Wild Geese: David Kelly, Rí Rá Irish Pubs, US

Publican bringing it all back home

David Kelly in his new venture, The Taphouse, in Ranelagh. photograph: dave meehan

David Kelly in his new venture, The Taphouse, in Ranelagh. photograph: dave meehan

 

Wanderlust runs in the family of David Kelly, a Dublin-born former Guinness marketing executive who co-owns a chain of more than 10 Irish pubs in the United States. His grandmother emigrated from Dublin to Hartford, Connecticut, where she got a job working for the local mayor and became a US citizen.

So far, so unremarkable, except Kelly’s grandmother emigrated from Ireland, alone, at the age of 75 in 1990. When she crossed the Atlantic, she was already a widow and her grandson was working in Dublin.

She died three years ago at the age of 99.

“She said she moved because she just couldn’t take the Irish weather any more. You look at people like that and you realise that there is so much to do in life,” Kelly said.

He followed his grandmother across the Atlantic in 1995, when his wife – they were just married – got a job at Yale university, also in Connecticut. He continued to work for Guinness in the US, before starting a group of Irish-themed bar-restaurants with a childhood friend from home.

Kelly, who also became a US citizen, is an unusual emigrant in that he has returned to Ireland to open a business here, while still maintaining his business in the US. He is now ostensibly based in Waterford, but makes a monthly trip to the US to work with his Rí Rá pub group. A heck of a commute.

This week, Kelly and his Rí Rá partners opened a new pub and restaurant in Ranelagh in Dublin called the Taphouse Bar & Kitchen, in the landmark premises previously known as Russell’s. They bought it earlier this year from a receiver for €1.8 million.

“It’s not a bargain, but it gives us a chance of a return on our investment,” he said.

Bringing it all back home, Kelly has added some decidedly American touches to the new venture. It has the appearance of a homely, bookish sort of Irish pub, but its service style will be to a US standard.

There is also a US feel to some of the finer details of its offering, such as the takeaway draught beer containers called Growlers, and assorted funky liquors such as bacon-infused gin.

“We wanted to add something new to the area. I think pub customers now have an appetite for something different,” he said.

Back to Rí Rá, which has 11 outlets, mostly in secondary US cities such as Charlotte, North Carolina and Portland, Maine. It also has an outlet in MGM’s Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas, which it opened two years ago. Next month, it will open another outlet in Georgetown, Washington DC.

“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.

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