Saturday 24 February 2018

A steady ship following stormy waters on the Wild Atlantic Way

Hugh McNally has skillfully managed to steer his fourth-generation family business though a recession into a new era while maintaining the old traditions. It's something to write home about, says Joanna Kiernan

Morrissey’s Seafood Bar and Grill
Morrissey’s Seafood Bar and Grill
Hugh McNally of Morrissey’s Seafood Bar and Grill
Joanna Kiernan

Joanna Kiernan

Hugh McNally is the fourth generation of his family to run Morrissey's Bar and Restaurant in Doonbeg, Co. Clare - and it is a legacy he is determined to both progress and protect.

"Growing up, Morrissey's was our grandparent's pub. We lived in Limerick, but we spent all of our summers, school holidays and most weekends here, and we had a fish and chip shop across the street in the mid 1990s," Hugh explains. "When food started becoming popular, we moved all of the equipment over from the fish and chip shop, built a kitchen and started cooking from there. So the Morrissey's of today evolved from that."

Hugh took over Morrissey's in 2000, while still at college studying for a degree in business management.

"It used to be a very seasonal business, so we would open in June and close in September, and then I would go back to college," Hugh says. "When I finished college in 2002, I came down full-time and ran it for a few years, extending the season out from April to October. Then, in 2004, I did the renovations."

However, while Hugh has made significant changes at Morrissey's, there are some traditions, which have remained the same for decades, such as the establishment's walk-in, first-come, first-served, no-reservations policy.

"There was always a plan in my mind to do it - and especially with the golf course coming into the village in the early 2000s, that was what gave me the confidence to invest, because I knew that there was obviously going to be a lot more tourism around."

Hugh turned to the banks for assistance and in so doing, he says, "I leveraged myself up quite a bit".

"I suppose by the time I got it up and running properly, it was 2006 and for the first two years I thought I was on the pig's back," Hugh admits. "Then a massive crash came in 2009 and it really did knock me for six, because I had large borrowings. I have seen a lot of friends in many similar businesses go under in that time. So to keep it going was a great thing."

The seasonality of Hugh's business due to Doonbeg's very geography became an additional challenge throughout the recession.

"It doesn't come as a surprise, so you try to make hay while the sun shines," he explains. "You know that the lights are going to go out around mid-October, so you just have to manage cash-flow from there. Managing cashflow is probably the most important lesson that I have learned in this business."

It could be said, however, that Hugh has something of a head-start, or even a genetic advantage, when it comes to dealing with the bottom line. "My father was an accountant and I am the youngest of four siblings and the only non-practising accountant amongst us, so it could be somewhat in the genes," he laughs.

And Hugh has also been using Morrissey's off-season - the restaurant now closes for January and February each year - to concentrate on further studies; he will do his final chartered taxation exams this coming winter.

Morrissey's now employs 13 staff.

"We close on one day of the week - on Mondays - which I think is advantageous from a staff point of view because it keeps consistency there; people have the same day off and they come back and start the week together on the Tuesday," Hugh says.

"I have been very lucky - we have an incredibly low turnover of staff. I often get people who start working here in their first year of college and keep working with us until they graduate."

And by serving dishes such as Carrigaholt crab claws and other fresh, locally-produced seafood, alongside Angus sirloin steak and hearty casseroles, the Morrissey's simple, no nonsense approach to good food has made the business a winner with both locals and tourists alike.

"We are not catering just for one customer set; we have the locals and have the domestic market - the people who will holiday in Kilkee and the surrounding areas - and then we have the European tourists on the Wild Atlantic Way and the golf tourists too," Hugh explains.

"So we have to cater for about five or six different markets, and each of them is as important as each other.

"With the Wild Atlantic Way now, we have certainly seen a much larger volume of tourists passing through in rental cars and we are also seeing a lot more Europeans than before. We're very close to the ferry down to Kerry, however, so sometimes it can be difficult to get them to stop in.

"But the Loop Head tourism is bringing a lot more tourists around also, so we are getting a nice mix of business, which is great."

The opening of the golf links and luxury hotel at Doonbeg - now known as Trump International Golf Links and Hotel - was a key consideration for Hugh when it came to investing in the future of his family business.

"In general terms, the business from the golf club has become an increasingly important part of my business - not just in the last two or three years, but since the lodge opened.

"It has always been a very important asset to the village, all of the pubs and restaurants benefit from it and they run complimentary shuttles down here from the hotel," Hugh explains.

"Since Trump took over, none of that has changed. It has all stayed constant and there has been a huge amount of work done there on the golf course, which is great. He has protected that asset, which is particularly important to us," Hugh adds.

"If the golf club wasn't in Doonbeg, we would see an immediate difference in the off-season, which is the golf season. So if we were losing out in April and May, and September and October - the times when a lot of American golf groups come over - it would be devastating to us.

"Let me tell you, I'd lived away and came back to a small village - and it was the golf course that was one of the main things that gave me the confidence to move back here in the first place.

"I'd say there has been close to €5m spent on the golf course and on things like new equipment - and I'm a golfer myself, so I can vouch for the finished product," Hugh adds with a smile. "It is just fantastic - and the feedback from our customers has been great too, so it looks like it is just going to go from strength to strength."

Hugh is equally optimistic when it comes to his own business.

"It has been a very interesting few years and I do feel we are out the other side of the recession and hopefully it will start trickling down," he says.

"I spend a bit of time in Dublin in the winter months and I see how well Dublin is doing. That gives me confidence that that will eventually come down to west Clare. It was a tough few years but we are seeing the light at the other side of the tunnel now," he adds.

"I remember growing up with older people telling me: 'You don't know what tough times are like, you don't know what a recession is like'.

"Well, I'll tell you what, anyone who is in their early or mid-30s now has been through a hell of a recession - so they can't say that to us anymore.

"As far as the journey is concerned though, I have no regrets. It has been very interesting and very hard at times, but a great experience."

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