After 200 years, Johnnie Fox’s is coming down the mountain

With the doors closed to customers the pub has started a home delivery food service

Anyone lucky enough to live within the immediate radius of Glencullen in south Dublin noticed it straightaway. Depending on which way the wind was blowing, there was a sweet warm aroma of homemade bread and creamy seafood chowder, set against the first gentle waft of the open turf fire.

It came late every morning, 364 days of the year, just as Johnnie Fox's pub and restaurant was opening up for business. It only ever closed on Christmas Day (and Good Friday, back when that rule applied). Even in the relative isolation of the Dublin mountains, famed as the highest pub in Ireland, that business would often be swift, especially leading into the first bank holiday of the summer.

With the live Hooley Show, seven nights a week, also employing 30 musicians and 14 Irish dancers, Johnnie Fox's had a staff of 104

And then in March, overnight that aroma and everything which came with it was gone: the pub, the restaurant and the kitchens all closed in line with the Covid-19 restrictions.

Founded in 1798, serving at various times as the local pub, shop and petrol station and hardly changed since the days when Daniel O’Connell would frequent the place, Johnnie Fox’s has endured famine, war, rebellion, recession and many very big freezes, and still never found itself closed for any sort of extended period before.

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The bank holiday weekends were always the busiest, especially when the sun was shining and the customers could linger in the outdoor suntrap area that looks across towards the Sugar Loaf and Glencullen mountain, the local musicians also moving outside, the perfect stop for any hikers and cyclists in the area too.

Since 1987, Johnnie Fox’s has been owned and run by the McMahon family, with Kaitlin McMahon employed as the business manager, which meant she was suddenly landed with the prospect of having no business to run for the foreseeable future.

“Initially, we adopted the crowd control, using the Government guidelines, allowing for 100 people within the building, with 2.5m in between each table,” she says. “We were being very proactive, but the worry was, could we keep on top of it? Coming into St Patrick’s Day, knowing the crowds were coming? With no parades on, people thinking Johnnie Fox’s might be nice. Could we have controlled that?

"So we made the decision to close on the Saturday evening [March 14th], the day before Leo Varadkar imposed the pub and restaurant closures. I was talking to my father, Tony, late into the night, he was still trying to get his head around it, but we decided 'right, this is it, we have to close the doors', and started preparing emails for the staff."

With the live Hooley Show, seven nights a week, also employing 30 musicians and 14 Irish dancers, Johnnie Fox’s had a staff of 104: “And about 90 per cent of our staff are from around the mountain,” says McMahon. “We were all enthused about new strings of the business that we had implemented last year, were so excited for the crowds to come, because we were ready for them. That didn’t of course happen. So it was effectively an entire lay-off, except for the pub and restaurant management. The wage subsidy only kicked in 2½ weeks later, and we didn’t have those resources, we are still [a] small business. We couldn’t have continued, not knowing.”

With that McMahon set herself the task of bringing some of the Johnnie Fox’s experience down from the mountains and into the surrounding areas of Dublin – for collection or delivery. That famed title of Ireland’s highest pub is gently contested by the Top of Coom in Kerry (318.5m), and The Ponderosa in Derry (294.7m), although Johnnie Fox’s (281.6m) is almost certainly the highest pub doing a home delivery service.

“We’ve had challenges here before, being on the mountain. Big snowfalls, all that. So from the day we closed, we started thinking ahead as to how we might be able to operate, within a safe environment. Of course, our number one thing is food.

“Much of our existing menu wouldn’t travel, it’s not the same as being delivered straight from the kitchen to the tables. So we had to develop a new-style menu that would suit what people would want, that wholesome traditional family-style meal. Our head chef Yuri Pesak is quite fussy about what he prepares anyway.

"It took a few weeks to pull all that together, and we're currently delivering to all of Dublin, Enniskerry and Bray areas. We kept most dishes that we could transport, like the seafood chowder, the wild mussels, the lamb stew, trying slightly different cooking methods to that they would travel.

“Everything is prepared and cooked on site as usual, blast-chilled, then into the fridge for delivery. All the containers are also designed to pop straight into the oven, 20-30 minutes, depending on the product. And because there’s no preservatives, eaten within 24-48 hours. The orders come in before noon for same-day delivery, or a lot of people pre-order for the weekends, birthdays, little celebrations

“We’ve also gone with a new tagline: ‘We’ve had families at our place for over 200 years, now we’ll come to yours’. There was always that energy around the pub, people driving by and seeing people crowding outside, so even closing the doors had that kind of dark impact. So rather than it just being our service, it’s also some relief for the community, seeing the doors open, just being able to operate in a small way means something.

“We’re so used to planning, Covid-19 has changed all that. Until we’re given the correct and safe guidelines, we simply can’t know. We absolutely just have to go day-by-day. You can’t predict what the recovery part will be like, how long the restrictions might last. But this is about bringing some of the staff back in to work, and once we meet the cost of the staff and food supplies, we can hopefully add some more back.”