Business Plus

Ronan Ryan

Restaurate­ur Ronan Ryan was wiped out by the property crash recession and then NPHET killed his contract catering venture. Now he’s back with a D4 brasserie,

- writes Siobhán O’Connell

The Dublin restaurate­ur was hit hard by the property crash and again by NPHET’s lockdown. His new direction is a brasserie in the heart of Donnybrook in Dublin 4

Ronan Ryan was a legend in his own lunchtime back in the Celtic Tiger days, first in Il Primo and then in his own establishm­ent in central Dublin, Town Bar & Grill. Like many of his clients, Ryan got caught up in the easy money hubris and over-reached himself. After bouncing back with a contract catering venture, along came NPHET and pulled the rug from under the Counter Culture business model.

The medics and academics on NPHET, all of them on the state payroll, are immune to the consequenc­es of trading prohibitio­ns on restaurant­s, and the curtailmen­t on citizens’ freedom to dine where they want. Under current plans, hotels will be permitted to serve meals to their guests from June 2, while from June 7 restaurant­s will only be permitted to serve outdoor meals.

Oddly, Ryan (50) doesn’t seem that bothered. He has experience­d so many highs and lows during his foodie career that he can roll with the NPHET punches. He is taking full advantage of wage subsidies and his new Donnybrook venture, Le Comptoir, promises to be a lively Paris-style brasserie. For the moment, he’s serving up lobster and crab meat rolls with a few green leaves and chips for customers who include the rugby cubs who tone their muscles at the Energia Park training ground across the road.

Despite NPHET’s grindingly slow restoratio­n of liberty and freedom to choose, better days are ahead for Ryan and his peers in the sector. In his favour, at Le Comptoir is the absence of legacy tax, bank, mortgage and lease debt that burdens so many of his competitor­s.

The restaurant owner started out in the business as a chef and decided quite soon that his talents were better deployed front of house rather than sweating over the stove.

That morphed into running restaurant businesses. He did well, though he acknowledg­es that learning on the job isn’t a substitute for financial and management training.

Ryan’s introducti­on to the trade was as a schoolboy working at the Munster Hotel in Tipperary, owned by his cousin. After his Inter Cert, the school told Ryan he should leave for the Regional Technical College for vocational training as a chef. As a teenager, cheffing odd jobs took him to Italy, America and London, where he hooked up with his future business partner, Temple Garner.

In 1994, Ryan returned to Dublin and was head chef in the Guinness directors’ dining room at St James’s Gate. “That was amazing because we were cooking for six people and there was no limit on the budget,” he recalls. Then it was on to Il Primo restaurant off Harcourt Street in Dublin and a change in career direction, as he explains in his Q&A.

Why did you move from the kitchen to front of house?

At Il Primo I realised that as a chef I was never going to be top class like Temple. I was probably around 24 years old and Temple said to me one day, “Ronan, you’re at your limit now. You’re not going to be me.” Front of house was great though, as I know how to talk and the pay was great.

In the 1990s, Il Primo was a buzzing place. It was the time of the Celtic Cubs – people like Denis O’Brien, Annrai O’Toole and Richard Barrett. We had the Business Post across the road and that was our lunch trade every day. There were only 30 seats upstairs and nine downstairs, so it was easy to fill because it was so small.

Temple left to go to The Mermaid on Dame Street in 1999 and I followed him down in 2000. In between, I had a stint in Cooke’s Café and I met many people there who became loyal customers. In 2003, Peter Dunne from Mitchell’s wine merchants informed myself and Temple that Bruno’s restaurant next door to his shop on Kildare Street was going on the market. We took over Bruno’s and Town Bar & Grill opened in 2004.

How did you finance your first solo venture?

Temple sold his motorbike and I sold my vintage car. The total fit-out came to €15,000 and Mitchell’s wanted it to work, so they were great. We had a slow enough start and then Ross Golden Bannon gave us a stonkingly good review in the Business Post. Other newspaper reviews were positive too and the word spread.

We had built up a good clientele in the restaurant­s we worked in previously. We’d give people our mobile numbers which they could use to bypass the normal booking number. So these people could always be sure of getting a table. Town Bar & Grill was well located too, on the same stretch as the Dáil and numerous government department­s, and with nearby hotels such as the Shelbourne, the Merrion and the Fitzwillia­m.

What sort of volume did Town Bar & Grill handle?

At busy times of the year the covers were around 1,500 a week. It was a seven-day operation for lunch and dinners. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday we took bookings all day. That was the best decision we ever made because the Law Library crowd would pile in at three o’clock before heading off at seven to the Shelbourne. By the time they were heading home, there would be other people taking taxis into town. So we got that crowd too. It was a great time and other restaurant­s such as Peploe’s, the Unicorn and La Stampa were also rammed.

Town Bar was doing well and then you decided to take on a much larger venture in Sandyford. What was the rationale?

We knew Paddy Shovlin from the restaurant and he was doing the Beacon developmen­t. People I knew and respected were doing second and third places, and the banks were giving away money. We weren’t having to save up like we did for Town Bar.

At the Beacon premises, there was going to be a bar on one floor and we were the 90-seater restaurant in the basement. Then the bar fell through and we had the whole lot. Trade revolved around Thursday a bit, Friday and Saturday nights, and Sunday lunch. We wanted to stay closed Monday to Wednesday and the landlord wouldn’t accept that. The service charge alone was the same as the rent for Town Bar, so it was tricky to make it pay.

How long did the Sandyford venture last?

Around two years. It became a place for birthday parties because we had music and late closing. We did well at weekends but we were doing nothing during the week. This was before the property crash. Town Bar was still flying, and it subsidised the Beacon operation.

‘At Town Bar, it was a seven-day operation for lunch and dinners’

We ceased trading on Christmas Eve 2008. Town Bar was still trading but the corporate business dried up. Town Bar went into examinersh­ip and the Sandyford restaurant went into liquidatio­n. Treasury Holdings bought Town Bar towards the end of 2009. I stayed on as the manager and left after Johnny Ronan’s sister Gillian bought the business.

After leaving Town, I worked in La Stampa for a while, and in 2012 I was in Bite on South Frederick Street. There was also Bridge restaurant on Grand Canal Quay which had opened in 2005 and closed for a while before myself and a couple of pals opened it up again in 2013. However, I was burnt out by then, and Ross Lewis bought us out in 2015. It became Osteria Lucio and is a great place now, with the best pizza in Dublin.

What did you do next?

We were doing gourmet takeaway food at festivals and concerts from a truck. I also opened a small café on the second floor in Powerscour­t Townhouse Centre with a focus on healthy food. I was introduced to Intercom and we started delivering dinners to the tech company. That was 100 people a night, five nights a week. We would finish in the café at 5pm and drop the food over to them for 6pm. That was an extra seven grand a week on top of the seven or eight grand we were already doing in Powerscour­t.

Then Intercom asked us to start providing 250 lunches a day. And then they asked us would we do breakfast as well and juices, and the bar, and staff the place etc. That was a booming business until 16 March 2020, when the office was emptied because of Covid.

Our business, Counter Culture, had other clients too, including multiple GAA teams in the south-east. We were working out of an old hotel kitchen on Mercer Street, and at one stage we were producing about 4,500 meals a week. It was just relentless Monday to Friday, but we were finished at the weekend which was great.

With Covid, everything stopped overnight. We are out of contract catering now and we are never going back. What’s the future for offices? Will there be community eating again in large canteens? One of the companies we used to work with told me recently it will just be ordering individual meals when the office re-opens. Mass catering is finished, and there will be no more watercoole­r moments.

How did you keep ticking over since March 2020?

We also had a contract catering deal with the Beacon Hospital. When

visitors were banned, we were losing a fortune, and it took a few months to extricate ourselves. In fairness, the hospital chief executive Michal Cullen was very understand­ing about our predicamen­t.

How did your new Le Comptoir venture come about?

I was driving through Donnybrook last December and saw the For Sale sign outside the premises across from the rugby ground. Until restrictio­ns are lifted, we’ll continue to do takeaway coffees and food, and when we’re back to normal it will be a French-style brasserie serving oysters, Moules Frites, Eggs Benedict, Bloody Marys, with everything cooked on site and in our own bakery. Small, one place, that’s it. Not three of them – just the one.

Brasserie Lipp in Paris is my inspiratio­n. The sculptor Patrick O’Reilly told me about it and I love the fact it stays open all day and you can have a pastry or a lunch, or a coffee, no matter what time you come in. Initially we will be open from 8am to 5pm mid-week, and until 10pm Thursday to Sunday for dinner, as we see what the demand is like. There will be brunches with some tunes and music and movies on the dropdown screen, but no matches or anything like that.

What were some of the best nights over the years?

After a Late Late Show tribute to Ronnie Drew, RTE rang us in Town Bar requesting tables for 75 people.

Everyone had left the restaurant except two American women who had been complainin­g all evening. Suddenly the whole of the Irish music business came down the stairs and a session broke out that continued until the milkman arrived the next day.

What advice would you give to anyone who has a hankering to open a restaurant?

Do a business course. Cooking is not enough, wine is not enough. You can pick up a restaurant idea on Instagram in two seconds, but if you don’t understand the fundamenta­ls of business you’ll be in trouble. Being an experience­d flyer should mean that you don’t fear flying. However, in this business things can go wrong very quickly, and you have to be very conscious about debt and creditors.

At the moment, the wage subsidies and CRSS are fantastic supports. It will be interestin­g to see what’s left at the end of all this. I think there are a lot of people just hanging on, and there are others who will come back stronger. Still, the supports we are receiving are phenomenal. I have a good feeling about what we are doing.

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Ronan Ryan: ‘With Covid, everything stopped overnight’
JASON CLARKE Ronan Ryan: ‘With Covid, everything stopped overnight’
 ?? JASON CLARKE ?? Ronan Ryan lost control of Town Bar when his Beacon restaurant went bust
JASON CLARKE Ronan Ryan lost control of Town Bar when his Beacon restaurant went bust
 ?? JASON CLARKE ?? Ryan’s inspiratio­n for Le Comptoir is Brasserie Lipp in Paris
JASON CLARKE Ryan’s inspiratio­n for Le Comptoir is Brasserie Lipp in Paris

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