There’s a reason why Bhonn Space, the compact food and wine stall in Blackrock Market in south Co Dublin, next to the Michelin-starred restaurant Liath, also has Phase One in its title. The wine bar, lunchtime counter restaurant and takeaway, owned and run by four key team members from Liath, is the first step in an ambitious plan finance a new restaurant and roll out the Bhonn Space concept to other locations.
"I dream big. I see this outside of Ireland, I see them popping up all over the place," says Damien Grey, head chef and owner of Liath, whose fellow shareholders in Bhonn Space are the two-star restaurant's general manager Niall O'Connor, restaurant manager Louise Creane and chef Jozef Radacovsky. "This is, dare I say it, actually a little ahead of its time right now. These small, effective, really, really tasty food stalls with extremely low overheads are starting to show up in major cities," he adds.
The project began in April of last year, when Grey, motivated by initiatives he had read about in the US that saw productivity rocket and staff retention strengthen when restaurant workers were invited to become stakeholders, asked the three if they would be interested in drawing up a business plan to open another restaurant. “We jumped at it,” O’Connor says.
Creane outlines the path that took them to signing a lease on the market stall. “We were looking for locations and nothing really came up, and then this place became available. So Damien said, ‘what do you think about doing a little project to make money for a bigger project?’” They each invested €2,500, rolled their sleeves up, did all the necessary renovations themselves, and Bhonn Space Phase One was born.
Ailish O’Neill, former restaurant manager at Liath, was hired to manage the business day-to-day, and the shareholders all put in shifts while also fulfilling their roles at Liath. The concept has now evolved into a concise menu of constantly changing lunchtime specials, to eat at the counter or takeaway, and an evening wine bar offering snacks and small plates as well as interesting wines by the glass.
Five months in and the business is profitable, Grey says. But no money is being taken out by the shareholders, in order to finance Bhonn Space Phase Two. This will be a restaurant and events space, inspired by Carousel in London where a wine bar and private hire space also hosts up-and-coming and well known chefs from all over the world for short residencies.
“It’s going to be a mid-market restaurant. Ailish will be heading the team and she will become a shareholder. We plan to invite guest chefs in, then we would replicate that menu for, say, six to eight weeks and then we’d get another guest chef in. The whole idea of Bhonn Space is that it’s a modular concept, it can be an art gallery, it can morph into a cocktail bar, it can do brunch, it can be a restaurant with extremely tasty, good food and a very easily accessible price point,” Grey says. “Bhonn Space will be extremely fluid. And then as we move into each phase, it’ll slowly more become more structured, until it becomes a restaurant.”
“We know what we’re looking for. We know what we want and we have the business plans done up,” adds Creane, who until this project never saw herself becoming a restaurant owner. “Seeing the stress that it would bring on a lot of business owners made me a bit wary. But when Damien came to me I was like, there’s no one else in the world that I would rather open a business with or be mentored by.”
For O’Connor the opportunity has come at just the right time. “It’s a difficult industry to get into, in a lot of respects. I am at an age when I would like to get my foot on the ladder in terms of ownership. This was an amazing opportunity to do that. Because we did the build ourselves, we kept the costs very reasonable, and it was a way of getting on the ladder, getting a start.
“From an employee point of view, I’ve been in this industry for a long time, and to get that opportunity from an established owner, it’s an incredible thing. It has taken a long time for me to get to this point and I really appreciate it.”
As a chef, Radacovsky is more used to being behind the scenes in the kitchen, and one of the attractions for him of becoming involved in the project was the opportunity to interact with customers. “I did my first full day on Saturday and for me it was a great day, just to come out of my comfort zone.”
Radacovsky and Grey are enjoying bringing their creativity to a different style of food from their fine dining everyday jobs. The lunchtime specials change regularly, although the ramen has proved so popular they can’t take it off the menu. In the evenings, snacks and small plates, currently with a Spanish theme, take over and there is plenty on offer to construct a full meal, or just a tasty morsel to accompany a glass of wine.
Some menu items are wine bar standards, like Kalamata olives and smoked almonds, but there are also more intriguing plates, such as salt and pepper octopus, panko pork and smoked potato, which Radakovsky explains is “Ballymakenny Mayan Gold potatoes; we salt bake them in the morning and then they get smoked in hay for 15 minutes. Then they just go in the deep fat fryer, and get a patatas bravas spicing, and we serve them with saffron and wholegrain mustard mayonnaise, or emulsion if you want to be fancy”.
Radacovsky and Grey do most of the menu development, while the others collaborate on the wine list. But everything is done by committee.“That’s what is in the contract, that we all agree on everything, or we come up with something else,” Creane says. The four are friends as well as colleagues, but a binding partnership agreement was needed to deal with what Grey calls, “the ugly parts”, such as what to do if someone wants to opt out.
Grey says he sees “massive changes” in how his co-directors in Bhonn Space are performing in their roles in Liath. “They think about business differently, their management skills have increased tenfold, and it just happened naturally. The efficiency that Liath is at now is mind-blowing, because it’s like clockwork in there now.”
Bhonn Space is open Wednesday to Sunday, noon-3pm and Thursday to Saturday, 5pm-9pm