Bars and restaurants on menu as Danu investors expand interests
Partnership that began with Setanta and Italia ’90 has a varied portfolio
The George pub on South Great Georges Street in Dublin is part of the Danu portfolio. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
“Oi . . . you rock!” exclaims operations director Nathan Evans to kitchen staff at the end of the launch night of the Smith & Wollensky steakhouse in London last Tuesday.
Some 400 guests gathered at the invitation of the restaurant’s Irish backers, Danu Partners.
Leonard Ryan, Mark O’Meara and Mickey O’Rourke, better known in Ireland as the founders of Setanta Sports, secured the franchise for the famous New York steakhouse.
Last week’s opening followed four years of planning and a €10 million investment to secure the opening of the first Smith & Wollensky outside the United States.
“We’re very proud of it,” says Ryan in a nearby London hotel. “It’ll take a few weeks to get it up to speed but we think it’s going to be a great success financially.”
At £65 a pop for a USDA beef grade rib eye steak, the steakhouse will be operating at the top end of market and Danu is hoping to draw business from the City of London and the West End, along with support from Irish visitors to the city.
For Danu, it’s the latest investment in a diverse portfolio that has been stitched together since the investment vehicle was established in 2009.
Last year they closed a €15 million deal to acquire four Dublin pubs from the former Capital Bars chain: the George, Dragon, Café en Seine and Howl at the Moon.
“We’re not a party to that case but if Nama is successful we will get the lease,” says O’Meara.
Howl at the Moon
The Dragon pub was shut around Christmas and reopened for St Patrick’s Day as an Asian fusion restaurant called Söder + Ko.
“That’s doing very well,” he says.
Howl at the Moon “needs an investment”, he says. “It’s been in receivership for five years. It trades three nights a week but it needs a bit of TLC . We haven’t figured it out yet.”
According to Ryan, Danu’s “aspiration is to buy more commercial premises in Dublin at the right price and in the right location”.
Around the same time Smith & Wollensky was being launched, another Danu investment, Setanta Asia, was being sold to John Malone’s Discovery network.
“Danu is fully out of TV now,” says Ryan.
A couple of years ago, he and O’Meara exited the Setanta Sports in Ireland, leaving Mickey O’Rourke flying solo.
It was a partnership that began in 1990 when they secured the rights to show some of Ireland’s matches from the Italia ’90 World Cup to expats in London.
About a decade ago, Setanta made a play to take on Sky for Premier League rights in the UK. That business failed but Setanta Ireland was saved.
“To go back into the TV sports market now, without a massive balance sheet . . . we can’t compete,” he says. “If you look at what BT are doing [in the UK]now, they’re giving it away to their broadband customers and that’s a model we can’t compete with.
“We went to the US and bought the rights in 1995 to the Premier League. We bought the live rights on a sub licence for $175,000 a year.
“These are currently [valued at] $83 million (€73m) and they reckon the renewal is going to be north of $100 million a year.
That level of inflation is a reflection of the growth of the product and that the only things you watch live now are news and sport.”
Danu’s other investments are a mixed bag. There’s a stake in West Cork Distillers, which is seeking to make the equivalent of a 12-year-old Irish whiskey in just three years using a maturation method developed by John O’Connell, a former head of research at Kerry Foods.
“We’ve backed him to build a distillery in Skibbereen,” O’Meara says.
“He’s got capacity for 500,000 cases. We’ve a local partner in John Field, who owns a big SuperValu there. It’s a cool business.”
Then there’s Dundalk-based PlayerTek, which is developing wearable sports technology for consumers.
“It’s a €250 device aimed at serious amateurs players . . . that tracks your acceleration, your speed, your ground covered, your heat map. It launched about two weeks ago.”
“It literally only launched about a month ago,” O’Meara says.
And a call-centre in Mauritius called Servecalls, set up initially to service Setanta. “It’s a good low-cost location for call centres,” according to O’Meara.
“That’s all we have. It’s enough to keep us going,” he adds.
“We couldn’t claim to have any great over-arching strategy among all those investments.”
“We need to buy a farm now,” says Ryan with a slight chuckle. “Farm to table” to feed its restaurants, he adds.
Might they open a Smith & Wollensky in Dublin?
“Probably not,” says Ryan. “You’d need a bigger city than Dublin. A 200-seat restaurant at that price point needs a bigger city.”
But he’s not ruling out another in London.
“We want to get this one up and running and in six months’ time we can think about that. One step at a time.”