The Purty Kitchen in Dún Laoghaire has recently been taken over by hospitality veterans Mark Heather and James Burgess. The pair has revitalised these much-loved premises, creating a warm and contemporary restaurant and bar. Mark Heather talks to Hospitality ireland about plans for the Purty, and his own background.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2022 issue of Hospitality Ireland Magazine, in July of 2022.
Mark, tell us about your career so far.
I began working in the late-night industry, cutting my teeth in Tamango nightclub in Portmarnock before moving to the UK, which was my first experience in food. Upon returning, I took a management position, working for Martin Keane in Club M nightclub and Blooms Hotel. I was there for over five years before moving to the Wright Bar group, where i was again exposed to food on a greater scale. From there I actually moved to the Purty Kitchen for the first time, where food was at the forefront of the business, and i thoroughly enjoyed working alongside chefs and my management team to deliver the quality of food befitting the venue and the customer. From there I became self-employed with a consultancy business, which has and continues to work directly for hospitality business owners, investor groups, insolvency practitioners, and financial institutions.
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At present, I am one of the owners of the Purty Kitchen in Dún Laoghaire, the Villager pub in Chapelizod, and Hospitality Projects Ireland, the consultancy business. I also spent two years working with Alan Clancy, opening several of his regional bars, which was very exciting.
Where does your interest in food and cooking come from?
My real interest in food – service, not cooking – stemmed from my first stint in the Purty Kitchen. The quality of the food at the time was superior to anything I had worked with before.
What is the ethos of the Purty Kitchen now?
We aim to redefine the space that exists between a gastropub and a quality casual-dining restaurant.
Our vision statement reads as follows: ‘To redefine the space: a destination venue that bridges the gap between the gastropub and the Bib gourmand restaurant experience. Award-winning food and drink served in a contemporary Irish pub environment by an invested, rewarded and passionate team. A warm, welcoming and inspiring place to work, to dine, to drink, and to be social.’ I hope that goes someway to answering the question! The Purty is a Dublin landmark.
What are the major changes that you have made?
We wanted to stay true to the near 300- year history, but bring the pub into the twenty-first century. Rich dark woods and warm ambient lighting have been introduced to complement the existing hardwood floors. We removed the many split levels and raised areas to increase space and open up the room, to boost the aesthetic and atmosphere. The artwork adorning the walls reinforces the history of the old port town of Dún Laoghaire.
We are not finished yet, as we are progressing through the extensive redesign and renovation of the old yard, to create a year-round dining terrace and beer garden. We are super-excited to get it finished and open in time for the summer.
What is a ‘typical’ day for you?
From midweek to weekend, it varies, but I will give a typical Friday as an example. I wake up around 6.30am – not by design, but thanks to my kids, who are two and eight. I am usually quite tired, as I struggle to sleep before 1am, but I love this time with them. I get them ready and bring them to school or crèche, which usually involves a lot of singing and storytelling, and really helps me to start the day with a smile on my face.
I head from there to Lotts & Co. in Clontarf and grab a coffee before heading home. Around 10am, I will head off for a 40- or 50-kilometre cycle, depending on my diary, return home, and get ready to go to work for about 1pm.
Depending on the day and meetings, I will head for the Villager to catch up with the management team before the weekend – I am blessed with the team I have there. From there, I will go to the Purty, where I will meet again with managers, go through a pre-shift briefing, and then I like to be hands-on for the peak hours. I like to vary my tasks during service – some nights playing host, some nights working the pass, to review dishes as they come out, and other nights working behind the bar, making drinks. I will finish sometime between 11pm and 1am and head home. If I finish earlier, I will head to the Villager to check in.
All that said, if we have client venues on the books, my days change completely. Monday to Thursday look completely different to Friday and are usually packed full of management meetings, but I have recently been building in a lot more time for me to be creative and work on bigger-picture items.
There really is no typical day in this industry! How was the lockdown for you?
The first six to eight weeks were incredibly stressful and quite intense, but once I was assured that the businesses were secure – that banks, creditors, and so forth were working with us – I began to look for the positives. My wife was on maternity leave until 1 June 2020, so we got to spend an amazing amount of time with Eva and Alex. When she went back to working, albeit remotely, I was with them all day, and I loved every minute of it.
It also helped me to identify what made me happy and what didn’t. I finished up working with Alan and then partnered up with James to take over the Purty. I have always known that I wanted to work for myself, taking inspiration from my parents, who were the third generation to run Heathers Shoes, so the hybrid of self-employment and paid employment didn’t work for me – I had to plough my own path. I don’t think I would have made that change had Covid not come along.
What is your assessment of the restaurant industry now?
I am highly encouraged by the level of support our local customers have given us since we reopened. I can see the pleasure they take in being back out, and I really feel that Covid has helped Irish people remember that we are an incredibly social nation.
Quality will win out, as it always does. I am cautiously optimistic about the future, but another thing I have learned from lockdown is not to sweat the stuff that you can’t control.
What are the major challenges right now?
Three areas: staff, utilities and supply. The availability of staff is the worst I have ever seen. The exodus of full-time staff from the industry over the period of lockdown has been one of the greatest challenges the industry has ever faced. Fixing this with increased payroll or wages is not the answer, as it is not sustainable, as the other costs of sale have also skyrocketed.
Utilities have picked up where insurance left off. The costs are growing out of control, and with no real competition or alternatives in the market, we have to simply suck it up and manage usage as best we can. I only hope that the government can do something to assist in reducing this cost, and I encourage and support all the supporting bodies, such as the LVA, VFI and IHF, in endeavours to tackle this issue.
From food and wine to glassware and cleaning products, supply has been another challenge. Hopefully, the producers and suppliers are coming close to scaling back up to the production levels required to meet demand.
Do you think that Covid has changed the industry permanently?
Yes. I think it has given local business a much-needed boost, as people who were ‘city centre centric’ are now re-engaging with their local businesses. Remote or hybrid working models also means they are around more during the week, which increases footfall.
I think it has also forced operators to be more creative and to explore a more diverse range of revenue generators. However, I do fear for some businesses come the first quarter of 2023, with all supports removed in Q2 of 2022, warehousing repayments becoming a reality, and the continued challenges of staffing and overheads, such as utilities.
How has the restaurant industry changed since you began your career? What has been the most challenging part of your career?
Maintaining balance. At the start of my career, I was a workaholic, but also very unhealthy. When my daughter was born, I became far more balanced, and after a mild health scare in 2015, I have strived to find a more suitable balance between family, exercise and work. It doesn’t always work out on a daily basis, but, on the whole, I strike quite a good balance.
What has been the most rewarding part of your career?
It took me a long time to realise what it was that really made me love this industry, but when I look back over the years – whether in nightclubs or restaurants, or even out socially myself – I just love to entertain people, see them smile and enjoy themselves. The best thing about that is that I get rewarded for it every time I set foot in the bars.
How do you switch off – hobbies, etc.?
I was a competitive cyclist from the ages of 11 to 18 before leaving it and all sports behind until I was 35. Since then, I have gone back to competitive cycling, and it is a huge part of my life.
Any plans for the next six to nine months?
On a personal level, I bought my wife a trip to Lisbon, and we were supposed to leave in February 2021, for her birthday. Through Covid restrictions and other complications, we have had to postpone it, so we are looking forward to going this August.
On a professional level, I want to get the garden terrace open in the Purty before commencing a refurbishment of the Villager.
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