The LVA’s new Chairman knows a thing or two about being a city centre publican having been one for 15 years or more in The Bankers in Dublin’s Trinity Street.
We’re sitting in The Teller Room above the pub itself which he opened as a small restaurant about a year ago. He undertook all the work on it himself over the course of a year, accompanied by his Father-In-Law and a carpenter. It looks well and has become extremely popular with tourists.
Alan began as a lounge boy in Bakers Corner in South County Dublin before working in the hotel industry for a number of years (where he met his wife, Leona, in the Killiney Court Hotel) before going to work in The Bankers pub in Dublin city centre. He also worked as a Service Technician for Guinness before returning to manage the Killiney Court’s bars. He then returned to The Bankers, this time to manage it, taking it over properly in 2004.
Dublin licensed trade today
Dublin pubs are in a good spot at the moment, believes Alan.
“We’re now three to four years into recovery,” he says, “The mood is extremely positive amongst publicans and consumers.”
Things are much different from 10 years ago and although volumes are not up, there’s a bigger variety of product available.
“Pubs now offer a much better choice for their customers with food and wine being a key factor,” says Alan who believes that pubs will grow and get better as publicans invest in their business in response to customer demands: better service and better quality of spirits and craft beers – but the biggest call of all is for a better food offering.
He perceives suburban pubs to be more family-friendly, food and community focused.
“Getting involved in community is more important outside the city centre than in it. City pubs would be more trend-led and would enjoy a late-night scene, so there’s big potential for growth still.
“With its population density, a half-decent public transport infrastructure and very good taxi services, Dublin has a lot of advantages,” he says, “Dublin also has the advantage of having Croke Park for big events such as GAA and concerts and the Aviva for rugby and other events.”
Pubs are now mostly food-driven midweek with up to 40% of business being done on Fridays and Saturdays.
“There’s a strong growing demand for the late-night scene in the city centre and there are a growing number of late-night venues with great offerings as standard,” says Alan, “You have to tick all those boxes now as there are so many competitors out there. You need to stand out.”
But there’s a lot of expense that people don’t take into consideration in the night-time economy: the cost of a Special Exemption Order, IMRO, the cost of the band and the cost of security and staff.
“You’re getting what you pay for rather than simply a dear pint – it’s an experience.”
In this, there’s competition too – and not all of it above board. There’s been a growing trend towards some restaurants abusing on-trade wine licences, he explains.
“This is a city centre problem for the most part and a matter for the Gardai to enforce,” he says, “There’s nothing we can do about it – don’t get me wrong, competition is good for the trade but it would be nice for everyone if we were all on the same level playing field because the cost structure for pubs is higher in terms of rates and insurance.”
Over the last few years he’s seen a change to the product mix in pubs.
“Number One is still draught beer, but spirits and wine are fast-growing trends,” he says, “Food is in high demand as is the paring of food and wine together.”
He doesn’t believe that rums and tequilas will have such an impact as did the gin market.
“A G&T is an easy drink and the fancier it gets the more people want it,” he explains.
Five years ago he stocked three gins. Today he has 20.
With compensation settlements reaching off-the-wall proportions, the effects on insurance premia have been felt back at source through massively increased costs everywhere, not least in the pub trade and not least in the late-night pub trade. But in light of government inaction, the policy-holders are pushing back. The LVA stands proud to have been a founding member of the Alliance for Insurance Reform.
“Insurance is a real issue, not just for the Dublin trade but for all sectors of the economy,” says Alan, “A broad-based group like the Alliance is the best way to tackle it. We’re disappointed by the slow pace of reform and we’ll continue to highlight the issue at Government level. It’s a specific problem for late-night trade in particular. Peter Boland of the Alliance is doing a good job and the LVA is committed to this organisation.
“It’s something we’re tackling head-on and making headway with it. We’ve met a few TDs about it early on and they appear to be sympathetic to the push towards insurance reform.”
Insurance is a problem for everyone at any level, he points out.
“It doesn’t mean that the person in the small pub down the country hasn’t got the same problems as the big pub in Dublin.”
LVA Chair’s aims & achievements
He considers himself fortunate to be taking over the Chair with the trade in such good shape following the last two Chairs Deirdre Devitt and John Gleeson.
“Getting Good Friday over the line has been a great achievement and it’s been the work of many Chairman over the years,” he believes, “We’ll continue to work on excise and keeping VAT at 9% and we’ll be starting our Support Your Local campaign for the Budget while supporting the introduction of MUP in the Alcohol Bill.”
Alan greets the advent of this Bill with mixed feelings.
“Where we welcome the introduction of Minimum Unit Pricing as it’s long overdue, we’ve major concerns over the labelling proposals,” he says, “We’re flat-out opposed to the cancer labelling proposal. It will send out the negative message that a bottle of whiskey or a bottle of beer in Ireland can cause cancer yet the same bottle in the UK or any other country won’t. Will the same labelling have to go on other things then? Like coffee, processed meat or even the sun? Where will it stop?
“We’re concerned about health labelling generally in this Bill. We feel it’s against the internal EU market principle of free movement of goods and we strongly oppose the cancer warning labels as being sensationalist. It’s not conducive to having a welcoming, relaxing environment in pubs. It’s simply a step too far in our view.”
Staffing, chefs etc….
He welcomes the news that Minister Heather Humphries has allowed 610 extra permits for non-EU chefs and kitchen staff.
“The government needs to address the shortage of staff in this industry and the long-term issue of there being not enough training in this sector,” he says, “Like the restaurant industry the pubs are finding it difficult to get and retain a skilled workforce. But now, if a job cannot be filled directly or by someone from the European Economic Area then it can be filled by a non-EU person.”
Suppliers & pricing challenges
Comments made at this year’s Vintners Federation of Ireland AGM suggest that supplier pricing remains a prickly issue with many publicans in comparing the price of the same product going out to the off-trade.
“Relations with suppliers are good” believes Alan, “however pricing is always an issue. The trade is in a healthy state so the last thing we need is price increases to upset customers. Multiples are selling at ridiculously low prices which is irresponsible and we support the Government in bringing forward the MUP element in the Bill as soon as possible.”
Together with Leona, he accompanies his three young daughters to GAA, swimming and piano lessons, gymnastics etc so there’s not much time for anything else. But when he does get out he plays golf with the LVGS every Thursday. He’s also Club Secretary (playing off 14).
“It’s what keeps me sane in this business!” he beams, “It’s my happy place!”