We continue our profiles of VFI winners from last year’s Irish Pub Awards with a visit to Donal O’Gorman in Portloaise. The Bog Road, one of Donal’s two pubs, won Best Customer Service at the awards.
The Bog Road opened in March 2017, so to win an award was a great achievement and testament to the staff. It’s a point owner Donal O’Gorman is happy to make.
“No matter how good the pub, it’s the staff that make the place. If they aren’t right then nothing works,” he says. Donal has since introduced a bonus scheme for his staff designed to incentivise them and hopefully push for another award in 2018.
He says the Irish Pub Awards is a great idea. “I think the awards are going to give the pub trade focus and, ultimately, we’re going to have better pubs through an increase in standards the awards will bring,” explains Donal. “I think we probably have the best pubs in the world. I was in New York back in December and they wouldn’t have a patch on Irish bars. I was in France at the rugby match where the service was deplorable, I cringed watching them serve customers in such a slow manner.”
Donal knows a thing or two about service, having grown up in the trade. His parents bought a pub in Abbeyleix while his brother is also running a pub. “My parents started in the trade back in 1963 and because my father spent a lot of time working in pubs in Dublin he understood you had to make the pub look the part. He built the first ever lounge in Laois back when pubs were mainly just a bar and grocery,” says Donal.
As well as the The Bog Road, Donal also runs O’Gorman’s Bar & Restaurant in Kilminchy on the other side of Portlaoise. He opened O’Gorman’s in 2002 and initially he thought it would take time to develop a customer base.
“I could see that pubs in new urban areas were working well in Dublin and I felt it would be the same in Portlaoise,” he says. “We were probably the first pub opening in 20 or 30 years in the locality. We had first-year targets that were reached inside three months and from there the business took off.”
Food was always part of his plan, though for the first couple of months Donal wanted to build the drinks trade. “After three months, we introduced the carvery then after another few months the evening menu started. We built up the food trade over the years and then we decided to widen the menu to include Thai food.”
Donal’s two pubs follow a similar business model and look very similar. “We tried a different menu down in the Bog Road but customers were clear they wanted the same food as Kilminchy.
What sort of menu works in Portlaoise?
“We have two offerings, traditional pub grub along with Thai food. We have only started the Thai in the Bog Road in the last week, there’s a problem sourcing genuine Thai chefs,” he says.
Donal says the Asian menu accounts for about 30% of his food sales. He introduced Thai food back in 2008 just when the market was crashing and, to his surprise, found that it brought sales back by over 40%, maintaining a steady turnover ever since.
New ideas are something Donal is always seeking out. It’s what led him to establishing a loyalty card scheme for customers, something that has proved a huge success.
“We have about 4,000 people signed up,” he says, “who would be fairly active using the cards. They wouldn’t be in the pub every night of the week but we monitor usage over a three-month period so if you don’t come in during that time we stop sending text message reminders.
“We send a text out once a week alerting customers to an offer, like 30% discount night or complimentary bottle of wine on any purchase over €20.
“We find texts is the best form of communication, it’s not the cheapest but it’s better than email because people are more inclined to read a text.”
Donal has great plans to increase the versatility of that card allowing customers to pre-load funds online along with tracking purchases. Currently, when customers deposit money on the card in the pub they receive a 10% free bonus further strengthening the loyalty relationship.
Donal is optimistic about the future for pubs. “I think people realise the pub is a safe place to meet and socialise. The onus is on the publican to ensure people’s safety. Most pubs have food, which is changing the atmosphere. You can bring your family to the pub and feel like you’re in a welcome environment. Drinking at home, while cheaper, has limited value and people end up drinking too much.”
Although there are many challenges facing the modern-day publican Donal says customer service is still king.
“A pub that has made an effort is rewarded with loyal customers.”
This article first appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of VFI Voice magazine.