As John Gleeson of Gleeson’s in Booterstown takes over the Chair of the Licensed Vintners Association, he can dare to think that the Dublin pub trade is a much-improved entity of late.
“By-and-large, the trade’s a lot healthier, stronger and more confident than it was five years ago in the depths of recession where pubs were reluctant to spend, as were customers, ” he believes, “Now there’s more investment and variety in pubs.
“There’s more innovation too via the craft beer scene, the gin market and more adventurous food menus.”
John has spent 52 years in the business now, having grown up in the trade, living above the South County Dublin pub his father Frank bought in 1954, the year before he married Nora (John’s mother). Frank and Nora had eight children, five girls and three boys.
Over time the business expanded from a small corner pub into a developing food business in the 60s (largely due to Nora’s influence), becoming one of the first bars in south Dublin to serve hot lunches.
The late 90s saw it develop an evening menu in the restaurant which has driven the pub’s increased custom ever since.
John and his brother Ciaran bought the pub from Frank in 2007 and in 2010 – in the middle of a recession – invested €500,000 developing the pub, adding a delicatessen.
“It was a nervous time, but in retrospect a great value time to build,” he remembers, safe in today’s knowledge that the deli now thrives.
“I think Dad was very proud of the development before he passed away in 2012,” says John.
John’s half-century in the trade has seen its ups and downs.
“The 70s and 80s were great times for suburban pubs,” he recalls, “The city pubs were not great players back then and people came to drink in suburban pubs at night. Perhaps one didn’t enjoy the same margins back then but one certainly enjoyed higher volumes.”
Today, a different scenario pertains.
“Suburban pubs have to work harder to get customers in the door” says John, “and you must put a premium on getting to know your customers and welcoming them. It requires a ‘front of house’ welcome that doesn’t need to be as much in evidence in city centre pubs.”
However he does agree that the city centre is a tougher prospect altogether with the later hours and all that this brings.
“They’re are also leaders in trends in such things as premiumisation of spirits and good cocktail menus which many get from London and New York. These then filter through to the good suburban pubs.”
But some things, such as the sky-high insurance costs for small businesses and ensuring the lifting of the Good Friday alcohol ban, remain to be seen through to the end.
John has worked on the insurance issue through the Association, going to various committees over the past nine months. Alongside LVA Chief Executive Donall O’Keeffe, he’s met with the Oireachtas Finance Committee while Donall and past-Chair Deirdre Devitt also sat in front of the Cost of Insurance Working Group. All now await its report.
“I welcome the fact that the government has given a junior ministership to Michael D’Arcy whose brief is ‘insurance reform’,” says John, “But where we’re up against strong lobby groups from the insurance and legal industries, the SME group remains fragmented even though we’ve all the same interests. We should be more cohesive and that’s something we could look at – to make more of a joint effort. We go in saying the exact same thing as the hauliers and hoteliers.
“Insurance companies blame the legal system and the legal system blames the insurance system but I think that through the various working groups the government has become much more aware – as have the general public – of rising premiums both in car, health and business. All are linked. If the base problem is sorted out then both the general public and business will benefit from the solution.”
Good Friday closing
The Good Friday alcohol sale ban had made slow progress over the past few years, “… but it moved rapidly in the last year, mostly thanks to Senator Billy Lawless who’s been a tremendous help in pushing forward new legislation. But it’s not over the line yet,” he warns, “Somebody must pick up the ball in September – Charlie Flannagan, hopefully”.
Having carried off this year’s Bicentennial celebrations in style, the Association must now focus on what its members seek from their membership, believes John.
“One of my perpetual priorities is to keep an eye on legislative changes and lobbying.
“We’ll also focus on the Support Your Local initiative to reduce excise duty – a realistic proposal,” he believes, “Sterling’s devaluation means an even more expensive holiday for UK visitors.
“I realise a cut in excise would leave a hole in Exchequer figures” he continues, “but the last two increases in ’13 and ’14 were part of austerity measures which need to be reversed. Alcohol consumption is falling nationally and particularly in the on-trade.”
This year the Association launches a staff training initiative to provide a high level of intensive senior and junior training courses for members of staff one day a week over 20 weeks. The courses cover all the requirements for upskilling staff leading to a diploma qualification.
Alcohol Bill – the good and the bad
The LVA and its members support the forthcoming Alcohol Bill because they support MUP which should help deal with the problem of alcohol abuse caused by multiple discounting, believes John.
“We also support structural separation but have reservations about the containment of marketing – we’d be sympathetic to the drinks industry suppliers not being able to support their products via sporting events and festivals. That money must come from somewhere,” he says.
The general failure to recognise the amount of employment and tax revenue (PAYE, PRSI, rates, Corporation tax, excise and VAT) that pubs create irks him too.
With today’s pub being all about food, entertainment and drink where does he envisage potential growth coming from?
“There’s lots of room for expansion,” he answers, “Pubs can expand their attractiveness to an all-day market. They can promote themselves as destinations for early morning meetings by expanding their coffee offering, their scones, croissants, even their breakfasts.
“What we’re trying to do here is ‘sweat the asset’, so we developed our food business and expanded it via a takeout business and further expanded that into the deli business in 2010.
“We surprised ourselves when we saw the huge demand for takeout coffee, for example,“ he notes.
The takeaway market represents one that pubs don’t tap into enough for the coffees, desserts and soups that so many pubs do.
“Why not sell them through the front of your pub as well as having them on the menu?” he asks, “The suburban pub is a community centre in many ways and that part of the business could be nurtured.
“A suburban pub is more dependent on occasions and has potential to promote those occasions through social media and innovative thinking,” he adds.
“We’ve already envisaged our next opportunity – putting in 16 bedrooms above the pub” says John, “so it’s an expensive project, but one we believe will be a long-term winner for the business.”
And he’s optimistic not just about filling the rooms but of food and beverage getting a good boost from the guests too.
“I’m very positive about the future of the Dublin pub. We’re a very diverse group, have always changed with the times and will continue to do so.”
He hopes to have builders on site this Summer and with that, the new LVA Chairman seals his fate for a busy 2017.