Saturday 18 November 2017

Owner of Ireland's only Michelin star pub Wild Honey Inn gives tips on how to succeed

Thinking of selling up and moving to the country? Running a B&B or a restaurant with accommodation, Caroline Allen finds, might just be the answer

Chef Aidan McGrath and Kate Sweeney of the Michelin-starred Wild Honey Inn, a gastropub with rooms
Chef Aidan McGrath and Kate Sweeney of the Michelin-starred Wild Honey Inn, a gastropub with rooms

If you're one of the many househunters who have watched prices soar in Dublin and the regional cities, you may also have considered a move to the country. There, for the price of a four-bed semi in Dublin, you could buy a small manor house on 10 acres.

But the question arises, what then? How do you make a living in your rural idyll?

Winning recipe: John Doyle, of The School House, Carlow Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Winning recipe: John Doyle, of The School House, Carlow Photo: Frank Mc Grath

One way is to run a restaurant with rooms, as they are called. It's the route to success that many an Irish celebrity chef has taken - Neven Maguire, Catherine Fulvio, Paul Flynn and many more - and their success makes the notion of a destination restaurant even more tempting.

A few weeks ago, chef Aidan McGrath and his partner in life and in business, Kate Sweeney, joined the pantheon of Michelin-starred restaurants in Ireland. They run The Wild Honey Inn in Lisdoonvarna, Co Clare, a place they bought in what Kate describes as "the worst of times" - back in 2009.

Aidan was no novice - he had been head chef at the prestigious L'Escargot in London, as well as Sheen Falls Lodge in Kenmare and Doonbeg Golf Club, now owned by President Trump.

They set about raising the notion of pub grub to something altogether more inspired, using ingredients sourced from the Burren and the Atlantic coast and were rewarded straight off with a Bib Gourmand.

The former Victorian hotel now has 14 bedrooms, which Aidan says keeps the business going, although they no longer open year round. "We needed the break and the chance to get work done, and get ready for the next season," says Kate.

For those harbouring a desire to follow in their footsteps, Kate is encouraging. But is now a good time to turn the dream into a reality?

There are two opposing industry trends right now, says Blathnaid Bergin, an adviser to the hospitality sector. "On one hand, the rate at which people are trying to get into the industry has never been greater, and on the other hand, over the last six months, a lot of restaurants, including some very long established, have closed."

Restaurants with rooms are doing very well, particularly at weekends, says Bergin. "If they target the silver dollar - the over 65s - that can help to fill rooms during the week." There is good money in rooms, she adds, but the food in the restaurant has to impress.

How to make it work

Kate Sweeney of The Wild Honey Inn, shares her tips:

Have a USP

You need a unique selling point — ours was reinventing the concept of the Irish pub, providing food that is not average, in casual surroundings. The accommodation is a full-time job in itself.

Be prepared for hard work - and plenty of it

You have to put everything in and sacrifice your time above all else. Running a restaurant with accommodation is a 24-hour operation.

Do your homework

Extensive research is vital. Couples should be sure it’s what both parties want.

Brush up on your multi-tasking skills

You have to be able to switch from one thing to another, really quickly.

Adrian Cummins, CEO of the Restaurants' Association of Ireland, agrees: "There is more money to be made in rooms than in food - it's easier to run a hotel than a restaurant."

However, the economic upswing is helping the market. "There are many restaurants across the country that are doing very well under the radar, making a good living," continues Blathnaid Bergin. "They are very good business people. You have to remember you are running a business first, and a restaurant second."

It comes as no surprise that location is crucial to the success or failure of a rural restaurant. While there has been a 28pc increase in tourism business from the US, the UK market has collapsed, says Cummins. "So the south-west or west coast are great locations right now because they attract a lot of American tourists, but the south-east or closer to Dublin, which previously have been associated with more UK visitors, will be tougher."

While the improved domestic economy is encouraging, Cummins says, it's also important to remember that there is huge competition out there. "If you're thinking of buying a small hotel, there may be someone down the road doing Airbnb as part of the shadow economy."

"If you're looking at buying a property as a going concern, make sure the business is there. If you're starting from scratch, you need the footfall. People can have great dreams but they may not be the reality," says Cummins.

The backdrop is competitive, and it's easy to get seduced by the image of celebrity chefs and TV programmes, remarks Bergin. "People can get completely blinded as to the amount of money needed to set up and the operations of what is a multi-faceted business. Another issue is the global crisis around the shortage of chefs."

"My advice," says Cummins, "is to spend at least a year on formulating a business plan, researching the market and properties. Sit down with an accountant and make sure it will all stack up. Start with the worst possible scenario rather than the best."

Training in culinary skills gives a major headstart, says Cummins, as a shortage of chefs is causing wages to rise and there is no solution in sight.

"To anyone starting out," says Cummins, "I'd recommend just doing breakfast and sending guests to local restaurants for lunch and dinner. Have a strategy and try and cut out as many overheads as possible for your initial six months before considering if you can take on the food element and hire a chef."

Kate Sweeney of the Wild Honey Inn stresses that the lifestyle is not as glossy as it might seem. "When people come in and are chatting with you, they don't see behind the scenes," she says. "Running a restaurant is a lot of really hard work."

"Be prepared for long hours - you will be tied to the business nearly 24/7," agrees Cummins. "Don't go into the sector if you don't want to talk to people. There's a need to focus on customer service and move towards the American model where the customer is always right," he adds.

When things are going well, however, it is a very satisfying industry to work in, says Bergin.

"When you are running a restaurant with happy customers and a happy team, there is no greater buzz."

Sunday Independent

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