‘Bookings are solid’: Hotels, bars and restaurants get set for reopening

Daniel Smith, marketing manager at Grogan’s pub, South William Street, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Ireland’s hospitality sector begins to reopen next week, after almost five months of shuttered businesses. For hoteliers, restaurateurs and pub owners there's a lot at stake

Daniel Smith
Marketing manager, Grogan’s pub, Dublin
“Our big priority is to get open and stay open, so we are going to be taking all the necessary precautions to make it a safe space.” Daniel Smith, grandson of the late Tommy Smith, who along with Paddy Kennedy bought this landmark Dublin pub in 1972, is looking forward to getting back to work.

The guidelines released this week will allow pubs, restaurants and cafes to open for meals and drinks served outdoors only, from Monday, June 7th. (Hotels can reopen on Wednesday, June 2nd.)

When Grogan’s reopens its doors on Monday week, it will be for the first time in 15 months. First orders, for table service only, will be taken at 10.30am, and the owners plan to accommodate 50-70 patrons seated under awnings on a weatherproof heated terrace that will wrap around the pub’s street frontage on the corner of South William Street and Castle Market.

The first order? I would say it will be a pint of Guinness and a toasted special

Unlike many licensed premises preparing to slake the thirst of as many punters as possible, Grogan’s won’t be taking reservations, or imposing time limits. “We are going to operate on a first-come, first-served basis,” Smith says. “We’ve ordered smaller tables, so we can fit more of them, with the 1-metre social distancing required between tables.”

The pub’s toilets will be open to customers, and masks will be required to enter the building, but not while seated at a table.

The pub’s famous toasties will be back on the menu, though the traditional pot of Coleman’s mustard served alongside might have to make way for more Covid-compliant individual sachets. “We are hoping that we can keep the experience as similar as possible to what it was previously. We will be working within guidelines, but we really want to keep the traditional feel of the pub, the traditional aspect of conversation and meeting friends.”

Not everything will be as it was, though. “My grandfather passed away in February of last year. It was well timed, as much as a death can be well timed. He was in the pub every day for a couple of hours; he might not jump in behind the bar but he’d come in and chat to people. Sitting around at home would have killed him, he just wouldn’t have been able for it.” Daniel’s father, Donal, is now the pub’s co-owner and manager.

Chef Richard Corrigan, at Virginia Park Lodge, Virginia, Co Cavan. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Chef Richard Corrigan, at Virginia Park Lodge, Virginia, Co Cavan. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Richard Corrigan
Proprietor, Virginia Park Lodge, Co Cavan
As intriguing hospitality propositions go, the chance to stay in the gate lodge, intended to become Richard Corrigan’s retirement home, is well up there. “It’s where I lived for three months, from January to April, then I went back to London three weeks before we reopened there. It’s my personal favourite, the place I will end up retiring to,” says the chef and restaurateur of the modest home on his Virginia Park Lodge estate in Co Cavan, which will reopen to overnight guests next week, on June 3rd.

Corrigan, who has three restaurants in central London, won’t be slowing down just yet, and in the meantime the two-bedroom lodge is one of several accommodation options at the estate, which includes more than 20 rooms in the main house, 12 luxurious self-catering shepherd’s huts in the grounds, and two woodland cabins.

We really have fought hard to hold on to what we’ve built here

With his London restaurants also shuttered until just recently, Corrigan has been busy shifting the focus at Virginia Park Lodge, which he purchased in 2014. It will switch from a wedding, private hire and pop-up events venue to a full-service hotel for the months of June and July. In August, the Lodge reverts to catering for weddings and private events, and the shepherd’s huts and cabins in the grounds will be available to rent year round.

Corrigan has made no secret of the burden that buying the estate placed on his finances, telling UK food writer Diana Henry in an Irish Times interview in 2018 that the purchase “could really have hurt me. It could have brought me right down.” But it seems the venture has turned a corner and, with lockdown lifting, the reservations line is open and bookings are rolling in. “June and July are looking really good already,” he says.

Shepherd’s huts provide self-catering accommodation on the grounds of Virginia Park Lodge.
Shepherd’s huts provide self-catering accommodation on the grounds of Virginia Park Lodge

The latest additions to the estate are designed to facilitate outdoor dining. A dining terrace has been built at the Lodge, and in the grounds an outbuilding has been converted to a covered barbecue space. Called the Piggery, this is where self-catering guests can order a hamper of steaks, sugar pit bacon, prawn skewers and salads, and have chefs from the Lodge kitchen cook for them.

Guests staying in the main house will have the option of booking a four-course dinner “curated by chef Corrigan”, but not cooked by him, at least until a travel corridor between Ireland and the UK opens up. Until then, he is staying in London, where indoor dining is now permitted.

“I am lucky to have survived, to get to this stage, in central London, I’ll be honest with you. There’s a lot of carnage out there. We really have fought hard to hold on to what we’ve built here,” he says. “It’ll be a slog there for the next six months.”

Mary and Mark Wheeler, proprietors of Rathmullan House hotel.
Mary and Mark Wheeler, proprietors of Rathmullan House hotel

Mark and Mary Wheeler
Owner managers, Rathmullan House Hotel, Co Donegal
“I hope we are in a position to perform really well as a hospitality business. We need to make sure that people don’t desert us again next year because they can go further afield. We are not just trading for this week, we are trading for next year as well,” says Mark Wheeler, who runs the 34-bedroom, four-star Rathmullan House hotel with his wife Mary.

The couple are the second generation of Wheelers to welcome paying guests to the Georgian property on the shores of Lough Swilly in Co Donegal. “My parents bought the house 59 years ago, and we’re celebrating 60 years in business next year. It was a youth hostel and they turned it into a hotel. Traditionally our market is Irish people who are here for bucket and spade holidays,” says Mark.

I hope people work with us and not against us and are understanding

The hotel, which reopens on Wednesday next, June 2nd, has a well-regarded restaurant, the Cook & Gardener. Dishes are made with produce harvested from the walled kitchen garden that was planted 60 years ago. The difference this summer is that only residents can dine there, due to social distancing requirements. “We are seeing strong demand for family rooms, so at any stage we could have 80 people in the house,” Mary Wheeler says.

Forced to look outside, to their 7 acres of grounds in order to maximise their potential earnings the Wheelers have sourced a fancy tent that will be a permanent feature on the lawn, serving pizza, salads, ice-cream and drinks to up to 60 seated guests. The Pavilion, as they have christened it, will be open to resident and non-resident guests.

Rathmullan House in Donegal.
Rathmullan House in Donegal

Summer bookings are “extremely strong”, according to the couple. A double room B&B on a weekend night this summer will cost €240. “We don’t price gouge. The rates are the same as last year. We don’t do yield management or anything like that. The rates are set and we honour those,” Mark says.

The Wheelers describe themselves as hands-on hoteliers. Two of their three children are on the 100-strong staff for the summer. “Molly is 19 and works in the Pavilion. Daisy is 16 and works in housekeeping. We haven’t persuaded Charlie, aged 13, to join the team yet, but I’m working on him,” Mary says.

Embarking on their second summer as pandemic hoteliers, the couple have a shared concern. “I just hope that people aren’t too demanding, I hope people work with us and not against us and are understanding,” Mary says.

“We still have a huge amount of restrictions that we have to follow,” Mark adds. “We are naturally hospitable people and the last thing we want is that people ask us to do things which we are actually not allowed to do.”

Anything else on their wish list? “ I would really like some good weather,” Mark says.

Paul and Máire Flynn get ready to welcome diners at The Tannery restaurant, Dungarvan, Co Waterford. Photograph: Patrick Browne
Paul and Máire Flynn outside The Tannery Restaurant. Photograph: Patrick Browne

Paul and Máire Flynn
The Tannery Restaurant, Townhouse and Cookery School, Dungarvan, Co Waterford
With 14 double or twin bedrooms to rent in the two townhouses they own in Dungarvan, Paul and Máire Flynn are preparing to reopen their Tannery restaurant to residents only – a maximum of 28 guests – on Wednesday next. Heading into their 25th summer in business in the Co Waterford town, the couple are grateful for the opportunity to ease into the new season.

“When we reopened on the 1st of July last year, we literally went from zero to 100 overnight and it was really difficult. We were out of practice, we were short-staffed,” says Máire, who runs front of house. “There was an air of stress because we felt that we had to be responsible for everybody else’s behaviour and people don’t like being told what to do.”

A shortfall of two chefs in the kitchen further compounded the stress. “Trying to keep the show on the road last summer was the hardest thing we’ve ever done,” Máire says.

Trying to keep the show on the road last summer was the hardest thing we’ve ever done

On a busy night in the summer months, the Tannery would regularly do 100 covers a night, so they are reopening at less than a third capacity until they get the green light for indoor dining. “I’m hopeful that reopening this year is going to be easier than reopening blindly last year. Our experience last year was that some people were absolutely paranoid about Covid and some people were so casual about Covid, so keeping the balance between guests was often tricky. We were in the middle. We learned a lot about how to manage things during that time,” Máire says.

For Paul, a chef, being out of the kitchen for the past five months has been hard, but more than anything else he missed the buzz of a busy restaurant. “I just hated going in to the restaurant when we were closed, it just felt wrong, I’d do anything to avoid going in.” But now, new head chef Damien Derwin, formerly of The Pig’s Ear in Dublin, is in the kitchen and the team is preparing for a busy summer.

“Last year I reduced our menu to three starters, four main courses and three desserts, with specials. I was really happy about that. It kept the food fresher and more alive and we changed it more often too. It was good, so I’ll be doing the same again,” Paul says.

He is also looking forward to sharing responsibility for the kitchen with his new hire. “With the experience that Damien has, I want to let him run with it and I will mentor him. The food has to have my influence on it, but you need fresh eyes and fresh techniques.”

The Flynns have quietly opened their reservations book for dinner, bed and breakfast, and while bookings are “brisk”, Máire feels that many people are confused still about what they can and cannot do when it comes to hospitality. “Every email I get begins ‘I’m not sure if you’re taking bookings but if you are, can we book?’”

With another busy summer season ahead, have the couple taken any learnings from their enforced break and will they do anything differently this time around? “I think we realised how hard we’ve worked over the last 24 years, and not working and having a home life that we never had before, weekends with our children that we never had before, made me really think, how did we do that?” Máire says.

This summer, they will close the restaurant on Tuesdays as well as Mondays. “It was a big decision because during the summer there’s a lot of Tuesdays we’d be full. But it was so stressful last year doing six days with everything going on, so we just decided to do the right thing for us; it’s not all about the money,” Paul says.

However they are both looking forward to getting back to work. “Getting life back into the restaurant is important. When we see customers coming in, and when you meet nice people, and they’re all happy to be there, it makes you feel good about your job.”

Kevin and Réidín Aherne, Sage restaurant and deli, in Midleton, and their son Cuan.
Kevin and Réidín Aherne, Sage restaurant and deli, in Midleton, and their son Cuan

Kevin Aherne
Chef and owner, Sage restaurant and deli, Midleton, Co Cork
In February of last year, chef and restaurateur Kevin Aherne announced that he was briefly closing Sage, the fine-dining restaurant in Midleton he was running with his wife, Réidín, to do some renovations and reposition it as a casual all-day dining venue. It may have been the most prescient move imaginable in a year of endless pivots for the restaurant trade.

As the year progressed, Aherne opened a shop alongside the restaurant selling ready meals, developed a healthy takeaway trade, and moved his seated dining area entirely outdoors. The outside dining area, the Garden Room, has been a huge success, and he is hoping for a summer of decent weather. “We only take reservations for underneath the canopy and that’s for 40, but potentially we could go up to over 100 outside,” he says.

Getting back open is quite a task, it’s like opening on day one again

He is working towards a return to socially distanced outdoor dining on June 7th. “We’ve made it a bit more accessible and put in paths for access for wheelchairs and people with walking disabilities and buggies. There’s a huge amount of setting up. Getting back open is quite a task, it’s like opening on day one again.”

The reservations book is open and “bookings are very solid”, he says. “We haven’t taken a huge amount of numbers because I think it will take us a while to get back into the swing of it. But we’re booked out in advance on weekends for about six weeks.”

He will be following the recipe that worked for him last summer: “Fun, full of flavour, non-fussy food. Everyone will find something on the menu to enjoy.” Work continues on the outside space, as he plans to link the Garden Room with the restaurant’s bathrooms. “I am probably going to have to spend a little bit more on the infrastructure but, to be honest, we are going to have to be taking in more money before we can spend any more.”

Staff shortages have not impacted Aherne’s business and he is reopening “with more or less the same staff I closed with”. But there has been one significant change to the staff role call; his wife, Réidín, has stepped away from the business to return to teaching.

“She was in the business while also being a teacher, and then when the children came along, she was still in the business, but then she decided that she missed teaching.”

JP Kavanagh, general manager, Shelbourne hotel, says reservations at the moment are ‘almost exclusively from the domestic market’.
JP Kavanagh, general manager, Shelbourne hotel, says reservations at the moment are ‘almost exclusively from the domestic market’

JP Kavanagh
General manager, Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin
While many hotels remained shuttered for the duration of the most recent lockdown, behind the scenes at the Shelbourne in Dublin city centre, staff were kept busy with routine maintenance, preparing an at-home menu, and catering to small weddings. “We have had several intimate weddings each week during lockdown, each of which has been very special,” says general manager JP Kavanagh.

Long-standing staff members will be back to greet guests when the hotel reopens on Wednesday. “Since the most recent lockdown began after Christmas, we have retained all of our staff on a reduced working week. We have availed of the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme,” Kavanagh says.

We learned a lot when we reopened last year

last year, and guests will have the option of mobile check-in and check-out. “We learned a lot when we reopened last year. Our aim is for our guests to feel safe and comfortable while still feeling like they are getting a five-star, luxurious experience.”

Kavanagh says the entire hotel will be in use when the famous revolving doors open to incoming residents next Wednesday, but that “with current restrictions we will not be operating at full capacity”. Social distancing and increased hygiene measures will be in place. The hotel’s two outdoor spaces will open to non-residents for drinks and meals from Monday, June 7th.

“Our guests are excited to get back to the Shelbourne, and looking forward to being looked after and spoiled after a stressful period,” Kavanagh says. Reservations at the moment are “almost exclusively from the domestic market”.