And the Oscar goes to ….
Sean Gallagher meets owners of small and medium sized businesses and shares the lessons they've learnt in building their companies
The first Oscars Cafe Bar was set up in 2013 by partners Ronan Flood and Aaron Groom. Today the pair operate four outlets across Dublin City; Oscars Cafe Bars in Smithfield Square, Dublin 7 and Fishamble St, Dublin 8, Barbers Bar at Grangegorman and Doyle's Corner in Phibsborough Road, Dublin 7. With employment numbers due to top 90 later this year, the business is on target to achieve annual revenues this year of close to €5m.
As Ronan and Aaron give me a tour of the newest addition to their portfolio, Doyle's Corner, both are excited about the prospect of opening even more cafe bars around the city in the future.
"We see ourselves as providing really good bars that offer close to restaurant-quality food, but at more affordable prices so that people can drop in several days a week for lunch or an evening meal," explains Ronan.
Newly refurbished and with the smell of fresh paint still in the air, the pair have managed to retain the feel of a traditional bar while embracing a modern twist in décor and design. "We're really pleased with how it has turned out and the reaction of customers is great. From those in their early 20s right up to our more mature customers, everyone seems to love the place," adds Aaron. "Maybe it's because myself and Aaron are polar opposites," laughs Ronan.
Ronan Flood grew up in Tullamore, Co. Offaly. By the time he was 15, he was running two small enterprises - power washing cars for neighbours and mowing lawns. By age 17, he was also working part-time in the bar of the local Bridge House hotel. Ronan loved the experience so much that he went on to study hospitality and hotel management in DIT Cathal Brugha Street. During the week he worked with the O'Callaghan group of hotels in Dublin while returning home to Tullamore at the weekends to work in the Bridge House Hotel.
After college he got a full-time job with O'Callaghan Hotels, where he spent the next six years gaining experience across all aspects of general hotel management. From there he moved to the Clarion Hotel Group and later the McEniff Hotel chain, where he managed the group's Grand Canal Hotel. It was after moving into the Smithfield area to live in 2011 that he spotted the opportunity to go out on his own.
"There are some fantastic bars in the Smithfield area, but I soon realised none were my cup of tea. I wanted to create a bar that I would be happy to go to a few nights per week, one where I could get a good cup of coffee in the morning but also be able to grab a casual bite to eat in the evening. One that was affordable and not necessarily a once-a-month treat," says Ronan. "When we came across the bar in Smithfield, we thought it had great potential even though it had been closed for a while and needed extensive renovations. This is where Aaron came into the equation and we have never looked back since," he adds.
Aaron Groom grew up in Dublin's Rathgar. His father ran a successful family business, Irish Nurseries in Kimmage, which unfortunately later closed. While his father eventually went into the bar business, the experience taught Aaron a valuable lesson. "I learned not to be afraid of failure and that with hard work and effort you can always start again".
Aaron went on to complete a degree in civil engineering at DIT Bolton St and after a number of years working in the area of project management with Bord Gais and later Aurora Telecom, he began specialising in the design and fit out of houses and later bars and restaurants.
Finding the right bar was one thing but finding the finance to do it up was their biggest obstacle. "We struggled to get a loan from the bank but eventually, on appeal, we got a very modest amount. However, even though we got off to a good start in the business, the bank wouldn't provide any overdraft to pay the wages. We got through on a wing and a prayer as well as a couple of car loans from our Credit Union. We can smile now, but at the time you have to do whatever you need to do to make things work," admits Ronan.
"Lots of people thought we were mad to take on the bar because it hadn't traded successfully with its previous two tenants, but we felt confident about the potential of the place and thankfully we got a huge amount of support from locals in Smithfield at the time who were delighted to see a new place open up in the area," adds Aaron.
The following year the pair acquired their Fishamble St bar near Christchurch and in 2016 launched their Barber-themed bar in Grangegorman complete with stripped canopy and old seats with overhead hair dryers that act as lighting. "The Barbers Bar to my knowledge is the only bar in the country that is also a fully functioning barbers. Thankfully, this time we were able to renovate the place through cashflow," explains Ronan.
This year the pair opened the latest bar in their portfolio, Doyle's Corner, but again felt let down by their bank.
"We approached them to finance just 20pc of the renovation costs, but were absolutely stunned by how we were treated," admits Ronan. "While we eventually got the funding, for a five-year-old, debt-free company who never had a direct debit bounce and have good liquidity, we felt treated abysmally with the bank seeking debentures on our lease as well as personal guarantees".
"We are also now putting in meeting facilities into Doyle's Corner because with no hotels right in the heart of Phibsborough offering conference facilities, we see an opening for a venue that can offer food as well as boardroom and training facilities," adds Aaron.
A perfect combination, Aaron loves creating the right space, décor and ambiance while for Ronan it's about developing the business and sustaining growth. It's one thing building a business but sustaining standards as you grow is now our big priority. And while we have our hands full now with Doyle's Corner, that will probably change and we'll be on to our next one soon," he adds.
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