Bar Talk: NHC Pub Panel
In October last year, three well-known publicans sat down at the National Hospitality Conference to discuss the issues affecting the pub trade. Hear what John Ennis, owner of the The Bridge 1859 in Ballsbridge and the Grafton Lounge; Ian Keogh of Gilbert & Wright in Dun Laoghaire and Emmet Lynch, owner of Hugh Lynch's in Tullamore had to say.
To close out the conference the pub panel discussion was held with three publicans - two based in Dublin and one in Co. Offaly - sitting down to discuss the industry that is finally seeing some light at the end of the tunnel after so many tough years. The discussion opened with the panel being asked what they've noticed in the last year of trading. All expressed optimism in the sector and relief that the VAT rate remained the same for the second straight Budget year.
Ian Keogh opened Gilbert & Wright in Dun Laoghaire in the midst of a recession in 2010 and hosts a number of events and activities in the pub to keep trade moving. He noted how it's becoming increasingly challenging for pubs with shrinking busy times. “What I've noticed is bars all the time are having ever-receding trade window. So if you're doing food, and food is 40 per cent of your trade, you're probably doing it between one and two, and then six to seven. And if you're in the drinks trade then you're probably doing all of your revenue between ten and midnight, or if you're in the late-night space it's between one and three. It's a constantly receding volume of time.”
The conversation moved on to food, and the discussion of blurring lines between restaurants and pubs, and how 'soup and sambos' may not be a viable option for pubs in the future, with increasingly discerning customers. John Ennis, who last year famously joined forces with four Irish rugby internationals to open The Bridge 1859 in Ballsbridge, said that it's imperative for businesses to offer good food in a local area with so many good restaurants. “If you were opening up a pub now the place you'd want to put it is beside another pub or restaurant, because you'd have that mass of nighttime activity,” said Ian Keogh.
“It strikes me that the pubs that will struggle going forward is the ones that are out on their own in a location with nothing else around them, and sometimes that can be in the city centre, just down the wrong street. You are seeing more crossover with bars getting more and more into food.” The panel then mentioned Louis Fitzgerald and his plan to refocus his pubs to develop them into more of a food offering. Keogh added: “There are restaurant operators that are mixing the food offering with that late-night offering and you are getting that element of blurred lines where you're thinking 'am I in a restaurant or am I in a pub?'. Casual dining is the key for pubs going forward, rustic, worn, getting stuck in with your hands, that kind of thing.”
One subject on that is unavoidable in any discussion on pubs in recent times is the craft beer phenomenon in Ireland and how it now plays an integral part of business. Ennis noted how craft beer drinkers seem to be more adventurous and are not as brand loyal as an typical drinker, which makes it more important to keep taps rotating. “Craft beer can't be ignored now. I think it's a trend in the sense that it's popular but i don't think it's going to go away any time soon, I think it's here to stay. Often what we find is that people will try a different craft beer every time, rather than sticking with the same one.”
Questions from the floor were then taken and restaurateur John Farrell, following on from the subject of craft beers, asked the panel if any of the men had considered going into brewing after a favourable budget. Farrell was referring to the the special relief which reduces the standard rate of Alcohol Products Tax by 50m per cent for beer produced in microbreweries, which is now available upfront as well as through a rebate. Ian Keogh commented that although he had considered the idea, it is a big venture for anyone to take on.
“You need to have the right level of infrastructure and you need to be incredibly well-financed. We're talking about massive investment for a product that won't pay dividends for a number of years probably.” Treacy and Ennis echoed Keogh's sentiments on the matter, although didn't write it off altogether. Emmet Lynch, however, has taken the first step, and has already met resistance from one of the big players. “I went down the road of looking into setting up a microbrewery three or four years ago and we had wonderful branding.
"But when I went to register the company, unfortunately, another company – a large Scottish whisky owner – objected to me registering the name 'Tullamore Brew'. So unfortunately Tullamore Brew has spent the last few years going forward and backward with the director of patents. Fortunately in August, the final ruling was granted and I'm now the owner of the Tullamore Brew brand.” This drew a round of applause from the panel and those in attendance, but Lynch was quick to add: “Although at this point I have no brewery!”
The final question posed to the panel was the age-old problem of attracting female customers into bars. John Ennis joked: “Well we opened a bar with four rugby players, that was our strategy!” Those not as fortunate to be business partners with Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip, however, agreed that cocktails, wine, music and above all, cleanliness were all key factors. Lynch concluded that attracting females, and customers in general, goes back to the basics. “I genuinely think it goes back to the very basic thing of toilets. At our festival this year, rather than having portaloos we got the posh ones with the steps up to them.
"We booked some tops class acts, spent a fortune on the show - which was like Glastonbury - and all the feedback I was getting from the females was 'we really like the posh toilets'. Some publicans even today miss the basics, while many things have changed with trends and the likes, at the end of the day it's about customer experience.”