Leading the vintners

Pat Crotty became the new chief executive of the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland last September. Not a year in the job, he has had somewhat of a baptism of fire adjusting to his new role but he is well and truly settled in now and ready to fight for the needs of his members in advance of the next budget. He outlines to Fionnuala Carolan the core issues that he will be focusing on

Pat Crotty – CEO Vintners’ Federation of Ireland (VFI) Picture Conor McCabe Photography.

One might assume that the VFI chief executive and well-known publican Pat Crotty came from a publican family but in fact his family were well-known bakers by trade.
The proprietor of award-winning Kilkenny pub, Paris Texas was born and reared into Crotty’s Bakery in Kilkenny and when he was growing up there was no doubt what path he would follow after school. After completing a degree in bakery technology and management in London he came back to the family business and decided some changes needed to be made in order to survive in the ever-more competitive bakery sector where the multiples were starting to sell bread for 29p. “I said we can’t just stay wholesale with bread as we won’t survive, we have to start adding value. So we opened a coffee shop and I ended up having two coffee shops in Kilkenny and one quite big one which was on the site were Paris Texas is now. The original bakery was adjacent to that,” he explains.
Crotty was entrusted with a lot of responsibility for the family business from an early age due to his father, Ciaran Crotty being in government for Fine Gael. “From 20 years of age, I was running the business because my father was a TD and away a lot,” he says. “I got a free run at the business as he was in the Dáil for the day but he’d be in the bakery at 6am and back to the bakery when he got home. He worked very hard.”

From coffee shops to pubs

Deciding to pivot from a bakery business to a licensed premises was a big decision but the bakery business was coming under increased pressure all the time and survival was key. Crotty originally went into this business with a friend, Vincent Quan a chef from Carrick-on-Shannon and they opened Paris Texas together. “We survived in partnership for about ten years and grew the business into something really substantial. I spent the first few years learning the drinks business and did late night bars on my own and learned from the ground up,” he recalls.

Crotty saw  some tough times in business including the crisis of the 80s when he had a large debt due to purchasing the Woolworths building in Kilkenny to turn it into a coffee shop and then watched interest rates rise above 20%. And then the pub business came under pressure during the recession of 2009 and when things became very tough again he knew he had to make some changes.

“We were sinking and it’s either sink or swim. I remember Conor Pope was in his infancy doing his consumer columns and he was saying don’t be going out and buying a sandwich. Bring one to work with you. It was at the expense of everyone else. We talked ourselves into more of a recession as even the people who had money, weren’t spending it,” he says.

“I realised that you can’t stand still in the hospitality business. Passions change, ideas change, you’ve got to be doing something and make sure people have a reason to come in and not just because you open the door. You have to be moving with the times. I would always take the view that changing incrementally is the best way,” he says.

Changing up the business

Crotty still owns Paris Texas in Kilkenny although it is now being run by his adult children

After parting ways with Quan he closed the doors of Paris Texas on the 18 January 2013 and re-opened on 18 December, after 11 months of a complete rebuild. During this time he learned how to be a builder.” My manager and I stripped the whole place back to the four walls and then we got a crew in to finish it. We needed to reinvent ourselves. People gave me advice to change the name and put our own name over the door but I resisted. My logic was that 99% of the pubs in Kilkenny had the family name over the door, had the same food and drink offering and we wanted to stand out.

“We offered different beers apart from Guinness, Smithwicks and Kilkenny. We went totally American with the food too. We had proper hot wings and smoked ribs so you had completely different flavours from anywhere else in Kilkenny. I wanted to create a standout. I used to go to the States and bring back music that people hadn’t heard of before like Lyle Lovett and Barenaked Ladies. It was really different and it worked,” he says.

VFI role

During Covid, Crotty got itchy feet and started looking for a new project, briefly considering going back into the bakery business before the VFI role came about. Paris Texas is currently being run by his two adult children which has allowed him to take on his current role.

“A lot of people inherit businesses when family die so it’s good that I’m still around now to help them. My son is front of house and my daughter runs the back end. It was a fantastic opportunity for them to run the business because I haven’t had time with this role.”

Coming from a political family – his grandfather and father having been in the Dáil and his mother involved in setting up the Citizens Information, it meant that he was naturally drawn to public service. “I came from a family where if you weren’t doing some form of public service, there was something wrong with you,” he jokes.

He has an impressive list of roles that he has held over the year including been involved with Kilkenny Tourism and spending 20 years on the board of South East Tourism and 10 years as the chair of it. He was Mayor of Kilkenny twice and has chaired the Small Firms Association and maybe most importantly, he was the chair of the VFI from 2016 to 2018.

Despite all these roles, you might expect he was just waiting for his chance to go into politics but he turned down numerous opportunities. “When my father retired from politics, I was asked to go for his seat and I said no. I had two businesses at the time – one old and ailing and one new and borrowed. I said if you want me to run, you’ll have to find me two buyers and what if I’m not voted in again in five years’ time, then I’ll have nothing. There was once a time when you could be a gentleman politician and run the business while in the Dail but the demands of being in government have changed.”


“The government is implementing social policy but it’s not paying for it,” bemoans Crotty

After seven months in the job as chief executive of the VFI, he describes it as being an absolute baptism of fire. “As a publican you work in gears. When it’s busy you work hard and when it’s not you pull back. I’m only beginning to find my rhythm now of trying to clear my desk every day because the next day there is a whole new set of issues to deal with.”

His current role presented a real learning curve for him. “I’m learning that being the chief executive is like having 3,500 voters. I reckoned that I knew the place well but it was a huge wake up call to be on the other side of the fence, to now be the game keeper as opposed to the poacher. The amount of time and sheer amount of work looking after those members is something I hadn’t realised. It’s a great service as we have knowledge of licencing laws, employment laws, suppliers etc. We’ve people here who have so much knowledge of the sector that they have learned over the years and we can give that advice and have the answers to a lot of issues publicans might have.”

As he approached the first AGM of his tenure there were a few things top of the agenda, the issue with the Living Wage being one of them. Crotty says he is deeply concerned over the projected increases in labour costs due to the planned shift to a Living Wage by the start of 2026. “If we move to a Living Wage within 18 months, bank holiday pay will be almost €35 per hour for our most junior staff. Such costs are simply unsustainable for our members and could severely impact the ability of pubs across Ireland to operate viably,” he says.

A recent VFI benchmarking survey showed that 36% of pub turnover is consumed by labour costs alone and that figure will increase to over 40% with the introduction of a Living Wage.

The survey also reveals a worrying trend about the future of the pub trade, with 37% of publicans considering retirement within the next two years and a staggering 84% reporting that no family member wishes to inherit the pub.

“The government is implementing social policy but it’s not paying for it,” bemoans Crotty. “We have a policy in regard to pay, sick pay and pension but no budget for it. All those small pubs operate on small single figure net margins. They don’t make enough profits that they can continue investing but they have a value to their community. The government is making the decision that they are going to disappear. If government doesn’t do anything for them, at some point we have to agree as a nation, you have to accept that your cup of coffee is €9. You cannot keep adding costs as businesses can’t absorb it. The businesses have to up costs to manage wage increases. There is no elasticity left.”

VAT rate decrease will only help some

Crotty says that if things remain the same businesses will try to survive with less staff, meaning that service levels will decrease

Crotty believes that if the government wants to address labour costs directly, it could look at reducing employers’ PRSI. “If you can get an immediate return on every single employee, it’s applying a plaster to exactly where the hurt is.”

“If they want small pubs to survive there are a number of things that are industry specific. There is a consensus that 9% VAT is a panacea. But we can’t hang our hat on it because we have too many members who would not be helped at all with this because they don’t serve food.”

He believes that reducing the higher rate of VAT would benefit everyone. “The 23% VAT was an emergency measure brought in by Michael Noonan in 2011 in the first budget and it was meant to go up from 21% to 22% and the following year 23% but jumped 2% in one year as an emergency measure for the financial crisis. If the higher rate of VAT went back to 21%, that would be a huge help to everyone, whether they had food or not.”

Crotty says that if things remain the same there will be a change in the hospitality sector and that people will try to survive with less staff, meaning that service levels will decrease.

“There will be much less part time jobs offered and people will try to manage with less staff because the costs are too big and it will mean waiting longer for tables etc but the cost is just too big to not consider it.”

Response to government proposed supports

In response to supports announced by the government in recent weeks, the VFI says that while elements of the supports for business are welcome, such as a second payment of the Increased Cost of Doing Business (ICOB) scheme, the hospitality sector needs measures that that will support the pub trade over the long-term.

Crotty says: “While we welcome the reopening of the ICOB scheme for a further 14 days and an additional payment for businesses in the hospitality sector, grants are not the answer to the crisis facing our members.

“Publicans require meaningful changes to their cost base, such as lowering the standard VAT rate and a reduction in the alcohol excise rate, currently the second highest in Europe. The announcement of a change to the Employer’s PRSI threshold only covers the recent increase in the minimum wage so doesn’t result in any real benefit for our members,” he adds.

While there is plenty to work on, you can tell that Crotty is determined to do all he can to help his members navigate this unsettling time in the industry. I asked him if he was to go back into the pub trade tomorrow, what would he do differently?

“If I was to go back into the trade in the morning, I’d be buying a small little pub that has a tidy trade in the middle of nowhere. The winner model would be a wet pub with really good coffee and one or two sandwiches that people would drive out of their way to get. I think the likes of Peter’s Pub, Keoghs on South Anne Street and Peruke and Periwig do things very well.”

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