Life Food & Drink

Saturday 20 October 2018

How Irish pubs can manage to survive last orders

Tony McMahon at Johnnie Fox's.
Tony McMahon at Johnnie Fox's.
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

New figures show that more than 2,000 Irish pubs have closed in the past decade. Others have changed with the times and are thriving. So what are the secrets of their success?

They are still our most important tourist attractions, but Ireland's pubs are struggling to survive. In some counties up to one-third of the pubs have called last orders for the last time, but other bars have adapted and continue to thrive.

While the closure of factories is accompanied by much soul-searching, the disappearance of pubs often goes unheralded. This week it was reported that in the past decade 2,000 pubs have closed.

Many of these closures have been inevitable - a result of changing lifestyles and drinking habits.

A typical night out for many young people involves getting tanked up with cheap off-licence booze first, and possibly finishing the night off with one or two pints in a pub.

In truth many of the defunct hostelries - typically lining the streets of country towns - were poky, dreary and undesirable.

But go-ahead publicans have shown that it is possible to survive by giving customers what they want, making their drinks and food more interesting and less predictable, and offering entertainment.

Clearly some investors see that there is a pot of gold in the Irish pub trade. The British chain JD Wetherspoon announced this week that it is spending €100m on 30 pubs in Ireland.

Tony McMahon is one of the Irish publicans who has continued to turn a profit at Johnnie Fox's in the village of Glencullen, on the edge of the Dublin mountains.

The pub employs 86 people as well as 20 musicians, Irish dancers and a magician.

He says too many pubs have spoilt their atmosphere with television sets in every corner. Typically they might show Sky News reporting from the latest trouble spot.

"I went into a bar last week and there were three televisions on in one room - and only two people there. It was heartbreaking to see it," says Tony.

The days when publicans could pour pints of four or five brands of the same old beer available everywhere, and hope that drinkers will come, are numbered.

Johnnie Fox's now sells a wide variety of craft beers and 59 types of whiskey.

"Whiskey is huge now," says Tony McMahon. "You have people coming in and spending €35 for a shot."

Drinks are not even the most important product in many successful Irish bars nowadays.

Up to 60pc of the revenues at Johnnie Fox's comes from food and 40pc from drink. Customers will drive to a pub in an out-of-the-way place for a good meal, but don't do the same for a drinking session.

When it comes to food, Tony McMahon believes too many pubs rely on carvery lunches. "We try to serve something totally different rather than the boring carvery," says Tony. "We get a lot of tourists here, but most of our customers are Irish.

"Even small things attract people. A lot of people like coming here on a cold day, because of the open turf fires. You would be amazed how many Irish people never see an open fire."

So what are the other features that kill off a pub's atmosphere? Tony McMahon dislikes the tendency of many Dublin bars to have burly security guards at the door.

"We don't have security outside, because people find that off-putting.

'Good staff are absolutely essential. We try to take time to train them - and it is vital that they are courteous."

In Dublin city, there has been a pub revival. In the depths of recession, canny investors moved in and bought pubs for bargain prices.

One executive in the Dublin drinks trade said: "Pubs were going at a fraction of the price that they fetched in the boom, or became available on cheap leases."

John Geraghty, who runs the website Publin.ie, said successful Dublin pubs offer a variety of craft beers and not just the standard brands.

"Food is vital as a way of getting people in and getting them to stay there," says Geraghty. "Quite a few pubs have started offering a pizza and a pint for a tenner, and that seems to have worked very well in attracting students. The pub may not make money on the pizza, but the customers stay for two or three pints, and then they are making money. It's a step up from offering free peanuts."

Another innovation that keeps customers in the door is to allow them to order food from local restaurants.

In most bars, you would still be shown the door if you brought in chips. But now some pubs actively encourage their customers to buy in food from outside. It could be a falafel or a curry. The pub staff will take the order for the food and the takeaway delivers it.

James Winans, who is involved in the craft beer trade, said many Dublin pubs have improved dramatically in recent years.

"Ten years ago, almost every pub seemed the same and served the same types of beer and food," he said. "Now that is changing, and standards have improved. A typical example of one of these thriving pubs is L Mulligan in Stoneybatter. There is amazing food, lots of different craft beer and over 100 different types of whiskey."

Sales of craft beers are set to increase by 50pc this year from a low base. Ireland's 50 microbrewers hope that there is still enormous potential for growth here.

Rural pubs face a tougher battle to survive than their city counterparts. The most recent figures show that Cork, Leitrim, Donegal and Waterford have lost close to 33pc of their pubs.

After the Bridge pub, a famous GAA bar outside Ballyhea, Co Cork shut for the last time in recent days, the rural rights campaigner Diarmuid O'Flynn warned that the heart was being ripped out of rural areas.

Brendan O'Reilly, who runs Dicey Reilly's pub and award-winning off-licence in Ballyshannon, Co Donegal says: "In Donegal it has been tough, and it doesn't help being close to the border.

"We have diversified to get by, and sell our own beer, Donegal Blonde. The off-licence has 500 different types of beer and 100 of them are Irish."

Brendan has regular music in the pub and this year organised the Wild Atlantic Way craft beer festival.

"You have to offer something different to survive," he says.

Six tips for survival

1. Broaden the range of drinks. Pubs need more than the usual beer brands.

2. Have good food. ­Successful pubs often make their profits on top-notch grub. Slice out boring ­c­arvery lunches.

3. Turn off Sky News. There’s only so much of Kay Burley drinkers can take.

4. Provide free entertainment — music, dancing and even a magician.

5. Offer good deals on food — pizza and a pint for a tenner.

6. Pull in the tourists — four out of five visitors come for our pub culture, according to a survey.

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