O’Connells in Donnybrook — emphasis firmly on food

As pubs have moved towards becoming restaurants, so too have restaurants moved towards the pub business. Pat Nolan learns how restaurateurs are cutting their cloth to measure the pubs.

“A whole new pub lunch entertainment is going on and there are going to be less people eating in restaurants.”
An increasing number of pubs opening today have set their sights in a new direction. O’Connells, the new name above the door of what was formerly Madigans in Donnybrook, is a perfect example.

With the emphasis firmly on food, O’Connells’ proprietor Tom O’Connell is already creating a stir in the area that seems set to spread considerably, judging by the efforts being made by the management and staff there to ensure that customers are well taken care of with fine fare and superior service.

This bodes well considering that Tom opened O’Connells only recently — in fact in the very week that the IMF paid their secret visit to Dublin, he says!

Tom, who hails from a family pub in County Laoise, O’Connells in Cullohil, graduated from the Shannon hotel school before going abroad for 20 years to work with the Hilton Hotel in London.

Returning home in 1996, he managed the Berkley Court Hotel for three years before opening his own restaurant in Ballsbridge under a full catering franchise arrangement with Bewleys Hotel there. This operated for nine years until the Bewleys Hotel chain was purchased by the Moran Group in 2008.

For the next 18 months Tom moved back to his old stomping ground, the former Berkley Hotel – now D4 – where he ran the catering franchise.

“When Madigans in Donnybroook came up I decided to take it on a long-term lease,” he says.

Uncomfortable with the label ‘gastropub’ for O’Connells, he stresses, “The bar is unashamedly an adjunct to the restaurant and not the other way round.

“Gastropubs are happening – but slowly. They’re probably restaurateurs who, by default, are becoming gastropub operators.”

“The property was ideal for a restaurant and we just thought that it had natural character, so it was a natural progression for the property.”

But Tom did freshen up the rest of the building to O’Connells’ way of doing things, putting in a substantial kitchen, for example.

“We felt that it was a natural room so we took away half the bar counter for the food preparation area; we took away the carvery and changed it for a fully-serviced kitchen. We have an old-fashioned roast beef trolley out on the floor for carving by the customer’s table instead.”

Clearly theatre will form an important part of the food offering in O’Connells.

The function room upstairs has also been renovated and can hold 80 to 90 people. A total renovation of both the upstairs and downstairs toilets completes the picture.

“The Irish people love drinking and they like eating and the time has come to put both together,” believes Tom, “The business has gone from being a wet house to being a food house as well these days.”

And bookings are looking good for Christmas.

“We’ve been around the area for 10 years and have been working the phone solidly for the last three months,” he says.
The result has been that familiar customers are coming back to the new O’Connells for their Christmas feast.

Tom employs just under 20 staff comprising six chefs together with front-of-house staff and some porters.

His original customers came from all over Dublin and they continue to do so today.

“They’re coming because of our image and our record for good value-for-money cooking,” says Tom, “We really do buy Irish and ensure that we use the best of product – that’s what we’ve built our business on.

“Now we’ve a new client base – the people who live in the Donnybrook area. It has been interesting for us to discover that a lot of our original customers live closer to this premises than to the original one!”

O’Connells’ customer profile suits more “30s-upwards” consumers and families.

“We don’t attract the 18 to 25-year-old market,” says Tom who reckons that his typical customer would be someone who simply likes nice food.

“We decided not to do sandwiches at lunchtime,” he adds, explaining that, “There are enough people around here doing that so we decided to stay away from the sandwich market because our competitors such as Donnybrook Fair do it so well already. Then there’s Café Java and the Insomnia coffee shop chain who do coffees so well too.

“Instead, we focus on lunch and dinner and try to get some cost benefits out of not being an all-day local where you have to remain open for maybe only 10 customers throughout the afternoon.”

This afternoon closure period may well be a significant factor in facing down needless expense. O’Connells closes in the afternoon with last orders around 2.30 and it re-opens at six o’clock for dinner, shortly to be brought back to five o’clock.
Last orders in the evening are taken at 10 and the bar shuts when the restaurant closes.

Indeed he points out that people will come in here at five o’clock with their paper and have a pint of Guinness and then have their evening supper dish in the bar area and sit on up there. For they’ll have peace as there’s no TV for two reasons: people want peace and secondly it costs a pub a fortune now, says Tom.

The menu is fairly enticing with lunchtime daily specials such as Roast Rib of Hereford Irish Beef for around €12 or Slow-Braised Shin of Beef Bourguignon with mashed potato and broccoli for €9.95. Pan-fried Castletownbere Plaice with Tartare Sauce & Chips will set you back €12.95 and those snappily lunching on Oven Baked French Onion Soup can do so for €4.95. His attitude to the menu is that he’ll change it every day if he must.

“If a supplier comes in to say that he has something special, then we have everything on a word processor which allows us to change the menu twice a day, if necessary.”

And having a restaurateur mentality means that Tom will go the extra mile to avoid ‘menu boredom’ setting in from his customers, yet the prices seem low for the standard of linen serviette service and the quality of the food itself.

But Tom has the long-term view firmly in mind.

“Our attitude is that the whole thing has changed and we’re all fighting for customers. We’re building a business here. If someone wants to take two people out to lunch in Donnybrook and they know that they want to go where the food is good, it’s worth my making a loss of 19 cent for the napkin if I can win their long-term loyalty.

“Otherwsie why will you walk past another pub to come to my place? You come for that difference; there are many pubs doing good food so you have to have several points of difference, not just one.

“A whole new pub lunch entertainment is going on and there are going to be less people eating in restaurants.

“Also, there’s a perception by the customer that it will be faster in a pub-style place. That’s also the challenge – to be fast in service.”

As for future plans he’ll “be happy to be able to pay the bills!” he responds, “When we started to plan this thing, we planned it way back in the Spring.

“Since then the economic situation has got much worse.

“It’s very difficult because paybacks are going to be longer and cashflow is going to be tighter. I have staff with me for 10 years and I feel a big loyalty to them – and then I have to pay the rent.”

Still, he feels honoured to have obtained this premises.

“Madigans has a huge heritage and it’s gone from one family business to another – from the Madigans to the O’Connells. I just hope that we’ll be a good chapter in the history of the building.”

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