Enter the dining room at Tellers on any given night and you’ll find people celebrating beneath the space’s impossibly high ceilings. The servers are smiling, the guests are laughing, and in the air is the mouthwatering aroma of excellent steak prepared expertly. Plates full of food and glasses of wine dot the tables; in the bar next door, the restaurant’s music is interrupted only by curious conversation and the shake, shake, shake of craft cocktails.
If this scene, set on Islip’s Main Street, sounds seductive, that’s because it is. Tellers has been serving its community for 20 years this season. By now, both the restaurant and its parent company, Bohlsen Restaurant Group (BRG), know exactly how to romance Long Island.
Of course, Tellers was not always such an easy sell. In 1999, when Tellers first opened, the South Shore of Long Island was largely still shy to upscale, fine dining restaurants—something the Bohlsen family learned quickly.
“Our family has been in the restaurant business since the 1930s,” says Michael Bohlsen, who owns and operates BRG with his brother, Kurt. “But Tellers was the first fine dining restaurant we opened—and we opened it to absolutely no fanfare. Believe it or not, on our opening night, the first table came in, sat down, looked at the menus and left. The next couple came in with a stroller, saw that we had no high chairs, and left. My father looked at me and said, ‘It’s been nice, I’m going home.’”
The community’s initial reception to Tellers was disappointing, but not surprising; the Bohlsen family knew that what they were doing was, for most people, a stretch. So they kept going. With their father’s advice in their heads—to never lower their standards, to continue to raise the bar instead—Kurt and Michael dedicated themselves to improving the restaurant even further, investing in even higher quality steaks and ingredients. They also did a lot of listening.
“We have always focused on our guests. If there’s one key to our success, that’s it,” says Michael. “We know we’re not cheap, so our goal has always been to see people leave and say, ‘Wow, that was worth it.’ All we want is to make people feel better leaving than they did when they walked in.”
The Tellers team—which includes servers who have been with the restaurant since its opening—accomplishes this goal in a number of ways. First and foremost, they consistently serve some of the best steaks on Long Island. They source only the highest quality ingredients, as locally as possible, and then prepare them with a delicate, thoughtful touch. At the bar, they offer the most exciting spirits program outside of New York City, with an extensive wine and cocktail list that is constantly pushing the envelope. And behind the scenes, they work diligently to educate themselves and each other, so that every member of the team continues to grow—and can, as a result, continue to offer their guests food, drinks and experiences that are not only what they’ve come to expect from Tellers, but somehow even better.
“Our philosophy is this: There are only two ways things can go. You’re either getting better or getting worse,” says Michael. “There’s no such thing as staying the same. You may think you’re staying the same, but you’re actually getting worse because other people are passing you. So you have to keep working. You have to keep getting better.”
“That’s exactly it,” says Kurt. “We never stop evolving. Even though the concept behind Tellers remains the same, we are constantly working to make it even better, to offer our guests even more.”
Frank Ferraro and John Nicoletti—Tellers’ general manager and bar manager, respectively—have been, and continue to be, an incredibly important part of that evolution. And while Michael and Kurt may jokingly regard them as “PR nightmares,” given that both Ferraro and Nicoletti met their wives while working at Tellers, it is clear that they regard them not as employees, but as indispensable members of the BRG family instead.
Read more about Tellers’ unparalleled brown spirits program here.
“What we have in common here is that we all think of ourselves as students,” says Nicoletti. “We are students of this industry and we’re dedicated to learning not only about trends and the way the industry is headed, but about what our guests actually want. Ten or 15 years ago, for instance, had I told [Michael and Kurt] that they’d have a wall of brown spirits in Tellers, they would’ve laughed.”
“They did,” teases Ferraro. “But here we are. Now we’re home to the only Whiskey Week on Long Island and we have our own blend of WhistlePig whiskey. We just want to offer our guests something that they can’t get anywhere else.”
It is rare to find a work environment that encourages employees to constantly pitch ideas. It is rarer still to find one in which the bosses actually listen and work to bring those ideas to life. This is exactly what happens on Tellers.
“It’s so rare to be able to present your raw ideas; that just doesn’t happen at a lot of companies,” says Sheila Haile, BRG’s director of marketing. “But everyone here is part of a group of A-team players. We are given a legitimate sounding board. And it works because everyone brings their A game, has done the research, listens to the guest and understands what they want from us. There really isn’t anyone else on Long Island that can offer everything this team does, in this space and with this common spirit and drive. It just doesn’t exist. And that’s why Tellers has thrived now for 20 years.”
Longevity like that—in the restaurant business, especially—speaks for itself. So how will Tellers, a place at which so many people celebrate the most special days of their lives, celebrate its own big anniversary? For starters: with the launch of their own blend of wine, six months of steak specials and a guest chef series that will give back to the community.
“Wine has always been an essential part of the fine dining experience at Tellers,” says Paulo Vilella, BRG’s beverage director. “So, to celebrate our 20th anniversary, we worked with Raphael Vineyard to make our own Bordeaux blend wine that’s very clean, very smooth and silky. We did barrel tastings and then played back and forth, adding a little more merlot, a little more cabernet franc. We wanted to make a real crowd-pleaser and I’d say we succeeded.”
Read more about Paulo Vilella and BRG’s dedication to wine education here.
The end result—Tellers Celebration Blend—will be available by the bottle or by the glass at Tellers, and in kegs at its sister-restaurants Verace and H2O. It will pair perfectly with the restaurant’s celebratory steak special: a 20-ounce steak, aged in-house while wrapped in whiskey-soaked towels.
“The whiskey adds a pleasant bite to the steak, but you also get those secondary flavors like vanilla and honey,” says Ferraro. “It still tastes like a steak, but with a little note of something extra. It’s special.”
Special, too, is how the Tellers team is incorporating a charity series—Chefs Against Hunger—into their anniversary celebrations. Benefiting Long Island Cares, a longtime BRG partner, the series will see celebrated local chefs like Tom Schaudel and Michael Meehan take over the Tellers kitchen, create their own menu, and offer guests an extraordinary dining experience for a good cause.
“Investing in Long Island is always a priority here because Long Island has spent the past 20 years investing in us,” says Michael Bohlsen. “So we try to give back as much as we can to the community and to our guests, as well. That’s why we’re always doing something to ensure that we’re better today than we were yesterday. Not everything is going to work, but we’re going to keep on trying. We owe that much to everyone who has spent the past two decades growing with us.”