NEW YORK – Just prior to a recent reception for the soon-to-launch Dingle Distillery at the Irish Consulate General in Manhattan, The Wild Geese's Gerry Regan interviewed Brendan Barry, president of Irish Business Solutions, about the extraordinary power of the Irish brand in restaurants and pubs in the United States and throughout the developed world. Barry's firm, with offices in Wexford and Arlington, Virginia, helps recruit capable Irish staffers for these ventures, to better insure that the Irish flavor, and heritage, remain front and center.
The Wild Geese: The best of the Irish pubs worldwide convey such a strong sense of Irishness, and I just wondered, what is it about the Irish brand that lends itself so readily to the restaurants and pubs that you find around the world?
Brendan Barry (Right): Here in the U.S., the American customers like to go in to an Irish pub or restaurant and listen to the young kids or the guys that are out here for many years, talk about Ireland, the stories of what went on in their childhood et cetera.
Some of the American customers have an idea of Ireland being in the Darker Ages and very much believe the story's that they heard from their parents or grandparents who were 1st-, 2nd- or 3rd-generation Irish.
So when you have someone from Derry or Kerry or wherever in Ireland coming over to work and they have the Irish accent and stories from the ‘Auld’ country, it seems to bring the customers back to their "roots.”
The Irish hospitality workers are inclined to have a little bit more of a personality, and try and make their customer feel that they are the most important person in the world. The Irish workers, in general, don’t have a problem in serving, it comes naturally. It comes naturally to them to talk, it comes naturally to them to be polite, and in general, that’s the big difference I find.
(Right: left to right, Brendan Barry, trainee manager and County Offaly native Aoife Corcoran, and Michael Galway, co-owner of Galway Bay Irish Pub, in Annapolis, Maryland.)
WG: Well, let me ask you then, how would you define an authentic Irish experience in a pub?
Barry: OK, I think that’s very, very simple. You go in and you get that atmosphere. An example, first time that I came to Washington, D.C., with my now wife, who’s from Trinidad.
She had never been to an Irish bar, and she thought that the first thing I would want do is go to an Irish bar in D.C.
On the first night that I arrived, we went with her sister and her husband, to a very prominent Irish bar in Falls Church, Virginia.
The place was packed. So our first reaction was ‘Oh, there’s no room here, we’ll go somewhere else.’ but before we got a chance to turn to go out the door, the barman was over to us and says “Come in, come in, we have plenty of room,” and he had an accent that I knew straight away was a Northern [Irish] accent.
Straight off he went out of his way, he made sure that we were OK, his smile and personality literally dragged us back in, in a very nice way. He then went off and got two stools for the ladies, and made sure that we were comfortable and at easy in a new environment.
To this day, we are still regulars at Ireland's Four Provinces, and Susan and I are attending Johnny's -- the barman in question -- wedding to Amanda on the 30th of June.
WG: Did he kick anyone off the stools?
Barry: He actually did, but he was able to do that with the personality he had. I think that’s the difference, he went out of his way, but that was his natural personality. He did not just put it on as a show.
WG: You know a lot of pizzerias in New York City, you see, they’re not made by Italians. In fact my local pizzeria, his help is Spanish, which is probably true of many, if not most, and to the degree that he speaks fluent Spanish because he’s learned from his help. He’s had to learn on the job. But it doesn’t seem to have marred the Italian brand, if you will, of pizza or the pizzeria. But you would suggest that the lack of an Irish accent and the lack of the garrulous Irish presence can damage, weaken an Irish brand in a bar or a restaurant.
Barry: I think to be honest, the majority of bar owners, whether they be Irish, Americans, or Irish American, would much prefer to have a certain amount of Irish accents in the place with the personality.
It doesn’t always happen, because of the visa situation. But it’s a well-known fact that the Irish bars and restaurants around the country that are doing well are the ones that have an Irish connection, whether it be a manager or whether it be a chef. In general, you find it’s the hosts or the servers that are the Irish connection.
WG: The front people.
Barry: The front people. … It could be a sushi restaurant and having all French. It takes away from the idea of having sushi if you’re being served by no one from the country where the actual food is from. . .
There are [an estimated] 1,000 bars [in New York City] that are called Irish, but there are probably 500 that are genuine. Because the others, they might have a shamrock stuck on the window or have a name called O’Flynn or whatever, but that’s as Irish as they get. I see this because my business is going in and out of bars and restaurants, and 85 percent of my business is Irish. I know it the minute I walk in, I would have a fair idea if there’s an Irish connection, by just walking in and looking around -- the authenticity is lacking, if someone had put something together, like a shamrock, what we’d often call the ‘plastic Paddys’ or ‘Hollywood Irish’ or whatever.
WG: When you say that it’s become obvious to you whether a place has an Irish connection, would you count a first generation Irish proprietor as a strong enough Irish connection, or even there does the brand really need really a lilting, Irish manner of speaking.
Barry: No, I have a very good client of mine in Raleigh in North Carolina, and he’s got four Irish bars and restaurants, and he has no Irish connection. He purely went into the Irish bar and restaurant business on a commercial basis.
But what he has done is he’s made sure in every one of his bars that he has a certain number of Irish employees because his own point was he’d be no different from the American sports bar down the road if he didn’t have some sort of a connection other than a photograph of the Cliffs of Moher, or something like that.
WG: I’m glad you mentioned that, because, I noticed on your website, you offer consultation about, perhaps, even the sale of memorabilia. I’ve often thought one of the great attractions for me for the best Irish bars is the culture that’s apparent on the walls, whether it’s as simple as the Irish tri-color or as sophisticated or as subtle as the Easter Proclamation, or portraits of great Irish heroes, such as Patrick Pearse, James Connolly, or Thomas Francis Meagher on the walls, often beautifully framed and restored. So the great Irish bars have the aura of museums, as repositories of the great history of the Irish. Is that an important part of the equation in offering a great Irish experience?
Barry: I think it is. This is a story I tell, and the owner is not happy with the story, but he knows it and he would have no problem me telling it. I went into a bar and restaurant called “Daniel O’Connell’s” and when I went in I felt there wasn’t a lot of Irishness in the staff member that was serving me, yet there was lots of memorabilia and there were big paintings of Daniel O’Connell. The server came over, he was very, very nice and he was American. And as we were talking, “By the way,” I said, “who’s Daniel O’Connell?” and he looked at me, and he scratched his head and said, “I think he’s one of the owners from Ireland, but I’m not too sure.” And that’s going back to (what constitutes) the real Irish bar, who will likely have had their employees trained to … at least know who is Daniel O’Connell or who ever the name of the pub is.
WG: So would you say then that material culture on display is not enough?
Barry: I would agree entirely with you there. Some of the places you can go out and buy everything that you want. For example, I came across a bar called St. Brendan’s and you know they had photographs and different pieces of bric-a-brac that showed who St. Brendan was and the history of St. Brendan being ‘The Navigator.’ But that was it, after that there was no connection [to Ireland].
WG: Did you find that bar’s traffic wasn’t really realizing its potential?
Barry: Because I come from Ireland, I know who St. Brendan was, but 95 percent of the American customers wouldn’t. I would always advise if you have a bar that has an Irish name, whether it be Kitty O’Shea’s or Daniel O’Connell’s, that on the menu or somewhere, you have a brief history of who that person is. Because I know if I had said to someone, ‘Who is St. Brendan?” many wouldn’t have had an idea. …
It’s very hard to actually put your finger on what makes an Irish pub good. In my view, the staff is very important. You can have the memorabilia and you can have the material things, to an extent, but you take one of the big groups with lots and lots of money, and they’ll take over an area in a strip mall, and they can just do it up, throw money at it right, left, and center and call it an Irish bar. If they don’t follow through with having some sort of an Irish connection with it, from a staffing point of view, it’s no different than a sports bar.
WG: Do you get owners and groups and proprietors who may sense that something’s missing from their Irish formula? Have they found their way to your door yet?
Barry: Yeah, I would often get calls to go and do a ‘mystery guest’ service, and that would cover a few different things but part of my mystery guest tour will be going In and spotting different things such as staff personality, et cetera, what I would feel the minute I walk in is "Was there Irishness around the atmosphere, or is it just four walls where some memorabilia’s been thrown up?"
WG: Is it hard to convince prospective customers that the living Irish element represents an increase in business, in revenue? Is that a hard sell or is it self-evident?
Barry: I think it’s self-evident. … The Irish bar and pub has always been somewhere that you went to relax, and have conversation, and meet your neighbors or meet new friends. Like the old saying says, “There are no strangers here, only new friends to be made.” … Just last weekend I met a couple who went to a local Irish bar because they knew that by going there someone would talk to them. They would not be left sitting at the counter, without someone [chatting with them] -- whether being inquisitive or wanting to knowing where they came from or who they were -- and that, in fact, was their experience. They were military people, who had moved around, and their experience was that they would find someone to be very helpful, and tell them where to go if they needed car repairs or if they need a painter, or if they need an electrician.
That’s going back to the point I was trying to make earlier, that important connection with the Irish just trying to help, and being there, not just being nice for the sake of being nice or getting a good tip. That obviously comes into it, but also its part and parcel with the culture in general with the Irish people.
WG: Has that diminished, in any respect, by the bust in the Irish economy? Has Irish hospitality suffered at all as a result?
Barry: In Ireland, it has suffered, in my opinion. It has suffered big time. … You had a scenario where things were so good in Ireland, and we had very little unemployment, so the Irish didn’t want to work in the hospitality sector, because it’s a hard sector and the hours are not good.
WG: Is that where the almost stereotypical Polish employees came in?
Barry: The Eastern Europeans came in, and to be fair, the Eastern Europeans in Ireland, in my view, were very much like the Irish when they first came to the U.S. They wanted to work, and they wanted to better themselves and, in general, the Eastern Europeans are very well looked at from a work ethic, the same as the Irish were many, many years ago. That worked both ways, because in America now, with a lot of Irish-owned bars, they don’t really look at taking on the Irish students like they would have 10 years ago, or 15 years ago, and that is because the culture and attitude of the students coming out of Ireland has changed. Many years ago, it was a big experience to come to the U.S. and get a chance to learn, to earn good money, and see a different country.
Then Ireland did so well that the parents were, in general, giving their kids, when I say kids, their 18-24-year-olds, credit cards to go to America and work, and to an extent, [saying] ‘Just stay away from us; we’re too busy, so go somewhere else.’
Some caused trouble, not turning up for work on time and not turning up for work at all, giving the Irish student population a very bad name. That [rap] is still there now, even though, because things have changed in Ireland, the students are now coming more motivated, to earn money, but the young adults, going back 7 or 8 years gave (Irish temporary) workers a bad name, [and students] are now finding it hard to get over that. I come across Irish bars and restaurants [in the United States] that won’t take on Irish students because of their past experiences.
WG: By the way, the Eastern Europeans that filled the vacuum in the hospitality industry in Ireland – did they work on the lowest rung, or have some become bartenders and managers, jobs that are more typically seen as ‘Irish’ in Ireland?
Barry: They would have come in initially on the lower rung, and a lot of them would have had qualifications from college in Poland and Estonia and all these places. But the only work they could have gotten in Ireland was starting at the bottom rung. You find now that a lot of them are in management positions in the hospitality sector because they worked, they showed they could work, and wanted to work.
WG: Did American visitors to Ireland finding a non-Irish person behind the bar, did that diminish the experience for them and perhaps deter some business?
Barry: I don’t know if it dampened business, but it [drew comments]. My wife, just taking her as an example, visited Ireland in August 2008. She had been in Ireland three days, they had stayed two nights and two days in Dublin, and then their tour came to Waterford, and part of the conversation was that she had not met an Irish person, in any of the shops or any of the bars or restaurants they had been. And that surprised her!
WG: Did that disappoint her?
Barry: It disappointed her very much. She tells the story to this day that the only reason she spoke to me was she wanted to hear an Irish accent.
WG: So presumably the word of mouth that this prospective influencer could have offered back in the States would not have been nearly as positive as it would have if she had her expectations fulfilled and she was charmed by dozens of Irish sales associates.
Barry: I think that’s the one negative she had, that she met very few Irish people in the service industry. But to be fair, the amount of positives she got from the trip totally outweighed that. But if you were looking for a negative … that would have been the number one.
WG: By the way, Brendan, do you have a figure on how many “Irish bars and pubs and restaurants ” there are in the United States?
Barry: I don’t actually have a figure, but I do know that because of my involvement with the soccer, I travel a lot and every place I go recently, whether it be Wilmington, North Carolina, or I when I was in Florida or whatever, I try and Google the area I’m going to, to see if there are any Irish bars and restaurants. And every one of them has a big population of Irish bars and restaurants. It’s substantial. WG
Irish Business Solutions will be conducting an afternoon workshop in Manhattan on Monday, June 25, geared toward more profitable management of Irish pubs and restaurants. For more information and to register, visit http://www.irishbusinesssolutions.net/ or http://barandrestaurantworkshop.com/. Brendan Barry, a former soccer referee for the League of Ireland and FIFA, also invites devotees of the Irish national team to sport the team’s colors during Euro 2012 with the purchase of a replica of the official team jersey, both home and away versions, which can be seen at IrishBusinessSolutions.net. E-mail Barry at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.