Chop House Chronicles
Published on Oct 1 2012 11:16 AM in Food
Hospitality Ireland meets Kevin Arundel, owner of the incredibly well-received Chop House in Dublin 4.
Situated on Lansdowne Road, the Chop House faces onto the nation’s busiest thoroughfare for a select number of days a year – when Ireland play at Aviva Stadium, be it football or rugby, tens of thousands of punters frequent the area, a key selling point for when Kevin bought out the place in 2009.
“We were looking at this place for a long time and it finally became available,” Kevin, who runs the business along with his partner Jillian Mulcahy, tells me. “You have seen the place on matchdays…it was an easy decision. It was such a bad pub, such a rough pub. I used to be in Slatterys [opposite the Chop House] on match days and used to look at the place thinking, ‘what a great spot’.”
After Kevin bought the place he completely gutted the building, spending three months rejuvenating it to what stands today. Luckily for Kevin and his team, there were no immediate council problems, no red tape to overtly halt the process, “we were very, very lucky,” he says. “People loved it because we changed the dirty old pub and turned it into something nice. We changed it from what it was, then everyone who was here in the first few months now use this place as a treat. When they have friends over they come here, ‘to Kev’s place’. A lot of it is driven on my craziness, people want to be involved in success, involved in something that works. Our regulars are now proud of our brand. I told our staff that this is now the customers’ restaurant. Our job is now not to mess it up. Now we are just minding our brand. Our growth this year is over 35 per cent on last year. We’ve been looking at sites in Dublin for six months, the right one hasn’t come up yet. We have had loads of meetings, but nothing has suited us yet. But we’re looking.”
Kevin is actively looking for a new spot because Chop House is doing so well. The corporate side of things is flying. Davys Stockbrokers has booked out match days at the place all year round for the rugby. Also, after garnering good local support, there is even a huge spillover from games held over in the RDS. That, and the response from locals, helps drive on the brand. “We opened up in the December for a few weeks to see what it was like. We weren’t doing chicken and chips, we were doing fois gras and the likes. We went the complete opposite direction.”
However, it’s not just the food that can set you apart and draw in the consumer, which Kevin noticed. As we reported in our last issue, varying your drink offering is the easiest way to attract the younger consumers, ones who no-longer appreciate a staple choice of beers wherever they go. “I can’t get Galway Hooker because I can’t get a new tap,” he laughs. “I’m two months waiting, but we should have it in the next few weeks. When we opened we pulled out Carlsberg and Budweiser straight away. We got in Paulaner, Tiger…Peroni because it’s a big draw, that’s a big pull at the moment. We have the Irish ones, O’Haras and Belfast Blonde, which will be replaced by Galway Hooker once we have the tap – which I think will fit here excellently. Then we have a load of pale ales, we do Galway Hooker by bottle, Stonewall Cider from Cork, too. Even our gin would be Hendricks, Fentons tonic water – everything we do here is off-kilter, which is why it works. I can’t help people who offer the same as everywhere else. We see people actually come here because of our drinks offer. We are here two and a half years and I’m amazed no one has copied us yet.”
Kevin is right, as Slattery’s will attest, the location could not be sweeter. However, obviously there is more to it than that. “I would say a quarter of it is down to location. 75 per cent is down to the food,” he says.
And the food is where Kevin’s experience comes to the fore. Previously at L’Ecrivain and No.10, Kevin has been working with Michelin stars all his life. “We like to do things a bit crazy here,” he tells me, “My craziness is what people like.”
Of course despite the Chop House being described as a bar, it is more of a dining experience than a drinking house – Slattery’s across the road would swallow up any challenger to that throne, one would think. No, Chop House is all about the food. “Since we opened we haven’t changed the price point. We were never cheap, it was not about that; it was about branding, food and quality. We buy artisan products wherever possible. Farms in Kildare for my lamb, farms in Tipperary for my pork. We put out supplier of the month up on the website, we link it to who we feel are doing the best. I was in West Cork a few weeks ago with my kids, came across Anthony Creswell smoked salmon. I’ve known him all my life, he is starting to come in now, it all adds to the story and the customers enjoy that story.”
Staff are key to any operation in our industry and Kevin keeps them on their toes here. “The staff are very well informed, they know every single dish inside out and upside down, so that all comes together.” One such member of the team is Jaime McCarthy, a culinary entrepreneurship student at Dublin Institute of Technology. After travelling to work in the Two-Michelin Star Gidleigh Park Hotel in Devon, Jaime returned to Ireland looking to work his way through college, and pick up some tips along the way. “I was thinking of keeping in fine dining but, after I ate here and saw the standard of food and the general atmosphere I changed my mind. The staff are great, if I want to learn a few things in the kitchen the staff let me in before work to pick up a few tips for college too.”
One added piece of theatre which the staff can work with is their steak board, a nice little idea which a few places do nowadays, whereby customers get to see what it is they are going to eat. “It is just like choosing lobsters from a tank,” explains Jaime. “We bring out a steak board to our customer s where we can show them each cut that they could buy. That way we can explain everything about the meat, what is nice about it, where it is from etc. It adds a bit of theatre to the place.” And it’s due to the constant feedback from customers that this board even exists. Because the ingredients used on the menu would not necessarily be food you would expect to get in a pub, it means that they want to know what it is they are after. And everyone is much happier with the experience of asking and learning.
The small patch of land around Chop House, which homes Slatterys, Julios and Paulies Pizza amongst others, is doing a roaring trade nowadays, something Kevin is quick to point out. “Julios is doing excellent, they do the best sandwiches at lunch time, Paulies Pizza is doing great, Slatterys is jammed, then there is another reasonably priced place around the corner which is nice. We would be the main driver in the area. I’m in this area 10/11 years, this area was always good but now its madness. It’s moved down here. We had 178 here the other night for a Sunday, four turnovers. I walked to Ballsbridge for an Indian afterwards and there were two people in it. Ballsbridge, Donnybrook and Baggot Street, they are all dead. For example, last Friday night, we [the other businesses] worked it out. There were 1000 people booked in here between Juniors, Paulies, Slatterys and the other pub down the road. That’s parties, food, drink, everything. 1000 in one small area, its fantastic! But to get that you have to be offering more than just the drink – you have to be offering food. Or music. Or sport. Slatterys, for example, is doing brilliant with sport, jammed. We are at the other end of the spectrum. We used to do theme nights but we are too busy now. I do Chophouse on tour now. Bringing my chophouse menu to other restaurants and bars. I go in and cook live in front of people who haven’t been here – places like the Royal College of Physicians, the Stephens Green Club, Ariel House. It has gotten to the stage where they now approach us. The response is huge. ‘Ive never been there, we’ll see you next week in your place’. Perfect.”
What helps is the knockon effect. Late in the week, the business at Slattery’s draws people into Chop House, “it’s hilarious. On Sunday and Monday then, they spill over to them.” This, Kevin claims, is because they each offer something different, but something very well done. “The ones delivering good quality food at any level – it’s nothing to do with price – are doing well. Places that I would go with my kids, if they are doing good food, they do well. At the other end, ourselves, Pichet, Saba…we would be the leaders in what we do.”
This is the theme of today’s Ireland. Customers are no longer willing to eat substandard produce. An interesting Oscar Wilde quote adorns the top of Chop House’s menus. It reads: ‘ To get into the best society nowadays, one has either to feed people, amuse people, or shock people.’ “We do all three,” says Kevin. “People ask, ‘Why are you so busy on a Monday night?’ It’s because we give a s**t. We deliver.”