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'Our customers are surprised when I drop off their dinner and say hello - it's so uplifting'

THIS WORKING LIFE

Trevor Browne joint owner of Tribeca and Canal Bank Café in conversation with Mary McCarthy

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Reinventing: Trevor Browne, joint owner of Tribeca and Canal Bank Café

Reinventing: Trevor Browne, joint owner of Tribeca and Canal Bank Café

Reinventing: Trevor Browne, joint owner of Tribeca and Canal Bank Café

Fork in the road

I didn't do much for my Leaving and missed out on Natural Sciences in Trinity so I enrolled on a marketing course which left me underwhelmed.

I was a messer and liked to party - though the mayhem came down a notch when I was 21 and my son Jordan was born. I had to move out and get a job - not easy in 1992.

I started in Bewley's in Dublin city centre as a coffee roaster, then worked at Fitzers, waiting tables, before starting at the NYC-style eatery The Elephant & Castle (E&C), in Temple Bar - where I learned a lot about food, wine and how to interact with customers.

After three years my parents got on my case about making a plan - they were anxious a decade later I would still be there.

Through some connections, often the way back then, I was offered entry positions in AIB and Dell - but the bank paid £120 a week and I was easily bringing in £300 waiting tables.

Why leave a fun, lucrative job in an industry I liked for a boring one paying a pittance? Did I take a 'respectable' job or could I open my own place?

Research roadtrip

I headed to San Francisco to stay with my sister and borrowed her car for a detailed expedition visiting restaurants - taking notes and nicking menus.

There was no internet so this was visceral research - I observed how the staff worked, how the feel of a place was created. I learned a good location and menu is not enough - you need good design, atmosphere and organisation.

I had a business partner in mind but I had to convince him. Ger [Foote] had started with me at the E&C where his flair had been noticed from day one and where he was now a chef.

He had just been offered a Morrison Visa for the US - a big deal - but agreed to give our venture one year.

First advantage

With a lot of blood, sweat and tears we opened Dish on Crow Street in Temple Bar in 1996. The landlord - GAA player Bernard Brogan senior - took a lot of persuading to take on untested 25-year-old tenants.

We had a good menu and cheap funky furniture - we agonised over the music, the wine list, the pictures on the walls. The first three months we had a stream of family and well wishers but then all went dead.

I remember the Wednesday night in January 1997 when the food critic John McKenna walked in. I was sitting eating my own dinner but jumped up and started polishing glasses.

The restaurant was empty but the review could not have glowed any more than if I wrote it myself. Next morning the phone rang and it didn't stop for months.

Eureka

Four years later we were ticking along when I bumped into a guy I knew who had taken over the Pronto grill from his father in Ranelagh in Dublin 6.

He had done a massive refurbishment but was disillusioned and was about to pass on the lease. I said goodbye and a minute later ran after him - why not give it to us? Ranelagh was the perfect location for a buzzy, casual brunch/dinner venue.

We put a basic menu together - chicken wings, burgers, omelettes - and ordered pics of NYC (still there 20 years later) and in two weeks Tribeca opened to instant success.

Reality bites

We then got ambitious and opened a second, bigger Tribeca in Stillorgan in 2003, taking on an extra 50 employees. A big mistake.

The Celtic Tiger was in full swing but we had misjudged our market. Unlike Ranelagh, there were not many customers during the week - this was family land - and everyone disappeared in the summer. We closed and took a €1m hit. Our bank amalgamated the debt and spread it out over 11 years - this would never happen today, but in the Celtic Tiger money was cheap.

We made another mistake when we moved Dish to Leeson Street in 2001 but bringing the format more upmarket.

But it did not translate - keeping the name and changing the offering is confusing. We relaunched as the Canal Bank Café - which remains today.

Winging it

Raising kids and running a busy restaurant is tricky but things settled down and there was a period between 2011 and 2018 where we had a good run of it and got decent time off.

Then some staffing issues hit so I was back to working long hours and took just one week holiday last year - our employees got six weeks - but this is often the way with small-business owners.

Family affair

With Covid-19, we are working 70 hours a week. We were not set up for takeaway so it was a rush to get containers and an online ordering system.

I had to let our 65 employees go - we could not sustain a €30,000 weekly wage bill.

My wife, niece and daughter are helping, my two sons and nephew are on deliveries with me and Ger is pulling a blinder in the kitchen. His children are just babies, otherwise they would be roped in. Our customers are surprised when I drop off their dinner and say hello - this part is so uplifting.

Do I still love it? I don't know. But we have no plans to leave. Ger and myself know this business inside out and we will reinvent ourselves once again.

Irish Independent