Olivia Duff is a very dynamic person. In the middle of the November gloom she contacted us to say she’d a very rare commodity: good news. She had just proved that it was possible to do a makeover of a bar and show a profit.
Olivia, together with her brother Vincent, manages the Headfort Arms Hotel in Kells, County Meath.
The 27-bedroom hotel has its own spa with a good wedding business and is the established hotel for the nearby Headfort Golf Club. There’s also some business from the heritage market. Kells is running a campaign to get the famous book returned to its native town.
But the Headfort Hotel also has a nightclub/disco, a conference centre, a casual dining restaurant and a separate pub. All facilities have their own names and marketing – and their own hall-door so there’s no danger of confusing the various brands or offerings.
Two main pillars support the strategy: Irish people are incurably informal and they love occasions. It’s impossible to get them to live out of a diary. They won’t dress in a dinner jacket, but they will dress up for Halloween – and then they go big on partying.
The pub part is called the Kelltic Bar (two ‘l’s, please). Olivia says that its aim is to create a multi-use space with a real welcome for everyone. At weekends, it enjoys a big sporting following so it has large screen TVs for big matches and horse racing. Punters at Navan and Fairyhouse traditionally use the hotel as a stop-off.
But in keeping with the pub being a place to eat as well as to drink, its Italian pizza oven serving up gourmet thin-crust Pizza forms a significant feature of the bar.
“Once we got our ballroom sorted out last year, we took a look at the bar in August,” explained Olivia, “It was down about 10 per cent which wasn’t a big worry, but we decided to do something. After a lot of research and people saying we shouldn’t be spending money at that time, we decided to go for stone-baked pizza.”
It has worked very well: a pint and a pizza for €10 has proved a popular package. No home deliveries though as she aims to establish the Kelltic as a place where you can get a special offering at a reasonable price. For the same reason, there are no chicken nuggets on the Children’s menu.
“People will not be content if they get the same stuff as the frozen packet they can open at home,” believes Olivia.
Two other features of the Kelltic can be seen in the grand piano on a little stage (ready for any impromptu parties or sing-songs) and the Pour Your Own Pint table for Guinness.
Premium beer sales are up more than 50 per cent on last year, she reports.
There’s also a strong cocktail list, priced at €5.95, with mini-cocktails served in a shot glass for €5.
Olivia is a firm believer in training and has a Masters in Hotel and Catering Management from Cathal Brugha St.
“Help is there if you ask for it,” she says, “Diageo were very supportive when we opted for a Pour Your Own Pint table”. Certainly the staff had the confidence and product knowledge that comes from structured training.
Olivia comes from a catering tradition. Her parents had a pub, the Beehive, in London’s Chelsea area which was frequented by TV personalities. But undazzled by the bright lights, they always nurtured a yearn to come home and when they did, it was to the Headfort which dates from 1780, a Grade 2 listed building – one more hurdle when you’re looking for planning permission for extensions. The hotel was seen as the companion to the Greville Arms in Mullingar.
Strong horsey faces with shining silk hats look down from 100-year old photos in the hotel lounge accompany stories of huge poker games when farms were won and lost on the turn of a card.
Nowadays, the expanded lounge does well and an all-day carvery changes into a cook-to-order grill in the evening. But, says Olivia, even traditional hotel lounge customers are tending to opt for the informality of the Kelltic pub.
The smoking area needs huge attention, she says. Smokers should be able to stay in sight of other drinkers and not be banished. The Kelltic bar is horseshoe-shaped and a portion of this faces into the conservatory-style Courtyard. This is fitted along its length with French windows which can open up and overhead blinds which can unfold so smokers can be legal and still part of the crowd at the bar.
The Courtyard also acts as a function room and packages for parties include 50 guests for €300 or 100 guests for €500. This includes exclusive use of the bar, a professional DJ and dance floor, a personalised birthday cake, a bottle of champagne and finger-food (including, naturally, slices of pizza). But the deal also includes entry to the nightclub.
Packages should be one price, all-in; customers should regard it as fair value, with no ambushes or hidden extras. And after that, they can keep their hands out of their pockets.
And there are packages-a-plenty: Stags (male variety); Hens (including spa session); Birthdays; Christenings and Retirements. But if there isn’t an obvious reason for a party, it’s Olivia’s job to come up with ideas so there are loads of themed nights with music ranging from Elvis to Billy Joel.
Being a wine enthusiast too she runs a wine club with guest tastings and a special menu of six courses once a month. Imagine venison in chocolate sauce with Cabernet Sauvignon, €50 for a full evening….
And because of the famed golf course close-by, the Kelltic has a golf society with its own competitions and prizes.
Brother Vincent is very keen that the over-30s, who don’t fit well with the sounds of younger folk, should feel just as welcome as anyone else. Olivia agrees wholeheartedly.
Quality control is important and the Kelltic uses several ways of getting feedback, including mystery guests.
But there’s no mystery to the ensuring success: Kells has 26 pubs, but Olivia is dedicated to being the best. Now, Meath needs a new GAA football manager …