Claddagh Irish Pubs revamps brand

Nation’s Restaurant News speaks with director of business development Ciaran Dunne on how the Midwest chain reversed sinking sales

When Ciaran Dunne joined Claddagh Irish Pubs in February 2009, the chain of 15 pubs was suffering same-store sales decreases near 20 percent in some markets.

The Solon, Ohio-based chain did some soul searching by conducting focus groups with its guests. Soon after, Claddagh began a turnaround in 2010 by enacting operational, culinary and marketing initiatives to showcase the chain’s authenticity as an Irish pub, not an Irish-theme restaurant that happened to sell lots of draft beer, said Dunne, the chain’s director of business development.

Same-store sales have now erased the losses sustained during the recession and are running in the mid-single-digits, boosting Claddagh’s average unit volume to about $2.2 million, he said.

At its pubs across eight Midwestern states, Claddagh adopted the atmosphere of authentic “public houses” of Dunne’s native Ireland by limiting and reformulating the menu, promoting the late-night business and increasing lively events, like trivia nights and fundraisers, and even hiring native Irish employees as junior managers and bar managers.

“Now we’re well and truly out of the weeds,” Dunne said. “During the last recession, frequency had gone from three visits a week to one visit per week overnight. Now our guests’ frequency is back up, and we didn’t need a massive marketing budget to do it. It was a matter of just asking the people coming in, ‘What do you want?’”

Dunne spoke to Nation’s Restaurant News about Claddagh’s ability to turn around sales by embracing the authenticity of its Irish pub heritage.

What did Claddagh’s learn when it began analyzing data from customer surveys?

We had to readjust the entire company ideology because it had become lost. Were we an Irish pub company or a restaurant company? We’re an Irish pub, so we set out to embellish the pub aspect by paring down our food offerings and taking a deeper look at who we were trying to market to. We got focus groups together of non-users, light users and frequent guests, and they gave us a lot of qualitative perceptions about ourselves.

We asked what guests wanted, and quite simply, we gave it to them. We found that we didn’t have to discount the brand too much. We just had to do small initiatives, like a free dessert here, or bringing back dinner on Sunday. And we definitely started to see increases in frequency.

How important were changes in the experience Claddagh undertook to be more of that Irish pub, rather than an Irish restaurant?

The business was due for an overhaul. We looked at trends that were popular and developed some specials of our own, like fast lunches or wine specials on Wednesdays. But when we did something like bring in Irish junior managers to help train our bar managers, we found that people had the most significant reaction to the [manager’s] brogue.

We’ve always had live Irish music, but people would ask us, “Where’s the brogue?” Now, if we have a young Irish guy like me behind the bar with other American bartenders, it’s giving the American guest more of what they’re looking for. That connection to the guest was good enough without having to discount anything, and it was so simple.

Another key was community involvement. In Ireland, the pub is a meeting house where people go not only to eat and drink, but also to socialize. We asked how we could be more of that social house, and we decided to let our general managers get more involved in local initiatives. We also started pitching our late-night business by bringing in a late-night bites menu and local DJs after 9:30 p.m. Most restaurants and bars do happy hour from 4 to 6, and we pushed ours back to 9 p.m. to midnight. We love to encourage people to join in on the late-night business.

That and our menu development were huge for establishing our authenticity and then putting an American stamp on it.

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How has the menu changed since you joined the brand?

We’ve reduced the number of menu items by 35 percent over the past two years, so now our menu isn’t as big as the Cheesecake Factory’s. I hired our food and beverage director, Karen Murphy, an American who trained at one of the best cooking schools in Europe, to make the best possible shepherd’s pie, Irish stew, and bangers and mash. When I joined the brand three years ago, I wouldn’t get the stew, because it wasn’t authentic — it was an interpretation of Irish stew. Now she has formatted the dishes with their authentic recipes.

We’re changing the menu twice a year, and it’s helping us immensely. People don’t want Irish stew in the middle of summer, but we did a smoked Gouda and Irish bacon salad last summer that was a huge hit. We’ve experienced 25-percent recovery in sales the past three years, with immensely favorable impact on food costs, basically by giving our best guests what they wanted.

Karen’s involvement now also has us trying to procure more locally, using Wisconsin cheese only in Wisconsin or developing items for Yuengling beer in Pittsburgh.

Our sales mix has improved from 75 percent food, 25 percent drinks to 66 percent food, 34 percent drinks.

How did you adjust the brand’s marketing?

We redesigned the entire website last year and built promotions where our regular users enter something like a contest online and give us some information we can use to contact them directly. We offered a trip to Ireland for St. Patrick’s Day, and the return we got on it was fantastic. About 65,000 people entered and about 80 percent of them were regular users who had seen the contest advertised in the restaurants.

I was trying to get frequency going again with that, rather than the average check, which has stayed relatively the same. That would be my advice to any other restaurant brand: Chase your frequency first, and then you can boost the check average later.

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected] [3].
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN [4]