RAISING THE BAR
The desire to be his own boss drove expat Paul Kelly to open an Irish pub in the centre of Strasbourg. He tells Stephanie Sheldrake what life is like in the heart of this cosmopolitan city
An Irish expat explains why setting up a pub in Strasbourg has been good for business
Running a lively Irish pub in the historic centre of Strasbourg couldn’t be more different to the early days of Paul Kelly’s career, which started in the chemicals industry back in the early 1980s. But it was the prospect of a job that first brought the young Irish graduate to France.
“I was at university in Dublin studying chemistry and one day the managing director of Goodyear Tire & Rubber chemicals division came and made a presentation, and afterwards he said if anyone was interested in a job he would be available the next morning to talk. I knocked on his office door and six weeks later I was working for him in Paris,” remembers Paul, who moved to the French capital in 1981.
Five years later Paul took a job with a chemicals company in Germany, but it was his marriage to a French woman that brought him to Strasbourg. “The ideal compromise between me working in Germany, and her being able to continue her life in France, was Strasbourg,” says Paul, who commuted from Alsace to Germany, as many people do.
“I worked in that business until 2005. At that stage I was in my mid-forties and I got fed up with working for other people so I asked myself, ‘what do I know how to do?’, and I thought ‘well, I can eat and drink for everybody’,” laughs Paul.
The decision was made: Paul opened his first pub-restaurant ‘The Dubliners’ in Strasbourg in 2008. The business was a success, but Paul began to set his sights on something a bit bigger, so last October he sold The Dubliners and is now in the process of setting up a second pub called Kelly’s Síbín, also in the heart of the city.
“It’s about four times the surface area of The Dubliners,” explains Paul. “I was missing a lot of business with The Dubliners because I couldn’t take big bookings. For example, I recently took a booking for 200 people here – something I could never have done before.”
Running a busy pub does not, however, come without its challenges. Paul has found that getting the right staff is fundamentally important. “If you’re running a pub-restaurant type of business, everyone has to have a smiley happy face for the customers coming in, and unless the whole group of people knit together well, that doesn’t happen,” says Paul, who has had to fire four chefs in the last 12 months. “What you’re trying to do is get a group of people who work together with mutual respect.”
Being the home of several European institutions, Strasbourg is a cosmopolitan city with a relatively large number of different nationalities living and working in the city. As such, Paul employs a mixture of nationalities: “My chef in The Dubliners was from Dundee, for example, and the lady who works in the bar here is from Canada, so we get a good mixture.”
Paul enjoys living in the Alsatian capital. “Strasbourg is quite a pleasant place to live. It’s a small city – there’s about 250,000 people in the centre and about half a million if you go 20-30 miles around,” he says. “There’s a little bit of a ‘small town’ attitude to the city, but to counter-balance that, we have the international communities from the European institutions here.”
The relatively large international community in Strasbourg gives the city an outward-looking vibe, and, as Paul explains, the people who work in the international institutions in the city, including the European Council and the European Parliament, earn better salaries than are available elsewhere in Strasbourg. “A lot of them are single and they go out at night,” says Paul, whose business clearly benefits from this.
One problem that Paul has encountered, though, is that the people that work for these institutions do not vote and therefore their opinions aren’t always represented in the town council. “Two years ago I applied for our licence to be extended from 1.30am to 4am on St Patrick’s Day; if you have a good reason, you can get an extended licence. I found out two days before that it had been refused – that makes you want to scream sometimes.”
Despite the challenges that come with running a busy city centre pub, Paul has no regrets and has embraced every bit of his venture. “I most enjoy the freedom of doing what I want to do. As I say, I got into this business as I got fed up with working for other people. Now I have all the constraints of working for myself, but I also have the freedoms involved in doing that; you make your decisions, and if you make mistakes you pay for them, and if they’re good, you profit from them.”
For Paul, running the pub is a way of life as well as a career: “I don’t really get time off. You can take a few days from time to time, but it’s not a good idea to leave a business like this for more than a week,” says Paul, who lives in an apartment within 500 metres of the business in the city centre.
December is one of the best times of the year in Strasbourg. “The Christmas markets are always one of the highlights of the year. They’ve invested in it and promoted it a lot – it really puts a bit of life into the centre of the city around Christmas time,” says Paul.
In contrast, November, January and February are the hardest months for the business. “You can ask the staff to take at least one week’s holiday during January and February and that helps things along and you try and survive those months,” says Paul.
Somehow I’m left thinking that when it comes to surviving, Paul won’t have any troubles at all.
Paul Kelly’s pub-restaurant, Kelly’s Síbín is in the heart of Strasbourg