As I drove along Sheikh Zayed Road to The Bonnington Hotel, JLT, Dubai. I reflect on the first time I met Dennis Mc Gettigan and what a charismatic character he bore. The warm, welcoming and friendly energy you get when you walk into a Mc Gettigan’s establishment was certainly no front- it ran through to the core. Everybody in the office gave me a warm welcome and parted from their hectic jobs to make me feel at home. Running a tight schedule, as captain of the ship, Dennis was prompt to our arranged time and we sat to chat right away!
Now a household name, tell us where the McGettigan’s franchise journey began?
It all began with my father (Jim) in Dublin, back in 1964. He opened a bar on Queen Street and called it Mc Gettigan’s; Dad was the eldest of nine children and left school at 14 to earn money to help support his family; first he worked in a local pub and then on board the Queen Elizabeth 1. After working and saving for eight years on the QE1 and meeting his wife-to-be in Southampton, he returned to Ireland and bought a property on Queen Street in Dublin, calling it Mc Gettigan’s- that’s where it all really began.
In 1969 he bought a pub called Dan Lowrys, that was going into liquidation and named it The Baggot Inn, (the name we use for our first bar here in Dubai too), and it hosted acts like Tracey Chapman, U2, David Bowie, Christy Moore, Thin Lizzy, Mary Coughlan and The Water-boys.
From there he went in to the hotel business, buying his first hotel in 1978 called the Sheehy Hotel in Raheny, he went on to have six hotels in Ireland and then his first property in London, The Bonnington Hotel. That’s where the story really started in coming this way I guess, as a piece of sand came up for sale in 2004, and that was that!
You certainly have kept the traditions of your father running with some great music at the venues across Dubai; I’ve seen countless live performances here in Dubai venues from the likes of The Coronas, S Club 7, Kodaline… well, lots of acts, and Limerick’s own Hermitage Green not so long ago too! Do you see this as a key attraction in your business to entice customers?
Of course it is yeah, but we have always wanted to have somewhere accessible, especially over here in Dubai, when the sand patch was bought in 2004 and The Bonnington Hotel, Dubai was opened in February 2009. I knew no more about the middle east than… well I knew nothing, but I promised my parents I’d come out for three days, and I did, and nine years later I am still here! I saw all the amazing attractions here, the five-star bars which were in a market designed for a specific type of person, and then I saw some really bad, bad bars. So, for me, I wanted a bar that I wanted to go to.
How did you build on that thought?
I came up with the concept of Mc Gettigan’s, and I thought of my Dad’s first Mc Gettigan’s in Dublin which is very much an inner-city pub, and this was a very different concept, it had a modern twist. I didn’t want to fall into the stereotypical Irish bar. I wanted entertainment at the best level, sports, food, drinks- I wanted it all at the best level, I wanted the service right. I would equate Mc Gettigan’s to a very good four-star bar. It’s not the five-star champagne and cocktails that rob people. It’s a concept I came up with to basically support the hotel because there is no way the hotel could have progressed or dealt with its’ own debt if I didn’t come up with the bar. It was a pressure situation. That’s where it started and ended for me at the time, I didn’t have a further vision at the time to expand as we now have.
You had a good immediate reaction so?
We did, the CEO of African and Eastern (DIAGEO of the UAE) asked to meet me after four months or so after opening. It was like an interview, and an hour into the chat I asked, what exactly are you looking for?
They invited us to open a bar near the airport and if I would be interested in opening up a franchise. Of course my first thing was, ‘how much will it cost me?’- nothing, it’s a franchise! So, we went with it and it was completely ‘learn-as-you-go’, but it got me thinking. I spoke to our executive head chef, Derek, and I said if we can take in X amount of money on a daily basis, we will be elected. The first year had an intake that was double our projections. It was crazy! Then I sought and found a second owner-operated venue and we got DWTC (Dubai World Trade Centre). It snow-balled from there. We got the venue in Donegal then, and I wondered how the image would translate back to Ireland but after much deliberation, we stuck with it, shamrock and all! Donegal was received very well, then we opened in Abu Dhabi.
The Abu Dhabi venue won the Irish Pubs Global Awards in 2017 for ‘Best Irish Community Pub in the World’! You must be very proud of the journey you have taken.
It’s an honour to receive these awards, we were lucky to have won five big awards in total, and we are most proud of my father for winning the Lifetime Achievement Award, and of course for the pub below us here in JLT, to have won Irish Pub of The Year, it really was great. We did certainly snowball as a brand- not in a bad way, but now, it’s probably once every two weeks we are approached and asked ‘would you consider putting Mc Gettigan’s here’, or there and so on. All of this is a huge compliment to the brand name, but you have to be careful that we a) don’t bastardise or b) over saturate the market.
It sounds like you have more tricks up your sleeve though, what are your next plans regarding new properties?
Well at the moment we have 19 bars- since 2010, and another 6 to open up in the next six to eight months; Bahrain, Philadelphia, Ajman, Doha, Abu Dhabi, and The Palm, Dubai.
We have a new venue of the same concept as Warehouse in Letterkenny opening on The Palm, Dubai soon, but we will call it Factory over here. They have that bare, industrial feel to them.
How do you juggle yourself between locations and balance the workload?
It’s extremely tiresome, I’ll tell you that. I’m looking forward to a good two-week holiday now. I try and base myself in Dubai because the bulk of our owner operated businesses are here, and apart from New York, everything is within seven hours from here. This is where I need to be; my family and main senior team are here, but I also try and take June, July and August to get involved in the businesses we have at home.
It’s not easy here, Sunday to Thursday is 100 miles an hour. I try to get to bed early, and up to work early. You try to get home, have dinner, hang with the kids and get have some TV time, then get to bed. At the weekends, I do the complete opposite of that, I’m out enjoying myself but I’m trying to change that because the extreme to extreme a) isn’t good for you and b) I don’t think you give yourself the chance to think about things properly, you know? And, yeah… Try and go to other places than Mc Gettigan’s too! Or I’ve been told to do that anyway! It’s hard, you’re trying to give time to family here, family in Ireland, your team- there is just a lot. You’ve got to give 100% and get everybody excited with you, in the hope you hatch an egg, but I know it’s important, no matter how hard it is, to switch off.
Would you expand at home?
We bought five hotels in Ireland in the last four or five years, in doing that, we put a Mc Gettigan’s or Warehouse in each and unless we want to get in to further acquisitions, which I think Ireland is getting a tiny bit over priced now, so unless I want to do that, I don’t see us getting involved in further bars at home right now. There is a huge amount of competition as well, and there are some fabulous operators who have cornered a lot of the market- Alan Clancy has done a phenomenal job, McKillen Jnr has opened a number of great places too. My attitude is, when an opportunity comes your way, if it looks good and makes sense, then of course we will jump all over it!
What is the biggest challenge you had along the way and how you tackled it?
Oooh! A tough question… yes! The biggest challenge for me was probably trying to open New York. If I didn’t die of a massive heart attack… We had a similar situation opening in Abu Dhabi in 2015, but certainly opening New York in 2014 tops it all. I moved over for three weeks and learned how bureaucratic New York is. You have to have a certificate for every wire, for all your plumbing, your joinery; absolutely everything- there is about 16 certificates which themselves require a completion certificate. Then you need to show proof of the completion certificate to the fire people, the food people, the gas people, the electricity people… and you have to get all these people to click together to get the venue ready. I remember that two days before opening I had four of the sixteen and I’d spent a couple of hundred thousand dollars on the opening event- flying people here from Ireland and Dubai, we had The Coronas joining too and it was going to be a great event.
Oh no! What did you do?
I went to meet the commissioner of building authority. I couldn’t do anything without his piece of paper, and I prayed to my uncle who had just died and said please, help me out here! I sat with him and said, ‘Look, I know we’re nobody in this town, we’re small fish, but I need to open in two days time’ there was lots of to-ing and fro-ing, with an initial reaction from him not looking good. He gave the alternative of opening the building but letting somebody else run the bar, as an outside catering company, and I just said, ‘Sir, that is not an option’.
I have no idea what he did, but he went out of the room, returning about thirty minutes later and he said ‘Okay, look, we’re gonna do this. I’ll sign off, no problem’! I don’t know who or what he spoke to but I signed the dotted line and the next day I sent a fella to get the alcohol license, the gas went on at 4 o’clock opening day- Derek (the head chef) was going mad about the food and worry and all. He asked ‘Here, are we gonna be okay today’ and I had to play Mr. Cool and I said ‘Of course we will be!’ But in my mind… I was going absolutely bonkers! It was by the skin of our teeth, but we got there and had a great night!
I guess you learn as you go though…
Absolutely, I’m very careful and realistic about my timelines now and I try to avoid putting myself under pressure.
What about your Limerick premises, how do you find the Limerick market?
Ah look, we’re very lucky. In Limerick, we sponsored Thomand Park for a number of years in a row, we have wonderful loyal customers but I do think it is a tough market. I must say, the people of Limerick have been exceptionally supportive of us, especially as an outside company. The bar is tipping away nicely and we did a lot of changes with the venue when we took over, and they were done very well. It’s in a nice part of the city and the people, like elsewhere in Ireland have been very supportive of us, so we’re very grateful and appreciative of that. As I mentioned, our brand intends to provide sport, music, food, drink and service at the very best level and we deliver that globally- Limerick included; our customers deserve that.
Article by: Rebecca Egan
Sign up to the TLM Newsletter