Sunday 18 November 2018

New head of vintners association aims to raise bar as pubs fight for the future

Deirdre Devitt, the first woman to head Dublin's Licensed Vintners Association, believes many have weathered the storm and can toast new offerings, writes Kim Bielenberg
Deirdre Devitt, the first woman to take charge of the LVA in almost two centuries, talks to customers at The Two Sisters pub in Terenure, Dublin. Photo: Maxwells
Deirdre Devitt, the first woman to take charge of the LVA in almost two centuries, talks to customers at The Two Sisters pub in Terenure, Dublin. Photo: Maxwells
Deirdre Devitt

As the first woman to chair the Licensed Vintners Association in its 200-year history, Deirdre Devitt is relentlessly optimistic about her trade.

There are now 2,000 fewer pubs across the country than there were a decade ago, and since the heyday of the Celtic Tiger publicans have been hit by one setback after another.

Stricter drink-driving laws left many bars stranded; the ban on smoking depleted the clientele further; and then publicans were clobbered by the recession, and intense competition from cheap supermarket alcohol.

But Deirdre Devitt, a fourth generation publican on her mother's side, said doom-laden forecasts of the death of the Irish pub have been wide of the mark.

"Good pubs and good publicans have weathered the storm," says the owner of the Two Sisters bar in the Dublin suburb of Terenure. "They have changed their offering and evolved. A lot of them are family pubs that have seen tough times before."

The Licensed Vintners Association (LVA) celebrates its bicentenary this year.

It has taken the body that represents Dublin publicans two centuries to have a woman at the helm, but a female perspective is perhaps welcome in a trade undergoing rapid change.

"When my family took over the Two Sisters in the 1980s, women were not allowed to be served pints. If a woman asked for a pint she was given two glasses."

The days have gone when trade was dominated by men who came in after work, slipped off home for an evening meal cooked by a long-suffering wife, and then returned later.

"Now, food is a crucial part of a pub's business. Over the past decade, food has probably gone from 10pc to 30pc of turnover in pubs. A good food offering is crucial if you want to attract women in the door."

As a mother of a three-year-old, Devitt says modern pubs also have to be family-friendly. "You have to have healthy food for kids and not just the standard chicken nuggets," she says.

Devitt has a mother and baby group that meets in the pub on a Wednesday morning.

The Two Sisters is perhaps a microcosm of how the trade has evolved over the past decade. The pub has a multiplicity of craft beers, artisan coffee, numerous whiskey brands, a lengthy wine list and 10 different types of gin, including such brands as Bertha's Revenge, Glendalough and Mór.

As a publican in the heart of suburbia, Devitt believes a pub should be a hub at the centre of the local community.

As well as the mother and baby group, there is a golf society and meetings of the local active retirement group take place there too. On Good Friday, a day when the pub cannot serve alcohol, the Two Sisters is holding an artisan market in the car park. There will be stalls selling art, crafts, and food will be served.

Devitt believes events are key if Dublin pubs are going to thrive, especially in the city centre, with music gigs and comedy.

With competition from cheap supermarket drink, she says pubs have to offer a destination for a good night out.

Now, on Tapas Tuesdays, the Two Sisters echoes to the sound of flamenco guitar.

"During one of the soccer World Cup, when Ireland was not playing, we decided that the Two Sisters would follow Spain.

"We served tapas whenever Spain played. It was such a resounding success that customers asked us to put tapas on the menu.

"I thought to myself that Tuesdays were not a great day, so I decided to have Tapas Tuesdays from three to nine." Devitt says social media now play a crucial role in the marketing of a pub.

"A lot of our customers follow us on Facebook, and we also do Twitter and Instagram."

To mark the bicentenary of the LVA, Guinness recently launched a limited edition beer, Dublin Amber Pale Ale and because Devitt is chair of the LVA, it was launched in her pub.

"I posted about it on Facebook and I got 15,500 views, which is great for a pub in Terenure.

"We launched our new coffee yesterday and we announced on social media that we had free cupcakes with every coffee. It's a good way of marketing."

Devitt is steeped in the life of the bar trade, having grown up above the family pub on Camden Street. The family still has a share in Devitt's, the city centre establishment, but its main base is now in Terenure.

Her mother's family were publicans from Tipperary town, and her father moved from Limerick to work in the bar trade and ended up running his own pubs.

Having grown up in the trade, Devitt studied economics at UCD and then worked for over a decade for the financial services company Meridian as director of business process outsourcing.

"It was great experience because I was able to come back into the trade with a commercial head on my shoulders," she said.

When Deirdre took over as chairwoman of the LVA last May she had big shoes to fill. She took over from the founder of the Porterhouse chain, Oliver Hughes, who has since died. "He was a maverick from start to finish, and so innovative as a businessman.

"He was 20 years ahead of his time when he started craft brewing and when he opened the Porterhouse chain people in the trade were sceptical."

The LVA represents its members interests in lobbying the government on issues such as tax, health regulation, insurance and drink-driving limits.

While there is full VAT of 23pc on alcohol, Deirdre Devitt wants the reduced 9pc rate for food and accommodation to be preserved. With food sales growing, the pub trade would be affected if rates on food were raised again.

"Tourism has been hugely beneficial in keeping the trade going, particularly in the city centre. We are also seeing the effects of tourism benefiting suburban pubs, because there are now a lot of tourists staying in the suburbs in Airbnb properties."

While the LVA represents 600 Dublin pubs, 4500 publicans outside the capital are represented by the Vintners Federation of Ireland.

Devitt says there have been moves recently to unite the two bodies, but so far these have not been successful.

The LVA claims to be the oldest trade association in the country. If the smoking ban and the recession proved difficult for publicans, the trade body has been through many crises before.

It survived punitive tax rises imposed by the British government to pay for imperial wars, and a craze for temperance in the 19th century which forced many public houses into bankruptcy.

Devitt says many of the problems suffered by publicans in the recent past were caused by poor property investments rather than trading conditions.

She shows me some advice given to Dublin publicans by one of her predecessors, William Phipps, in 1825. The tips are still relevant now. Publicans are advised "be not too talkative" and "be strict in discharging all legal debts". They are also told: "Be cautious of taking up (money) at a high interest - this has been the ruin of many, therefore avoid it."

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