as classic rock plays on the sound system, makes the Beef ‘N’ Barrel feel as welcoming and comfortable as always. But behind the scenes, with thousands of hours of work a week and nearly 100 employees, the family’s dedication to their establishment hasn’t faltered.
“It’s been exciting, but there’s been a lot to it,” McAfee, 77, reflected. “When we started, we just had this one room and just a quarter of what the kitchen is now.”
Brothers Neil and Denis Goodemote opened the Beef ‘N’ Barrel in May 1965 to a crowd of hungry patrons. Bringing beef on weck to the Olean area for the first time, the lines haven’t stopped.
The restaurant soon became a very popular dining spot for miles around and was frequented by the St. Bonaventure basketball players, including the famous Bob Lanier.
In 1971, the Goodemotes sold the restaurant to McAfee, one of their employees at the time.
“Denis and Neil split. They had the Heritage Inn in the back, so Neil took this and Denis took the Heritage and I ended up buying this from Neil,” he recalled. “It was just being in the right place at the right time, and a little luck. But afterwards, it’s not luck. You have to work hard.”
McAfee worked at Leo’s Supermarket in high school, and later Sunkist Growers of California. He said he started working in the restaurant part-time a few years before the purchase.
“You had to wear many hats,” he said. “If it slowed down, you had to tend bar, cut beef, try to see people and also take cash. But the nice thing was you could see the whole operation just standing there, cutting.”
The restaurant originally had seating for about 50, but long lines of customers at the lone entrance — and the opportunity to buy additional space next door — encouraged the first expansion, which doubled the seating and added another entrance.
“I went this way first, right next door,” McAfee said, pointing south, “which was a gift shop, and then bought the liquor store and the alley, and then I bought Butler’s.”
Those later purchases and renovations increased seating to 250 guests, but the lines continued. Today, the restaurant includes four dining rooms and seats over 300 patrons. The rear parking lot off North Barry Street has expanded from 34 spots to more than 100.
“There’s a total of nine properties that I bought, just piecing it together as it developed,” McAfee said.
IN THE five decades since McAfee took over, priorities have remained the same: the food is most important and a quiet atmosphere follows close behind. The kitchen uses anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of beef weekly. Including steaks and prime rib, McAfee said some weeks see more than 5,000 pounds served.
In 1989, Mike joined the team, and PJ followed in 1992. Since then, the three have developed the restaurant into a well-oiled machine.
“The best thing that ever happened to me,” McAfee said of his sons. “They do a hell of a job. I’m still here every day, but I sure rely on them.”
PJ said one key to the success of the operation is someone from the family is there every day.
“And obviously that makes your quality control,” he said. “And customers want to see family here every day, it’s a big selling point. If we wouldn’t have been in the picture, it wouldn’t be a second-generation business.”
Although they have tried changing things up with breakfasts and Sundays, the elder McAfee said sticking with the usual times and days has worked best.
“I don’t mind busting my butt, working 12 or 18 hours a day, but I just want that one day, which was Sunday,” he said.
Another key part of the business’ success has been a great staff, McAfee said, something he’s been fortunate to have. Before the coronavirus pandemic, he said they had about 110 employees.
“We have one server who has been here for 43 years,” PJ said. “A lot are 30, 25 years,” added Mike.
PJ said his dad has been called a pillar of the community and the restaurant a destination point for the city. There have been many famous faces in the restaurant over the years, he said, from politicians to actors, professional athletes to musicians.
Along with general improvements and updating décor through the years, the biggest changes to the business have been the prices and the technology.
“We held off for the longest time without credit cards,” McAfee said. “Now, that’s the biggest portion of our sales by far.”
WHEN THE dining rooms had to close at the beginning of the pandemic, the staff was reduced by over half and take outs were the only way to eat, McAfee said. But with the community’s support, the restaurant made it through, and the staff is back to nearly 100 strong.
“Lots of support from the community, not just the Olean area but Bradford and Pennsylvania,” Mike said. “A lot of the regulars who ate here once or twice a week still came in for takeout.”
“It’s unbelievable the amount of customers coming in and supporting us,” PJ said. “Sometimes you don’t realize how much the customers support you until something like that happens.”
To help keep things feeling fresh, McAfee said they have some updates planned. Carpets are set to be replaced in June, a new addition built onto the kitchen will be coming in the fall and new awnings out front and a new color scheme are in the works for 2022.
“We always try to put money right back into the business,” Mike said.
In the years to come, Mike and PJ said they hope to keep up with in-house renovations and improving the décor. A major project they’ve discussed is the possibility of a new computer system, especially with the number of takeouts they do now.
“In the IT part, there’s room to grow,” Mike said. “If we could do gift cards online, it would be so much easier.”
After all the expansions, changes with technology, good times and tough times, McAfee said he didn’t want to do anything special to celebrate his 50 years other than go out to dinner with his sons and keep making the business better.
“I think we’re kind of low key,” he added.