Building An Irish Pub

A Connecticut man learns how to bring home the craic from Guinness

Building an Irish Pub
Building an Irish Pub

Never liked school? Try this one on for size: How about spending a week in Ireland, studying how to create a proper Irish pub all day at Guinness’s headquarters, and then going out at night to do extracurricular research on the pubs of Dublin – lots of research.

It sounded appealing to Geoff Pothin of Guilford, Connecticut. He’d wanted to visit Ireland since college, but had started working right after graduation, and then never really had time to visit. His career (as a police officer) was interrupted, however, by an accident that forced him to retire at the ripe age of 34. Unsure of what his next step would be, he started thinking more about pursuing his Irish dream after September 11th, 2001. He’d spent the night of the 10th on a “very late night pub crawl” in Manhattan, leaving on a train out of Grand Central just as the sun rose that morning.

Opportunity On Tap

Luckily, Guinness’ US headquarters happens to be in Stamford, CT, just down the road from Mr. Pothin’s hometown. He heard from a friend that the company had a seminar for aspiring pub owners. Suddenly, it looked feasible to do more than just take a vacation in Ireland.

He was interested by the pub business, but wasn’t about to “slap some green paint on the wall, put in two TVs and call it an Irish pub,” as he describes the usual American approach. Guinness’ seminar purported to teach how to create a truly authentic pub environment – no matter where in the world you wanted to do it. It wasn’t long before Geoff found himself flying to Dublin for the week-long “Irish Pub Investor’s Training Course.” “It took me 20 years to get there,” he says, “but I finally did.”

Among others in the seminar were a group of Israelis, anxious to bring the Irish Pub concept home to Haifa. Day classes at Guinness were indeed all business – finance, marketing, pub décor, etc. The evenings were less formal. Asked which pubs around Dublin he preferred, Mr. Pothin says “I’m afraid I couldn’t find any I didn’t like.” Other “students” in the course had the same problem – by mid-week, the start of morning class had been moved back a half hour to compensate for hangovers.

The Irish Look

Back in Connecticut, Mr. Pothin designed and built his pub, “Ceili’s” in a good sized space just off Guilford’s town green (with partner Matt Hoey). Our visit with Mr. Pothin one rainy March day started on a comic note, when we walked into the wrong pub. There were lots of Harp signs on the walls, but the half-dozen photos of ice hockey players just didn’t seem right. A few cell-phone calls later (“I’m right over here in the corner of the pub,” and “then why I can’t see you”) we entered Ceili’s – and it was clear we were in the right place. It’s definitely an Irish-looking pub. Even the proprietor is authentically Irish-looking – though Mr. Pothin chuckles about his Celtic-red hair, saying only that he’s “pretty sure” he has some Irish ancestry somewhere.

Craic in America

What separates an Irish Pub from a bar? According to Guinness, it’s the “craic,” defined by an atmosphere that’s warmer than the typical American bar. At Ceili’s, one classic pub touch is the lack of a juke box blasting heavy metal tunes. The owner prefers to control the music system himself. Celtic tunes often provide the background, though “we don’t necessarily play Irish music 100% of the time — sooner or later people would start to pull their hair out.” A bit of rock n roll in the evening, he says, tends to get people “lifting the pints a bit faster.” A 50/50 emphasis on eating and drinking adds to the relaxed feeling. “Unlike a bar,” Mr. Pothin says, “we’ve found that groups of women will feel very comfortable coming in here to have a bite to eat.” Draught beer represents 70% of the liquid refreshment served, and it’s no surprise that Guinness is the most popular item. Looking around at Ceili’s patrons, Mr. Pothin seems pleased with his new career. He plans to open a second Irish pub in the area. Hunting for artifacts to decorate it will be a perfect excuse to go back to Ireland again soon. The only thing that seems out of place is the large portrait of Elvis over the exit door. But after polishing off a pint of Guinness, we wonder, “didn’t the king have at least some Irish ancestry there somewhere?”

Blame the Italians

Guinness offers its course on how to create an Irish pub 1-4 times per year, both in Dublin, and at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. The whole idea originated from an unlikely source: Italy. In 1990, Ireland made the world cup’s final round for the first time. The huge numbers of Irish who followed their team to Italy, the site of the competition, were such a hit at night in local bars that a group if Irish entrepreneurs decided to create some Irish pubs in the country. They were a hit, to put it mildly. Today, Italy has a whopping 450 Irish pubs. In 1996, Guinness took notice of this growth, and decided to project the Irish pub concept worldwide with their course.

“It’s the ultimate franchise,” says Al Frank, a marketing director for Guinness, “There are no rights fees, no royalties and basically no rules on how you have to do it.” Most people who get into it are of Irish ancestry. But not all. The most recent course included Japanese and Norwegians, while successful pubs have been opened in San Diego by a Lebanese immigrant, and in Dallas by a Jewish diamond wholesaler. “People do it for some financial return,” says Mr. Frank, “but also to do something they enjoy.” The Haifa pub that was opened by Mr. Pothin’s co-students, he says, is particularly popular with members of Israeli special forces.