Wild Geese: David Kelly, Rí Rá Irish Pubs, US
Publican bringing it all back home
“We don’t do the usual Irish pub. We quite literally take a pub from Ireland and ship it over to the US. All of our interiors and fittings are salvaged from pubs back home, and we have a unit in Wicklow where we have our own craftsmen getting everything ready,” said Kelly.
The company has between 500 and 600 employees, with revenues of between $25 million and $35 million. Kelly won’t be any more specific than that, as US firms are not obliged to publicly file detailed financial accounts like their counterparts in Ireland.
He started the first one with Ciaran Shehan, a childhood friend who also emigrated Stateside, in 1997.
“There was this craze in Europe, shipping Irish pubs abroad. Myself and Ciaran reckoned it would hit the US. We talked about how cool it would be to lift Toner’s out of Dublin and drop it in a US city,” Kelly said.
Backed by Bank of Wachovia, they opened their first outlet in North Carolina. Over following years, they opened venues at the rate of roughly one per year, although a few have closed along the way.
Each of the pubs has some different local investors on board, but 75 per cent of Rí Rá is controlled equally by Sheehan, Kelly and an American, Jay Luther, a former Guinness colleague of Kelly’s. Luther runs the operational side of the business, while Kelly manages marketing: “I get the dollar to the door, Jay runs it through the business.”
In keeping with Kelly’s home-away approach to running the business, Rí Rá regularly hires Irish staff and moves them to America, and also brings some of its US-based staff to Ireland on annual jaunts to see the pub business here.
“Living and working abroad has been a really enriching experience. I’m Irish, but a US citizen. My children were born in the US, but are now growing up in Ireland. I couldn’t be happier. I have the best of both worlds,” said Kelly.
The investors – Sheehan, Kelly and Luther are all backers of the new Taphouse in Ranelagh – are considering opening more outlets in Ireland, if the price is right. They are also working on a new US bar-restaurant concept with higher growth potential than Rí Rá, based around craft pizzas and artisan foods.
They have a separate Whiskey Room venture in Vermont, which operates separately from Rí Rá.
“We’re a growth oriented company. We also have a brilliant back-of-house system and we want to harness the benefits of that. We have a lot left to do, yet,” said Kelly.