“We must move with the trends – but let’s not loose sight of what the Irish pub is” — LVA Chairman Tom O’Brien
Positivity pervades LVA Chairman Tom O’Brien’s outlook on the licensed trade. Well, it’s a very positive business to be in, he says, “Food is now a substantial and growing part of it and is here for the long haul. Publicans need to think outside the box in developing their food offer and staff knowledge -- and training is critical to this,” he tells Pat Nolan.
2 December 2013
This very month LVA Chairman Tom O’Brien will have spent 23 years building up The Ferryman on Sir John Rogerson Quay from the derelict site he’d taken over in 1990.
“Back then, a trend was starting to happen that big dockland areas in cities were being sought after,” he recalls, “That – and in the back of my head some research telling me that Dublin was going to go down this route too – made me purchase here.
“I was proved right, down the road – but it happened a lot farther down the road than I’d originally thought!” he smiles.
Being before his time Tom survived by having “this place which was in the middle of nowhere” play traditional music seven nights a week. It got The Ferryman very well-known.
It was somewhere central for traditional music aficionados to meet.
Today, he runs a thriving business surrounded by the conference centre, the O2, The Aviva, offices and apartments. The pub also beckons patrons of the Bord Gais theatre just across the road.
Tom originally spent five years as a steward with B&I before studying Hotel Management in Galway. He worked in Scott’s in Castleknock prior to The Ferryman purchase.
Now he sees the Dublin trade ready to move forward after six or seven years of negativity.
“We’ve taken the hit and what we have now are damn good pubs,” he believes.
The LVA has been busy with conferences and seminars and he’d like to keep that momentum going, getting members to think more positively and embrace the changes while retaining the “uniqueness” of the Dublin pub.
The LVA has a very important role to play in representing the views of the Dublin trade with Government ministers, senior civil servants, suppliers and the media.
“I would like a strong relationship with the Government but that will be a slow burner,” he believes, “We need to let Government know that the pub is the best, most social and most controlled environment in which to consume alcohol. Reinforcing this message with Government is a key priority for the Association. Furthermore we need to become more effective at highlighting our business, employment and taxation contribution to the economy.
He welcomes the recent Minimum Unit Pricing announcement.
“We’ve lobbied for it over the years,” he says, “It stops the pricing gap getting wider between us and the off-trade.
“Obviously we need to understand the detail of how it will be implemented.”
After all, he wouldn’t want MUP to become “excise-driven”.
There should’ve been more made of the Cap Levy suggestion and he’s very disappointed in not getting the Government to act on this.
He welcomes the Structural Separation aspect of the proposed Public Health (Alcohol) Bill “… because we’ve very responsible people serving but anyone can sell you a drink in the multiples”.
And the restrictions around promotions in the multiple are a ‘must’, he believes.
“Selling a huge amount of alcohol very cheaply is not responsible.”
However he remains unconvinced that a link exists between supplier sponsorship and alcohol abuse.
Naturally he’s bitterly disappointed at the Budget excise rises.
Following two really tough budgets in December and October the industry will have to re-evaluate how to approach Government on this topic.
“Higher excise damages everybody,” he believes, “We must work hand-in-glove with all our suppliers to make our case as we’re the most important route to market. So it’s in everybody’s interest that we work together.
“The pub trade employs a huge number of people and is a huge contributor to the economy. I think Government has lost sight of this. It needs to be reminded that the trade in Dublin is a significant contributor to the economy and functions as a significant social hub too. We’ve a real place in society.”
He puts forward a strong argument for the health of Dublin pubs.
“For any business to survive through these tough years trading-wise has to be a credit to the people operating within it. There’s a strong business there and we’re seeing signs that things have begun to level out in May, June, July.
“Dublin has to be one of best places in which to have a pub. It has a spending population and it’s getting all the big companies like Google.
“Dublin is seen internationally as being a good hub. “Being the capital, all the major events happen here and I think the trade is becoming more event-driven.
“Furthermore, we’ve the best pubs in the world. To convince ourselves of that and reinvest in our business and in the people we have, we must move with the trends – but let’s not loose sight of what the Irish pub is.
“It doesn’t have to be a perfect design – look at some of our most iconic traditional Dublin pubs. It’s OK to have an imperfect design. There’s not ‘one size fits all’ in the pub trade.
Future of the pub
Tom envisages a strong vibrant pub trade in Dublin over the next five to 10 years, “…. which will be more diverse. Pubs will not be afraid of change to match lifestyle changes, to reflect the fact that people are much better-travelled today and expect to see a bit of that in their pubs – tapas for example.
“Our city has become more multinational and we’ve to facilitate that through a multiplicity of pubs: trophy pubs, gastropubs, community pubs, late pubs etc.
“And publicans have to know how to drive their pub, stamp their own brand on it and be good at what they do – and don’t try to do too much or be all things to all people.
“Irish people are starting to eat out more so it’s for suburban pubs to embrace the family and provide an interesting food offering.
“Centre city tourism is huge and growing with Dublin playing its part in continuing to make the capital a huge destination tourism-wise.”
UK pub groups
The pickup in the Dublin pub trade has also been quietly noted by those outside Ireland who see an on-trade driven by value and who see a future here for themselves.
“UK pub groups have been looking over here,” agrees Tom, “But the good publican won’t be afraid of that competition. They might have to step up to the plate a bit more but overall we’re stabilising.”