"Do ya like bleu cheese?”
“Uh, well, sure.”
Actually, my fondness for bleu cheese has been a fairly recent development, relatively speaking, and I couldn’t reply as enthusiastically as I had minutes before when Kevin McFall had asked me if I was hungry, and would I like some macaroni and cheese.
Yes and yes, I’d replied, and he had promptly procured a large container of, as the menu says, “our original cheddar cheese mac, topped with panko bread crumbs and baked” for me to take home. But I had a feeling I might be missing out on something yummy if I didn’t say yes to the bleu, so four little dishes of a thick and creamy bleu cheese multi-purpose dip (I used it later to make quesadillas—fabulous!) went into the to-go bag as well.
It was the right decision.
People find their callings in all kinds of ways, in all kinds of circumstances. For some, that path toward “what you’re supposed to be doing with your life” is a smooth, straight road, bathed in light and blessed with well-marked corners.
For others the path is shadowy and circuitous. It can detour and it can dead-end. The signage, if there is any, may be outright lies. The path can, as was the case for Kevin McFall, lead you right under a rock.
But, if you happen to be Kevin McFall, you crawl out from under that rock and then you own the rock pile. And then, you make your own path.
Kevin owns and operates Mooney’s Sports Bar & Grill (not to be confused with a rock pile) at 64 West Market Street in Corning. He also owns seven other Mooney’s Sports Bar & Grill restaurants, all in the Buffalo area, and will be opening a ninth Mooney’s at the Arnot Mall in Horseheads. The Corning Mooney’s, open less than a year, is wildly popular. Who’d ’a’ thunk it? A restaurant whose claim to fame is macaroni and cheese? An owner who deems financial success as secondary to paying it forward, to “treating people right all the way around,” and to “getting back at an addiction that had control of me for so long”?
Let’s have a bit of backstory.
Kevin today, in his Sabres jersey, his Titleist hat, sitting in his business, his direct and clear blue eyes not missing a trick as his restaurant comes to life around him (it’s almost lunch time), is not the Kevin who called Corning home thirty years ago. That Kevin was something of a bad boy. Trouble followed him, he followed trouble—it doesn’t matter now who was the leader. Suffice it to say it was a time of the path being a long, dark, roundabout route to an unsavory destination. He made it out, but barely. With the birth of his first son imminent, the Fates stepped in at a time when Kevin needed them most. The path took a slightly sunnier turn.
“I have four kids, and it’s because of them I was able to change,” he says. He credits the impending birth of the oldest child, seventeen-plus years ago, as the catalyst for that change.
But, before that, he was a young man who grew up in the restaurant business, a young man who wasn’t particularly good at channeling his excessive energy in appropriate directions. A young man who, at one point, was left with not much but something to prove.
“My whole life, people told me I couldn’t do something,” says Kevin. So his attitude evolved into “Ya know what? I’ll show you!” And since, he acknowledges, he already knew what to do to make a mess of his life—having an addictive personality ensured that—the time was right to do the opposite. A different reality. A better path. One that went toward something delicious.
One that included macaroni and cheese.
“If you’re gonna do something, make sure you’re the best at it,” Kevin says. And what was he going to do? He was going to open a restaurant, and he was going to do it in an area where he would have “lots of good competition.”
“Western New York has good food—some of the best,” he says. Kevin had been living in the Buffalo area since he left Corning, and was intimately familiar with the food scene there.
“I like to eat,” he admits, and he likes to eat good food, so he knew what he was up against. “And so if you can survive there...”
Survive he did.
The first Mooney’s (it’s a family name) opened in February of 2010 in Kenmore, a Buffalo suburb (the others, just in case you find yourself in that neck of the woods, are in Depew, Tonawanda, Lancaster, LeRoy, Akron, and West Seneca). He is a sports fan, so sports were incorporated into the bar, as were leprechauns. The Mooney’s leprechaun, with one hand balancing a cask over his shoulder and the other with a rm grip on a frothy mug of some libation or other, is, in fact, trademarked. Other storefronts followed; Kevin says he even opened two restaurants on the same day.
“Nine out of ten restaurants fail,” says Kevin. “Mine don’t.” Lest you mistake his confidence for cockiness, read on. According to one dismal statistic, of the 42,000 new restaurants that open yearly, 50 percent will be closed by the end of their third year in operation. The reasons for that sad state of culinary affairs are many: location (location, location), poor management, an absentee owner (although sometimes one who does work in the restaurant can be a problem as well), an owner who never worked in a restaurant—front or back of the house—and now believes ownership has somehow automatically and magically conferred knowledge, an owner who can’t do all the jobs in the business, poor customer service (customers don’t always say what they don’t like about the service they did or did not receive—they just don’t come back), ignorance about food costs, too much money spent prior to opening, the wrong atmosphere, and—the death knell of all death knells—lousy food.
The reason Mooney’s makes it happen and that place down the road doesn’t is due to several factors—but mostly it can be attributed to hard work on the part of the employees (and that’s according to the owner), an owner who stays involved with all aspects of his business, and an owner who truly believes “greed will make you broke.”
“The goal with Mooney’s is to give people what they deserve and do it at a price they can afford,” says Kevin. “Customer service and great food. If you’re gonna do something, make sure you’re the best at it. You’ve got to separate yourself from everyone else.”
So let’s start with the food. Why did he choose something as, well, ordinary, as macaroni and cheese to be the thing separating him from other restaurateurs?
“Why not?” counters the self-proclaimed king of macaroni and cheese. “Cheese in anything is good.“
How secret is the recipe?
“I knew I wanted a béchamel and garlic,” Kevin says, but doesn’t divulge what else (other than cheeses) is in the sauce. My palate caught a hint of mustard, but it could have been my imagination. You’ll have to try some yourself to test your ability to discern the mysteries of Mooney’s Original.
By the way, béchamel, in case you wondered, is a white sauce that is the basis for a plethora of delicious creations. A basic béchamel begins with melted butter and then flour, gently whisked in to make a roux. Milk comes next, and then seasonings—nutmeg is popular, adding a subtle, sometimes hard-to-pinpoint flavor. Béchamel is named for Louis de Béchamel, a French financier who was chief steward to King Louis XIV. Some sources give the king credit for first coming up with the sauce; others say a Béchamel-like sauce first appeared in Italian cookbooks in the Renaissance era.
But no matter. Kevin approached three chefs with his béchamel base plan and asked them each to create a sauce. He picked his favorite—the taste testing was a hardship, but someone had to do it—then, he says, “I tweaked it.” The end result was a macaroni and cheese masterpiece that appears on the Mooney’s menu in sixteen different incarnations. The version with lobster seems to be one that is rather popular. Kevin says the Kenny Pow Supreme mac’n cheese is named for a friend who died—a man who had helped him with the building and in myriad other ways. So, a portion of all K.P. Supremes sold will be donated to help put both his children through college.
So with more than one storefront, and a penchant for consistency, how does Kevin ensure the made-to-order macaroni and cheese is as delicious here as it is there (and vice versa, of course)?
“It’s a process—I make it a very easy system.” He touches brie y on portion control and how much of this goes in the pan in relation to how much of that. He is emphatic about using fresh food.
“Fresh is best. I would never sacrifice quality for quantity. It’s not frozen. It’s not microwaved. It’s not out of a bag. You’ve gotta have consistency in this business.”
This business. That brings us to the part of running a restaurant that is, perhaps, less artistic than creating a beautifully plated panko-crusted haddock or a Buffalo chicken wrap served with some of that amazing bleu cheese (Mooney’s has a large menu and it’s not all macaroni and cheese—not that there would be anything wrong with that). The business end means not making the mistakes the other guys make. The business end means charging enough for your product to keep the doors open and make a living, but not so much that greed takes over.
“Man made money; money doesn’t make the man,” Kevin affirms. He is, of course, not opposed to making a buck. However, for him there is value of a different kind when he sees that smile on a customer’s face as he or she prepares to tuck in to a plateful of steaming, creamy macaroni and cheese.
“It’s not about the money,” he states again.
What it is about is the customer (“win a customer’s stomach and you’ve got a customer for life”) and the employees.
“I grew up in the restaurant business,” he says, and says, too, that he believes he can completely empathize with his employees.
“I’m them,” he says. “You’ve gotta treat everyone right all the way around—customers and employees. I respect my employees. That’s what Mooney’s is: good food and good people.”
And two final let’s-not-forget-these: the work ethic and the atmosphere. The Blues Brothers leaping out from the funny leprechaun logo, (Jake/John Belushi was Kevin’s favorite), the wooden tables and chairs, the eclectic assortment of sports pictures and memorabilia (who knows where else you might find a photo of the late, great Muhammed Ali with the Beatles) all help create a fun, comfortable, and homey place to enjoy a meal and a cold one. Plus, it’s family-friendly, so no worries about bringing the kids along.
As for that work ethic—Kevin says with no reservation that he loves to work.
“I like to stay busy, to channel my energy. I’m up from six in the morning until midnight.”
So there you have it. A recipe for success that includes a nice béchamel and a bit of philosophy.
“We’re here for a smidgeon of eternity,” Kevin muses. “Share the wealth. Pay it forward.”
And eat some good food while you’re at it.