Kelly O’Connor is your average small town girl, except she didn’t like being average.
She grew up in a huge multigenerational household, and started her first job at 14 working for the Camelot in Warrendale, Pa. (25 minutes North of Pittsburgh) At the Camelot, she helped the Catering company who served the many Weddings and Formal Parties thrown there. Once she was a little older, she started working at Bob Evans, which is still located in Cranberry Twp., Pa. There she worked her way from hostess to server, and at the age of 20, she moved to the Sunshine State. In Florida, Kelly O worked as a server and bartender for TGI Friday’s just outside of the Disney Gate. It was here that she learned she had a knack and passion for the industry, and she knew she needed to learn as much as possible to fulfill her dream of owning her own business.
As life happened and she had children, she continued to work tirelessly as a server and bartender, sometimes working multiple jobs at once. By 2001, she was a widowed single Mom, bartending at the former “Gene’s Last Chance”, in the Strip but she was striving to be home with her kids at night, and really wanted to get away from the alcohol and bar fights. She went home that night and prayed. She asked her God to give her a better life for her children, and herself. The next morning, she woke up and went to a diner her good friend had told her about. She was met with an employee who said the diner was not for sale, but she insisted to leave her number anyway. The very next day, she received a phone call from the owner stating that they could work something out. From then on, Kelly O would bartend at night, and work at the diner in the morning to get to know the customers and the flow of things. In October of 2001, she became the proud owner of Kelly O’s Diner in the North Hills.
If you ask any North Hills regular, they know Kelly O well. They watched her work 7 days a week, from cooking to cleaning toilets. She did it all. But they also tell a story of a Mom who brought her kids to work with her, who knew all the young customers names and birthdays, who made sure that every little detail was always right despite her exhaustion. The North Hills customers watched in awe of their little neighborhood business lady, who was featured on MSNBC with Charles Schwab as the voice of small business during the 2008 election. She was entertaining celebrities, dining with Janet Napolitano, meeting with Hillary Clinton, and cooking live frequently on KDKA’s Pittsburgh Today Live.
Shortly thereafter all of this press, Kelly O received a life-changing call from the team at Guy Fieri’s “Diner’s, Drive-In’s, and Dive’s”. They filmed this tiny little diner in 2008 for a segment on the “Regional Classic’s” show. Kelly O featured recipes she grew up eating, Haluski (Fried Cabbage and Noodles), Polenta and Bolognese, Fried Mush, and a favorite Turkey Pot Pie Soup. Remember that huge family? Her Mom (Grandma Tootie) and Grandma did things like use the extra garden vegetables that had been canned and leftover turkey meat to make a hearty pot pie to feed all those mouths. Guy Fieri was impressed with her ability to cook, given no formal culinary training, and really took a
liking to her Haluski. He created his own recipe to put alongside hers in his Triple D cookbook, and used her name and story while cooking it live on the Today Show with Al Roker. (Imagine this little business lady’s surprise when she was getting a shout out on the Today Show!)
Business boomed after the release of the Kelly O’s episode in February of 2009, but it was not without growing pains. The restaurant needed updated, the hours that were needed to put in were long, and the show garnished Kelly O her own little bit of Celebrity, drawing attention to what all those North Hills regulars already knew about her, but now everyone else wanted to know too. By this time, Kelly’s Daughter, Seana had started to work full time. Many weekend mornings you found them working side by side, one in the kitchen, one in the dining room. They knew everyone by name (or at least by what they ate) and now they tackled the long hours, added stress, and storytelling together.
By the time 2011 ended, Kelly O had started to look for another location. Hoping to grow her family business for her children. It just so happened that Pitt University used Kelly O as a business model for their Entrepreneur Program. She went in to talk to continuing education students about her story, her drive, and her prosperity. Because of this, she was given a complete business plan and she used it to look at many locations. Each time, her advisor told her that her model just wouldn’t fit, and she became disheartened. Until a random Craigslist search turned up a diner for rent. She knew it well. It was the old Jo Jo’s restaurant located a few blocks up from the bar she used to work for. She called the number and left a voicemail, and when the owner called her back it was like once again, a higher power had stepped in. He said, “I was just in church praying for you to call me.” So just like that, she started into the renovations of the Strip District Diner, opening officially in late July 2012.
Four years later, Kelly O’s is a well-oiled machine regardless of which location you decide to choose. New customers are constantly finding out about these old gems, and one big question staff is always asked now is, “Is Kelly O a real person?” The regulars could tell them Kelly O stories all day. About her generous heart, hilarious humor, smart business sense, and drive to succeed, but usually the answer is just, “Yep. She’s over there filling that coffee/bussing that table/hugging that baby.”
She’s still an average lady, with an above average tale of how she made her dream come true.