Chef ‘Gaz’ Smith: ‘Last 12 months have been toughest of my career, but also the most rewarding’
Mount Merrion restaurateur on his appetite for expanding his business
“Gaz” Smith at Michael’s seafood restaurant in Mount Merrion, Dublin. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
When the first lockdown came, chef Gareth “Gaz” Smith, proprietor of the well-known Michael’s seafood restaurant in Mount Merrion, south Dublin, “froze with fear”.
He had expanded less than 10 months previously with a second premises, four doors down. Little Mike’s served high-end seafood and wines in a brasserie style, less formal than the main venue. All of a sudden Smith had two empty restaurants, more than 30 staff, and zero revenue.
“I was determined never to let anything like that happen again, so we diversified to stay alive,” he says. “I stepped out of the kitchen to focus on the business and realised that’s where my true head lies. If I was still chained to the stove I think we would have closed.”
Now 14 months into the pandemic and, by his own admission, feeling wiser after a chaotic process of trial and error, Smith’s business has expanded in the teeth of the greatest crisis ever faced in hospitality.
Last month he leased a production kitchen for a new and growing sauce business, with brands including Big Butt and Rumpy Pumpy. Staff numbers have grown to 40. Smith has branched out with a food retail business, a “pumping” home meals click-and-collect service, and with a large social media following he is now also working on a cookbook.
Smith anticipates hiring a further 12 staff for the retail business. He is also currently on the lookout for a third premises for a huge new kitchen he bought this week, and which his associates are currently “stripping like termites” from a corporate headquarters that wants it removed in days. He plans to use it to continue the click-and-collect business even after restaurants reopen.
“The restaurant sector will come back with a flourish. But one of the patterns that is here to stay after the pandemic is that people will get more adventurous with the food they eat at home. They will want to recreate restaurant flavours and I see an opportunity in that,” he says.
“One of the lessons I have learned from the last 12 to 14 months is that I must never again be left with just the one income stream, robbing cash from Peter, the restaurant customers, to pay Paul, the suppliers.”
Smith was born in Wexford and raised near Oxford, returning to Ireland as a teenager. He “wasn’t much of a schoolgoer, and was more of a grafter”, and worked his way up from kitchen porter to head chef. He moved to Vienna in 2008, spending six years there working in gastropubs, picking up a Germanic accent along the way.
He wanted to work for himself but didn’t think his language skills were good enough so, with his wife Rita and family, moved back in 2014. “I wanted to come back to Ireland to make the moves I knew I had in me.”
He worked for another restaurant group, then went out on his own at Clonskeagh House. It didn’t work out so the Kinara group that had previously employed him offered him the lease on Michael’s. He expanded with Little Mike’s in May 2019. Then the pandemic arrived and everything changed.
Smith was among the first Irish restaurateurs to launch click-and-collect after the first shutdown, operating initially over the phone. He used a contactless system, putting the orders in customers’ car boots. It was “disastrous” at first – orders kept going in the wrong boots – but eventually it gained traction.
He was co-developing a web-based order system that he hoped to sell as a software product, but his web developer died last year, the day before it was due to launch. Smith not only lost a colleague and friend, but the developer also took all his passwords to the grave with him, scuppering the launch. Smith bought an off-the-shelf system instead, and the click and collect meals service settled into 150 orders per weekend night, straining his kitchens.
At one stage last year he converted Little Mike’s into an upscale fish and chip shop, but abandoned it after a few days because the high-end product deteriorated by the time people got it home. When indoor dining was allowed reopen last summer, Michael’s traded well. He invested €16,000 in an outdoor “garden” to expand capacity when indoor dining was cut again under anti-virus restrictions. Three weeks later as another surge took hold, the Government axed outdoor dining.
He turned the garden into a retail Farmers’ Market, helping suppliers offload their stock before it perished. He took on a concession in Higgin’s Butchers in Sutton and kept his retail business going there. When it got too cold to run the outdoor market, he approached John O’Reilly’s butchers a few doors down from Michael’s, and expanded his retail operation.
When the Government allowed indoors dining to resume in December, in the face of opposition from Nphet, Smith kept his restaurants closed as he sensed trouble ahead due to the mixed messaging. It gave him the time and space to expand the retail business and also launch the sauces business. He now supplies retail products to Greenman Wines and the Base Wood Fired Pizza chain.
“I ignored the Christmas reopening. We were on to a good thing and it meant I didn’t have to watch the news to see what was changing. We could focus.”
His best decision, he believes, was to eschew home delivery of restaurant meals, which he believes is too slow for food of Michael’s standard. He will reopen his restaurants along with the rest of the sector, but also plans to “jump with two feet” into further retailing. He will also retain click-and-collect to “complement” his traditional restaurant dining business.
“By doing all these things I got to keep my team together throughout the pandemic. Some other restaurants have watched their teams break up. Mine will all be here from day one when we reopen.”
Smith believes a changed work-life balance will be an enduring feature of the pandemic, so he is moving all his staff to a four-day week permanently.
“The last 12 months have been the toughest of my career, but also the most rewarding. I’ll be cautious with whatever I take on in future – we’re secure now. But it’s amazing how things can shift so drastically.”