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When Disaster Strikes

Published on Dec 12 2012 3:14 PM in Features

When Disaster Strikes

When fire or flood threatens the very physical existence of an establishment, owners can suddenly find themselves facing one of the most testing times of their careers. Peter Molloy reports.

On a Sunday morning in June of this year, Fearghus McCormack was attending a food and drink conference in London when his girlfriend began to receive texts and calls about a fire in the early hours of the morning at the Merrion Inn in Dublin 4. The well-known pub and restaurant had been under family ownership since 1991, with McCormack joining the management team alongside his father, Eamonn, in 2009. When McCormack got through to his father on the phone, Eamonn was able to confirm that the establishment had indeed been badly damaged.

“A fire started in the garage forecourt next door to us,” explains McCormack. “It then passed up into our attic space, and the fire spread across the attic quite quickly.”

Although units from the Dublin Fire Brigade had arrived at the scene almost immediately, firefighters had to wait for safety reasons until the Merrion Inn’s roof had fallen in before they could direct water onto the blaze.

By the time the fire was eventually extinguished, the upper floor of the pub had effectively been destroyed by the fire, with the lower floor extensively damaged by water. It wasn’t until McCormack returned to Dublin that he could appreciate the full extent of what had happened at the establishment.

“The instant reaction from myself and Eamonn had been to confirm that nobody had been hurt. That was the first question. It then took a month to really assess the damage. The only things left were the four external walls. There was nothing else left of the building. It was completely gutted – the fire had gutted upstairs, and the water had gutted downstairs. The water damage was far worse than the fire damage, but, obviously, with a garage next door, you can understand the firefighters taking no chances.

“For insurance purposes, all the furniture had to be taken out, catalogued and put in storage to see could it be salvaged or was it written off. The pub had had a huge amount of wood in it, with wooden panelling on the walls and on the ceilings, and over time, day by day, that began to expand and crack. So it took that first month to really get a feel for the damage.” Four days after the fire at the Merrion Inn, County Cork publican Peter Collins received a phone call in the early hours of the morning that signalled the beginning of a similar ordeal for his business. Sudden and unprecedented flash flooding had resulted in extensive damage to his establishment, Barry’s of Douglas. “I got a call at home from a neighbour who said, ‘You’d better come down here – Douglas is flooding,’” Collins says, five months on.

“I’m in this premises 17 years, and I’ve seen floods come and go, but where we’re situated in Douglas, we never got any flooding at all. So I got into the car with a bit of scepticism.”

When he arrived at his business, however, Collins realised the severity of the situation.

“I found Douglas practically submerged, with water outside the front of Barry’s, maybe two to three feet high.” Helped by neighbours and staff members, Collins immediately set to work trying to stem the flow of water, but eventually had to concede that lasting damage had already been done to the premises.

“You’re going on autopilot – your instinct is to save. We moved furniture, tried to do as much as we could, but then eventually had to give up the ghost. Because the water was contaminated, it was unsafe for everybody. My engineer turned around to me and said, ‘Peter, you’re not going to get open for a while. This is a major, major claim, and you’re going to have to get that into your head.’” That realisation came as a significant personal blow for the publican.

“I was quite upset,” he explains. “It’s your livelihood and your business, and there’s an emotional attachment. I only realised afterwards that – on top of your livelihood being taken away from you – you’re also connected to the property as a publican or a restaurateur.

“That really hit me. You’re personal with people, and through the period of the business being closed, that interaction with people was one of the things I missed the most.”

The news was also difficult for the approximately 60-strong workforce at Barry’s, the bulk of whom had to be laid off in the short term while renovation and refurbishment took place.

“Everybody was upset. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Everybody has an idea of themselves that they’re a big, tough, hard-nosed businessperson, but when you find yourself in a hotel room with 60 faces looking up at you, wondering what they’re going to do, it’s quite sobering. I had a public representative with me after I told them, and we had all the background work done so that if they needed to go on to social welfare or get work elsewhere, they had all the necessary paperwork ready in order to smooth that process.” Likewise, at the Merrion Inn, Fearghus McCormack says that the fire came as a major shock to everybody connected to the business. “It was a big shock to the staff. Some of them are there ten years, a few for three or four years. We don’t have a high staff turnover. We would know maybe 70 per cent of our customers on a first-name basis, so it was a shock as well for regulars and for local people. There was general shock for everybody, but we got a lot of well-wishes from customers through phone calls, emails and cards, and it was very nice to get that.”

However, rather than being daunted by a calamity that had literally seen their business destroyed, the Merrion Inn’s management team resolved to try and view the unexpected development in as positive a manner as they could. McCormack observes, frankly, that the blaze meant that “the old pub was gone, and it’s not going to come back”.

“Our reaction was, ‘No one’s hurt, so let’s look at what we can do now, what we can fix to make things better.’ We had good insurance with Allianz – as you know, a very reputable company – so there were no worries there. The positive side is that we now get to change a lot of things that we didn’t like. I mean, it wasn’t a pub that we hated – we liked working there! – but it was designed 21 years ago, and times change and things move on. So we decided to take the opportunity to change things and tweak things. You can always make things a little bit better.”

Making things that little bit better at a new Merrion Inn includes a renewed focus on food, something that McCormack notes has always been a key part of the establishment’s success. “We’re very much a food-based operation. We did food seven days a week from noon to nine thirty, a huge amount of food, and that’s generally the way the industry has gone. The pub has gone from being just a place you a drink to a place that families will come in to eat and so on. It’s restaurant food in a more relaxed, informal environment. We’ll certainly be pushing the food element: real, good-quality food, but not at restaurant prices.”

Even as his establishment was still, literally, under water, Peter Collins was equally determined to turn things around as quickly as possible. “We started making our calls and we assembled our team. The first thing we did was to appoint a firm of loss assessors because it was going to be a very big insurance claim. That happened at half past seven [on the morning of the flood]. By half past eight, we had an engineer, a loss assessor and an architect. Half an hour later, we had a quantity surveyor. We started working from three hours after the time I was told I wasn’t going to reopen, and our heads were down for the next four months. We’ve turned that premises around in four months, so it can be done.”

Although the flooding that wreaked havoc in Barry’s was a freak event, Collins has been prudent in incorporating anti-flood technology in the restored establishment.

“We’ve invested heavily in flood defence systems, and we have those now in the areas that would have let water in the last time. We’ve also thought about the finishes and materials to use in areas that could get flooded.” If his own experience has left him with one key piece of advice for business owners facing a similar recovery challenge, suggests Collins, it is to obtain expertise. “The key to it was having people that knew what they were doing. On something huge like this, this is where they shine. Surround yourself with good people and have the confidence that they’ll guide you through. We’re publicans, we’re restaurateurs, we’re not insurance experts or anything else.” A healthy pub or restaurant, of course, is a business that depends in large part upon the patronage of its regular customers. With the revamped Merrion Inn scheduled to reopen for business next year, McCormack acknowledges the worry that its closure could result in the loss of some regulars.

“It’s certainly something at the back of our minds. We will be anxious to get [our regulars] back, and I’d love to see that happen, but I would hope that, given that it is very much a family-run business, that makes us a little bit different. I would hope that that makes people happy to come back again.” Collins says that he went to lengths during the closure of Barry’s to keep its clientele as engaged and informed as possible about the establishment’s journey to recovery. Those efforts included light-hearted updates on the pub’s website featuring images of rubber ducks.

“It was a ploy to introduce a little bit of levity to a very serious situation. Even though the pub was a building site, we created a sort of viewing window so that people could come up and see what was going on, because we’d have passing trade. Our customers were genuine in their wish to have the place reopened, and we nurtured that. We kept people’s interest – we had our plans up outside, we had a countdown of days to open, and we kept all of our digital stuff going.” The work of Collins and his team paid off when Barry’s reopened at the end of October, just in time for the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival. Meanwhile, Fearghus McCormack and the rest of the management team at the Merrion Inn hope to open their doors once more, at Easter 2013. The lesson from both cases, it seems, is that with sufficient planning, hard work and determination, hospitality businesses can indeed bounce back from even the most devastating of developments.

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