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Archive for Sunday, March 18, 2007

Pub sprawl: Company taking Irish-themed bars worldwide

March 18, 2007

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— David Dowling has a dream: that one day, soon, nobody on Earth will ever have to leave home to visit Ireland.

On this St. Patrick's Day, it's never been easier to find an Irish-themed bar in which to celebrate. From "Nine Fine Irishmen" on the Las Vegas Strip to "O'Malley's Irish Pub" in Shanghai and thousands in between, the addictive ambiance of an Irish public house has been boxed, shipped and reassembled in the oddest of places.

For this you can thank - or condemn - the Irish Pub Co., a Dublin architectural firm that made an inspired discovery 15 years ago: Globalization goes down much better with a Guinness.

"Everyone can feel at home in an authentic Irish pub day or night. That is its magic," said Dowling, a former Guinness sales executive who today is marketing director for the Irish Pub Company, aka IPCo. "I can't imagine a country in the world where a real Irish pub wouldn't be welcome."

The pub story

The company has built or designed more than 1,000 pubs in 40 countries. Fresno, Calif., and eight other U.S. cities are on the verge of their own. Other projects on tap include pubs in Changzhou, China, two in Singapore, one in Vietnam, three in Russia, and one each in Spain and France, while Australia - already home to more than 400 IPCo pubs - has four more coming. There's been telephoned interest from Nigeria and Kabul.

The greatest inroads are happening in the decidedly booze-poor Middle East, where IPCo is building three pubs in the United Arab Emirates, has regional offices in Dubai and Oman, and has already built one of Dubai's most popular tourist attractions: an underground "Irish Village" with a pub at its heart that sells $10 million annually in beer, whiskey, food and T-shirts.

The Irish Pub Co. offers a comprehensive service to Ireland's publican diaspora. Its designs in five broad themes - Brewery, Country Cottage, Gaelic, Traditional and Victorian - look as if they were ripped straight from the streets of Dublin, Belfast or Ballinspittle. And the assistance can continue all the way to the branding and the menus, which are imbued with "accents" of Irishness.

Dowling explains: "Say you're in California and a cattle ranch up the road does brilliant local steaks. You don't need to claim they're Irish steaks. Just put an Irish word before them. Just make it authentic and true."

Fit, finish and fabrication

Throughout the 1990s, IPCo would build pretty much the whole pub in Ireland, then disassemble it and put it back together at the four corners of the world. The idea proved phenomenally popular, first in Britain and continental Europe, then in Australia and America. Guinness, whose parent Diageo was keen to boost the black stuff's market overseas, provided critical sales muscle by pushing new pub projects under its marketing label "The Irish Pub Concept."

"In 1998, in its heyday, we got 100 pubs into Italy alone. We had a shipping container leaving Ireland every two weeks," Dowling said. "But times have changed, and we've scaled down."

The biggest change has been in Ireland itself. Thirteen years of nearly continuous economic boom, dubbed the Celtic Tiger, has changed Ireland almost beyond recognition. A country that used to be Europe's emigration black spot has become a favored locale for U.S. high-tech investment and immigrant jobseekers. The carpenters who used to produce IPCo pubs in Ireland have grown too expensive from high demand and a higher standard of living. The woodwork for IPCo's "Irish" pubs today are being produced largely in the Czech Republic, India and China.

The key finish to IPCo pubs remains the bric-a-brac: faux-antique knickknacks for the shelves and walls. These, too, are largely reproductions - in part because the 1990s Irish pub craze stripped the island all but bare of the real thing. A primary casualty were Ireland's 1930s-issue, black-and-white, English-and-Gaelic street signs; entire counties were picked clean to adorn pub walls from San Francisco to Sydney.

Today's IPCo-produced "Irish" signs are really made in India, while its olde-worlde lighting and metalwork is still done in Ireland. Where - and by whom - Dowling won't say; this is a cutthroat business, with several Irish-based imitators in the wings.

"I mustn't let the cat out of the bag. Competitors would love to know where we get stuff. If I say, 'Oh yeah, we get that stuff from Jimmy McGinty,' I can tell you, Jimmy will have 15 phone calls in the morning saying not just that we'll give you a better deal, but actually saying: 'Jimmy, how much for you to let me see their plans?'" Dowling said.

He gestured to the IPCo floor, where a 40-strong team of architects, designers and trainees were plunking away on computer-generated floor plans. "The drawings done in there are intellectual property and are worth a fortune. It's very hard to protect design," he said.

Customization

Some of IPCo's savvier customers understand the appeal, and the limitations, of the formula.

In Vancouver, British Columbia, veteran publican Peter Mahony, a transplanted Aussie, appears to be striking the right balance at his nine-month-old, IPCo-designed pub, Mahony & Sons, on the edge of the University of British Columbia campus.

Mahony loved getting Irish painters out to improvise Gaelic scripts and designs on his walls and ceilings, and crafted a menu referencing his own family's colorful history as the descendants of an Irish petty criminal transported to 1830s Australia.

"They designed a pub with two different areas, one a traditional shop, the other a Gaelic pub. Their work comes to life when you look at the paintwork on the ceilings. They really freewheeled it. It was interesting to watch them work.

"And then there's the furniture they imported. You just don't see that type of furniture round here: this rustic distressed beech wood, this old timber, with a mottled effect through it," Mahony said. "We would have had a hard time doing this theme of design. We probably would have ended up doing something that's called 'Canadian West Coast' featuring a lot of cedar."

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