In the first of a series of features profiling Irish Pub Awards category winners, VFI Voice magazine speaks with Fergus Murphy, owner of Murph’s Gastro Pub at the Derragarra Inn, Cavan, who took home Best Food Pub award.
“Get the basics right” says Fergus Murphy when asked what advice he would give any publican thinking of starting or improving their food offering.
“You need a good kitchen,” he says. “Too many people worry about the wrong things but if you invest in a good kitchen that will provide a solid foundation to grow your business. It’s a bit like a Formula One driver, you can be the best driver in the world but if the car isn’t any good your driving skills won’t make a difference.”
Fergus was operating a 50-seater venue in Cootehill for a number of years when in 2014 he spotted the potential of the Derragarra Inn, a well-known pub in the area that had gone into receivership.
Six years latter Murph’s Gastro Pub is an award-winning 200-seater venue that has people travelling from far and wide to sample the food on offer. Along the way there was a huge amount of hard work and, like most publicans will understand, the need to be present in the business from morning to night.
“You need to be here all the time,” says Fergus. “The staff need to see you and, more importantly, the customers need to know you’re there. You can’t run a business like this and take four holidays a year.”
Fergus acknowledges he and his wife Susan, who works front of house, were lucky when they opened that the Derragarra Inn was well-known so on the first day there was plenty of customers lining up to get in.
“We needed at least another month to get the systems in place but we had to open early just to get cash flowing,” he says. “We had ploughed everything into the kitchen and refurb so there was nothing left, not even petrol in the car!”
It was a frenetic start to the business but they survived: “It was worse for Susan. She’s front of house. I was hiding in the kitchen,” says Fergus.
After two years of strong growth, the owners had to deal with the nightmare of the pub catching fire and burning almost to the ground. “We had to rebuild,” says Fergus, which must have been a stressful process given they were only two years in business. They reopened and took up from where they left off.
As the Best Food Pub at the Irish Pub Awards recognises, Murph’s Gastro Pub serves fantastic food. Having spent over 30 years as a chef, Fergus is understandably passionate about the food on offer.
“I’ve worked in places where you could have 20 flavours on the plate but for me it’s about the simplicity of allowing fresh food to do the talking, whether it’s a leg of lamb or fish delivered from our supplier in Donegal.” There are daily specials, a lunch menu, dinner menu and Sunday lunch, which is particularly popular and usually booked out.
Along with the food, a strong focus on customer service is vital. “During busy periods, we will have 12-15 front of house staff on every day,” says Fergus. “Customers expect a high level of service and you have to provide that.”
Fergus recently renovated the outdoor area, which has its own bar and is now marketed as a venue suitable for marquees and large events. The location is spectacular, situated beside a river and Fergus is looking forward to Spring and Summer when the outdoor area will realise its full potential.
“You have to be here every weekend,” says Fergus. “Having said that, I’m very lucky with the team we’ve built here. Some of the staff have been with us for six years and one of the chefs started out as a kitchen porter. They like the lifestyle here, we ensure everyone gets a weekend off, they get paid by the hour, paid for breaks and get all their food. So, it’s a fair deal.”
Given the shortage of chefs in the country, Fergus has done a great job keeping his team together. While he acknowledges good staff are essential, the cost of doing business is a constant worry.
“The costs are increasing all the time,” he says. “Rates are now €13k per annum while the combined water/rates/insurance costs come to over €42k. Electricity is between €4-€5k every two months.
“That’s a pressure that can overwhelm you but I always make an effort to focus on the business of making food and good hospitality because that’s what all the effort is about.”
Fergus says most of his business is word of mouth but that local radio and the local paper (The Anglo Celt) are useful tools for advertising. Murph’s Gastro Pub has a strong following on Facebook with plenty of interaction and feedback from fans of the page. Fergus personally looks after the page and has a good feel for what works on social media.
“You always have to look to the future,” he says. “Always look at ways of growing the business, never sit still…and always be here.”