'It was conceived as a gigantic hobby': Lochlann Quinn on 20 years of the Merrion Hotel

As the hotel celebrates two decades in business, we meet the people who have been there from the very beginning

 

‘My favourite hotel in Europe was the Bristol in Paris, and they had a garden, so that was it.” Lochlann Quinn, billionaire businessman, philanthropist and joint-owner of Dublin’s Merrion hotel is explaining where the idea came from to knock down two “quite ugly” office blocks behind the four Georgian townhouses he, Martin Naughton and Billy Hastings acquired at auction in 1992, and replace them with a garden.

“There are a couple of things we copied from the Bristol. The first was the idea of having a central garden, and the second thing I liked about the Bristol was there are no shops in the hotel. If you wanted something, you just asked them for it.

“I don’t like the idea of hotels that have a shopping arcade in them with cases advertising jewellery from somebody downtown, and a shop selling this or that ... we just leave the newspapers out for people.”

Lochlann Quinn, joint owner and chairman of the board. Photograph: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland
Lochlann Quinn, joint owner and chairman of the board. Photograph: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Over morning coffee in his private office in The Merrion, a spacious suite on the second floor with windows overlooking Government Buildings, Quinn reveals how he became an ‘accidental’ hotelier.

“When Martin Naughton and I decided to buy the buildings, we knew nothing about hotels beyond the fact that we stayed in them. I just remember seeing the ad in The Irish Times, in the property section, that the four buildings were up for sale, and I remember saying to Martin – we were on a flight – that they would make a fantastic hotel. And as I say, my only knowledge of hotels was because of our business; we’d be in hotels on a regular basis. So it was conceived as a gigantic hobby, but, it was too big to be a hobby.”

That “hobby hotel” has become a landmark five-star institution, which this month celebrates 20 years in business with the launch of a new restaurant overlooking that garden, which is such an integral part of The Merrion’s charm.

The garden, originally designed by Jim Reynolds, has recently had a revamp, undertaken by the Bloom silver-gilt medal winner Damian Costello.

The redesign was required to incorporate the hotel’s new glass walkway, which connects the main house with the garden wing, and also with Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud and the Garden Room, a 100-seater all-day dining option which replaces the Cellar restaurant.

The Garden Room, with its concertina glass doors opening onto the long rectangular pond, sits at the base of a new building with 11 lavish apartments above, all sold.

This replaced JWT House, a retail and office block fronting on to Baggot Street. “We bought that building from a small pension fund. The site is fully developed now, that’s it, done,” Quinn says.

The build, which got underway in January 2015, was challenging for the hotel. Michelin-starred Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud closed for three months last year to allow for renovations connected with the project, but the hotel has remained open throughout.

“It’s nearly finished, thank God,” Quinn says. “It’s very hard trying to run a hotel at the same time, particularly in the early days of it, with noise from the site. One of the problems was a lot of Americans coming in, they’re getting off an early morning flight and the first thing they want is to go to bed.”

Garden at the Merrion Hotel, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Garden at the Merrion Hotel, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

And is he happy with the outcome? “The garden looks well now, and I think when the restaurant is done ... my guess is we could have six months of the year when the glass doors are pulled apart. People love eating in the open. It should work, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed.”

“I’ve noticed, in France, that they all have these little electric heaters and people are sitting outside, not just for smoking, but at times when they wouldn’t normally do it.”

Quinn’s trips to France – “I think we’ve been down there three times this year” – are often to visit Château de Fieuzal, his vineyard in Bordeaux, from where news of the harvest is not good this year.

“We lost most of our grapes in a late spring frost in April. If they hadn’t budded, if it had happened a week earlier, no damage. I think the whole of the Bordeaux harvest will be down by 30-40 per cent. We’re making about 15 per cent of our normal output.”

In addition to fine wine, art is another of Quinn’s particular interests. The hotel’s acclaimed 19th and 20th century art collection, including works by Louis le Brocquy, Pauline Bewick, William Leech, Nathaniel Hone, Sir John Lavery and Jack B Yeats, is about to welcome a new addition. “There’s a big painting coming in shortly, we picked one of the drawing rooms for it. We got it down in Gorry’s [Gorry Gallery, on Molesworth Street in Dublin]. It’s a painting of the Battle of the Boyne, would you believe,” Quinn says, with the enthusiasm of a dedicated collector.

The Battle of the Boyne, by Jan van Huchenburg (1647-1733) was “the star lot” in the gallery’s summer exhibition, according to this newspaper’s fine art and antiques correspondent, Michael Parsons. “Gallery owner James Gorry said the painting was one of two of the battle by the artist – the other is in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. He said the painting had now been sold for an undisclosed sum to a private buyer,” Parsons wrote in July.

“It’s not a bad painting,” is the verdict from Quinn, who is a former chairman of the National Gallery of Ireland and one of its major benefactors. “The problem is now whenever you get something, you have to get rid of something else, because there’s no space. I’ve stuff on the floor there,” he says, nodding indulgently at several large canvasses propped up against a wall.

When I ask if he ever does the tour of the hotel’s impressive collection (there is a catalogue and an audio guide available to guests), he says he does, but “I know where everything is, you know, I can sort of close my eyes and imagine them.”

So does the head or the heart rule when it comes to making decisions about the hotel, an investment that he also has a very evident personal interest in?

It takes a while for an answer to come.

“The heart would rule, but you’ve got to keep your head on, you know,” he says with a laugh. “There’s no point going bankrupt, that doesn’t solve any problem.”

Peter MacCann, general manager at The Merrion Hotel. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Peter MacCann, general manager at The Merrion Hotel. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

With profits soaring– and a new restaurant, the Garden Room launching on October 23rd – the 20th birthday celebrations at The Merrion are going with a bang, and the man directing operations is quietly satisfied. “We’re not trumpet blowers here,” says general manager Peter MacCann.

MacCann has been at the helm of The Merrion since the very beginning, joining a year before the official opening in 1997, after a four-year apprenticeship with Paddy Fitzpatrick at Killiney Castle, seven years with Trusthouse Forte in the UK, a spell at the Conrad, and then a move to Sheen Falls Lodge in Co Kerry.

It was while he was at the Kenmare hotel that MacCann first heard about the plan to convert four important Georgian townhouses in Dublin into a five-star hotel, with 123 bedrooms and 19 suites.

“Billy Hastings, who is a partner here, was at a dinner down there one night. He said, ‘You know we’re involved in a hotel in Dublin, will you come up and talk to us.’ I went up and met them, we had one interview, we all got on famously, and I was offered the job pretty much straight away.”

In the 20 years he has had guardianship of The Merrion, MacCann has welcomed heads of state, presidents, pop stars and scions of industry, and has established the hotel as a sophisticated choice among the capital’s five-star accommodation options.

But there have been challenges too. He describes the knock-on effect of the 9/11 terror attacks as “the definition of sudden; everything just stopped”, and the economic downturn that hit in 2008 was significant too.

“We had three months of atrocious business, I mean atrocious, there was nobody coming in. It was like, guys, we are in the horrors here and we need to protect our jobs and we need to protect our business. We had 21 redundancies, everybody took pay cuts, we forfeited holidays, we did whatever it took.”

The picture is very different now, with “revenues, room rates and occupancy being at their highest levels”, according to the hotel’s accounts for the year ending October 2016, which disclosed an after-tax profit of €2.9 million.

MacCann echoes the concerns of many in the hospitality industry when he says that staffing is a major concern. “Our biggest challenge is finding and maintaining quality workers. We have just under 300 people on the payroll. In any given year, we will have 1,800 applicants for jobs. We will interview about 1,000, and you might get 100 out of that.

He is excited about two recent hires. “One of the things that I would take huge pride in, from the company’s perspective, is that most of the people here who are at senior level, for the want of a better word, have all been promoted from within. But it’s important to have new blood as well, so we’ve got two new people and I’m very excited about what they’re going to bring.”

Sarah Watson, who comes to The Merrion from Gleneagles in Scotland, will head the spa team and oversee the construction of new treatment rooms where the Cellar restaurant was. A senior food and beverage team member, whose name he cannot reveal yet, is joining from the Mandarin Oriental in London.

Of his own journey to the top echelons of hotel management, MacCann says he “fell into” the hospitality business after leaving school at Clongowes. “It was my mother’s suggestion. My academic achievements fell way short of my aspirations, so she said, you’re very good with people, would you think of hotels?”

Now 85 and living in Meath, where the family is from, MacCann’s mother is a retired veterinary surgeon, who met his farmer and cattle dealer father when she went to tend to a sick horse. “Within six weeks they were engaged,” he says. There was a lengthier 10-year spell between first meeting and then marrying his own wife, Dorothy.

MacCann had helped organise his future sister-in-law’s wedding while he was working at Killiney Castle, but moved to the UK to begin his career there the day after the festivities. Some years later, his and Dorothy’s paths crossed again, when both were working at the Conrad in Dublin. Now they are very much a team at The Merrion, where Dorothy is the hotel’s brand director.

“I think it’s really important that people understand what hard physical work is. My father drummed it into me and I think if you’re going to go into management, you have to understand what you’re asking people to do, and you have to be seen to be able to do it yourself, because if you can’t, you’ve no credibility.”

Patrick Kelly, a concierge and porter, at The Merrion Hotel Dublin. Kelly has worked at the hotel since it opened 20 years ago. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Patrick Kelly, a concierge and porter, at The Merrion Hotel Dublin. Kelly has worked at the hotel since it opened 20 years ago. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

A man who knows a lot about the physical side to the business is Patrick Kelly, who has been welcoming guests to the hotel for 20 years. As a porter and member of the concierge team, he meets and greets new arrivals and escorts them to reception, where, ideally, he will introduce them by name. There are a couple of tricks of the trade involved in gleaning this information. “I always check the luggage tags and see if there is a name on them,” he says.

Often, though, the guests will be familiar, as The Merrion has exceptionally high levels of repeat business. One such regular visitor is the actor Gabriel Byrne, who stayed earlier this year with his wife and baby daughter. “He is my special guest at the Merrion,” Kelly says. “We have had such a great relationship over the years. He never forgets my name and that’s just one lovely thing about that man. Once he comes through the doors of The Merrion, he always picks up my hand and says ‘Patrick, it’s nice to see you again’. It makes my day.

As well as meeting and greeting arrivals and looking after their luggage, Kelly is also available to guests to make their stay as good as it can be. Making restaurant recommendations and reservations is a big part of the job – “and 99% of the time they come back and say they had a fabulous dinner”. There are other, more unusual requests too. A recent visitor from the US asked to be driven to the Phoenix Park, so she could have her photograph taken with the deer, for her personalised Christmas card. “If guests need anything at The Merrion, or outside the hotel, I do my best to accommodate them.”

Kelly is from Palmerstown in Dublin, and before joining The Merrion he worked at Dukes hotel in London’s St James’s for five years, and at a hotel in Georgia in the US for two years. Since arriving at The Merrion, however, he hasn’t been tempted to travel further afield. “I’ll be honest, he says, “It’s the management and Mr MacCann, they make it a very pleasant environment to work in. I enjoy meeting people from all around the world, from movie stars to rock stars, I enjoy it immensely.”

Chef Ed Cooney in the new kitchen at The Merrion Hotel restaurant Dublin.Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Chef Ed Cooney in the new kitchen at The Merrion Hotel restaurant Dublin.Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Executive chef Ed Cooney and Executive pastry chef Paul Kelly are like boys with new toys as they show off the shiny new kitchen that will service the Garden Room restaurant. It is a sleek and bright space – though smaller than you’d imagine a professional kitchen to be.

“Space was an issue, we were given x amount of space, so we had to make it as efficient as we possibly could,” says Cooney, who, with Kelly, has been with the hotel since it opened.

“The architects had a big influence on the style of the menu, in so far as they kept squeezing us, space wise. I’d love to have been given a big huge amount of space that I could do anything with, but our owners are not sugar daddies, we run a business,” Cooney, from Cork, says.

The menu for this new jewel in the hotel’s food and beverage operation is “very accessible, there’s something for everybody,” he says. “And it’s very keenly priced.”

Hand cut rib-eye tartare with horseradish, quail egg and hot sauce at €12.50 and omelette Arnold Bennett with Garden Room chips at €18, both spell decent value for money in a five-star environment.

It’s an extensive offering, with a selection of snacks – small savoury dishes – and petits sucres such as madeleines and coconut macaroons, as well as starters, main courses and desserts. It has been designed to have something to offer someone dropping in for a light snack in the afternoon, as well as those settling in for a three-course dinner.

One of those snacks – boneless chicken wings marinated in buttermilk, garlic, rosemary and thyme, deep fried and served with lardo, melting Fontina cheese and a sprinkling of chopped pistachios (€5 for three), are “killer”, according to their creator, and could become one of the restaurant’s signatures.

Two very different London restaurants were Cooney’s inspiration when he was deciding on the direction the new restaurant would take. “You’re going to laugh, but it’s somewhere between Scott’s and Chiltern Firehouse. Food-wise, I’d like to think we’re heading towards the Chiltern, maybe not as contemporary, and certainly from the front of house perspective there’s a Scott’s feel to it,” he says, referring to the celebrity haunt that until recently had Irish chef Patrick Powell at the helm, and the sleek Mayfair fish and shellfish restaurant.

Meanwhile Paul Kelly has employed a young Swiss baker, whose excellent sourdough is already a talking point in the hotel. “I got the starter off a friend of mine in Galway, Jimmy Griffin, who is a fifth generation baker, and it’s 40 years old. We’re so happy with the results, there are lovely big pockets of air in it,” Kelly says.

In designing the Garden Room’s dessert menu, he says he is sticking largely to the classics. “You’ll always have chocolate, a parfait, a cream dessert, an ice cream and some sort of a tart.” Salt caramel tart, popcorn ice cream and dark chocolate crumble, and lemon posset with white chocolate snow and lavender are crowd pleasers that have made it onto the opening menu.

Both chefs would have liked an open kitchen in the restaurant. “That’s all I ever wanted,” Cooney says with a wry smile. “See that mirror there, that was meant to be a window,” he says. Space, again, was the defining factor in that decision.

Nobody is saying quite what the decision process was in not having direct access to the restaurant from Baggot Street (it can be entered only via the hotel), but buyers of the €1m-plus apartments may not have wanted their access route shared by a constant stream of customers.

“I would have had an entrance on Baggot Street, the footfall on that street is quite phenomenal, but the owners decided not to go with that. We have to respect that. Ultimately it’s their call,” Cooney says.

In a business where geographical mobility is generally accepted to be part and parcel of the job, it is notable that both chefs have been with The Merrion from the start, clocking up 20 years apiece in the kitchen.

Kelly, who has in that time built a significant media presence and got involved in television work – he was a judge on the Great Irish Bake Off – values the hotel’s commitment to continuing personal development.

“If you’re creative like we are – very creative, ambitious people – then if you’re restricted in any way, that’s when you start to say ‘Oh this is getting hard’. But The Merrion allowed me over the years to travel the world, visit new places, develop my skills. Just last weekend I was in Sweden, judging the Nordic Pastry & Bakery Cup, and that’s going to benefit me, and the bakery here.”

For Cooney, there were personal as well as professional considerations. “I came here from London, it was my first five-star executive chef job. I’d come from Four Seasons. In my head, I was going to go back to Four Seasons, maybe after four, five years. But my son was diagnosed autistic and then your priorities change. It wasn’t an option to drag the kids around the globe, which was my intention. But I don’t regret a minute of it. Professionally, it’s the only place I’d want to work in Ireland.”

Alice Roden, designer at The Merrion Hotel, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Alice Roden, designer at The Merrion Hotel, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Sitting with weaver and interior designer Alice Roden in one of the drawingrooms at The Merrion that she designed two decades ago, it’s impossible not to ask how she thinks her work has stood up to the test of time.

“We have tweaked them continuously, we have changed fabrics, have added wall lights, they’ve evolved and I’m sure that they will continue to be altered very slightly, just so that they don’t get tired.”

But it’s not the Georgian colours, historically correct furniture and specially woven carpets in the hotel’s main house that we are here to talk about, it’s the new Garden Room restaurant, which she has been working on for the past two-and-a-half years.

“That is completely different. It’s a new build, it’s contemporary in style, although the interior is not contemporary. The interior echoes here [the main house], in the sense that it is design that is based on the classical, ” she says of the bright space with its soft yellow walls, Geoffrey Bennison hand printed linen upholstery, limed oak herringbone floors and comfortable seating in a mix of banquettes, sturdy chairs that are a copy of an 18th-century design.

The room’s most striking feature is the glass bar, created by the botanical artist Yanny Petters consisting of four curved panels featuring willow leaves in verre églomisé – the process of applying both a design and gilding onto the rear face of glass to produce a mirror finish.

Staff working in the restaurant wear beautifully tailored uniforms by the Irish costume designer Consolata Boyle, an old school friend and Wicklow neighbour of Roden’s.

Boyle, Oscar nominated for The Queen and Florence Foster Jenkins, has designed smart grey waistcoats and trousers for the servers, with aprons and trims that reflect the duck egg blue in the upholstery for the women, and the old gold of the walls for the men. “I watch Consolata’s work with huge admiration. I took it as a huge compliment that she agreed to do the uniforms,” Roden says.

“There are times, when certain people are here, and I just know I’m going to have the best week,” says Bernie O’Meara, front of house manager, “And I miss them terribly when they’re gone. I really do, they’re old friends of the hotel at this point.”

O’Meara is another member of the core team at The Merrion who has been there right from the start. She describes her job as “making the magic happen” and says “it’s a lovely world to live in”.

Among the “certain people” that O’Meara has looked after in her time at the hotel are former US president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, who were guests during their visit to Ireland in 2011. “His team were here a week in advance and for every senior manager or head of department that had a role here, there was a White House equivalent. Mine was Ellie Schafer [special assistant to the president].”

The president’s team stepped in and replaced the hotel staff minutes before his arrival. “We had all assumed we’d be allowed to be in our place.” But only a few key personnel including O’Meara were allowed to stay and meet the VIPs.

“Ellie introduced me [to Obama] as an Offaly woman and he said, ‘Ah you could be my cuz’, and that’s where the joke started,” O’Meara says.

Having given the president the thumbs up on his pronunciation as he was practicing his, “Is féidir linn” line, she was sought out at the photocall which preceded the US visitors’ earlier than expected departure from the hotel, due to the imminent Icelandic ash cloud.

“They did the formal goodbyes ,and then he said ‘I want a picture with my cuz,’” says O’Meara, remembering the special moment with a smile.

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