Nancy’s Bar: 7 generations of a family business

Nancy’s Bar in Ardara, Co Donegal has been in the McHugh family for seven generations. It opened over 200 years ago and has survived through boom times and recession, the business successfully adapting to massive cultural shifts. ThinkBusiness talked to Jenny McHugh, one of Charles and Ann McHugh’s seven children, five of whom oversee the day-to-day management of the well-loved watering hole.

Ireland has 1,500 fewer pubs than in 2006. They have been affected by the smoking ban, high rates of excise on alcohol, rising insurance costs, an increase in sales of cheap alcohol in supermarkets, as well as a clamp down on drink driving.

Jenny acknowledges the bar has been quieter due to a change in drinking habits, but emphasises the importance of creativity, moving with the times and keeping quality and customer experience consistent.

“We fell into whatever role we liked best, either in the bar or the kitchen. You found where your strength was”

How did you define roles with so many of the family part of the business? 

At the moment, the seventh and eighth generations of the Mc Hugh family are running Nancy’s. Charlie, our Dad, is one of a family of five born upstairs. Of his seven children, five of us work here, two in the bar, two in the kitchen and one in the office. Even though the other two live abroad, they are both in the same trade. Growing up here has impacted us massively and keeping the business in the family is really important to us.  

All seven of us worked in Nancy’s part-time as teenagers, no one had a choice! We fell into whatever roles that suited us best, either in the bar or the kitchen. You found where your strength was. My brother Daniel went to train as a chef and became head chef in Nancy’s, my other brother Connor and I ended up doing the bar, my sister Suzi also works in the kitchen and my sister Lauren does all the baking and the bookkeeping.  

“If the bar was only open for drink, we wouldn’t be open anymore. The drinking culture has changed so much”

Dad is a serious micro manager. He sits on the outside of the bar watching the goings on. He forgets to tell people he’s the owner, so they just think he’s a really friendly customer. Mum has stepped back a bit from the day-to-day running of the business, but it wouldn’t be the strong family run business it is today without her many years of hard work. She still orders the stock, does the rota for the kitchen and ensures the chowder recipe remains her original one. It’s still the best seller in the house. Her idea to focus more on food in Nancy’s has been our saving grace.   

How has the business changed over the many years it’s been operating?

Picture of a woman smiling behind a bar in Donegal.

Margaret McHugh, Jenny’s grandmother (Charles’ mother).

The business has evolved massively. In the 60s, 70s, and early 80s, there was a big drinking culture. Lots of tourists came from all over, particularly people from the north of Ireland, English and Americans. It was really busy. 

In the 80s, our grandmother started serving burgers. They were called Deadlies – the burger came prepacked in a plastic bag, you put it in the microwave for two minutes, if you ate it straight away, it was fine but if you left it until it got cold, it looked and tasted like rubber. That was the first introduction of food here. 

Later in the 80s our mum, Ann, took over the food. She carried on serving burgers but started making real ones. She had a very limited but consistent menu; oysters, smoked salmon, prawns and roll mop herring. 

The food has gone from strength to strength in last 40 years, it has become what Nancy’s is best known for. We are very proud of the tradition of our family business, the heritage and the length of time it’s been in the family are important but it’s the food that has made its mark.

How have you adapted to downturns in the economy?

If the bar was only open for drink, we wouldn’t be open anymore. The drinking culture has changed so much. We made a bigger deal about the food. The menu has been expanded. Mum believes and has always instilled in us that consistency is the key. If someone comes in for a chowder today, they get the same chowder in a year’s time. 

“We are very proud of the tradition of our family business, the heritage and the length of time it’s been in the family are important but it’s the food that has made its mark”

As well as keeping the food and the welcome consistently good, it’s necessary to keep inventing something for people to come to, whether it’s a quiz night or a charity event. Ardara is called the home of the festivals, there is not quite a festival every month but almost. It could be country music or a multicultural festival. The next one is called the Warp and the Weft, which is about tradition and heritage in Ardara. My sister Lauren is on the organising committee, and this year’s festival coincides with the anniversary of the Walt Disney film, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, based on a short story inspired by a man from Ardara. As always, we take part in all the festivals and on this occasion, are hiring a swing band and inviting people to come to the bar in 1940s garb. The ladies in the band dress in army uniforms. The idea is that it’s a post-war euphoric time.

In winter, we have regular charity quizzes.  We put up a list pre- Christmas, people mark the charity they would like to run the quiz for, they write their own quiz and conduct it. It’s a nice way to get people out. People come who have never been to the Nancy’s quiz and they keep coming back. 

This winter we are going to add a music memories night. We will have a little speaker and tablet and people can play a song they haven’t heard in ages. We have even had a few weddings here, including my brother Alan’s. We go with whatever the couple want, whether it’s a bowl of beef and Guinness stew in their hand or something more formal, we always have our customer’s evolving needs in our minds. 

What are the challenges and advantages of working in a family business?

Various generations of family line up for a photo.

The McHugh clan.

There are times when we can be snippy or give out to one another but the up side is that, because we are siblings, we are able to read one another better. Every Tuesday we have a family meeting, we discuss any issues people may be having. It keeps everyone on an even keel. If anything is going slightly wrong, we fix the problems before they start. It has worked really well for us. 

“As well as keeping the food and the welcome consistently good, it’s necessary to keep inventing something for people to come to, whether it’s a quiz night or a charity event”

At staff meetings, you can tell everyone what a good job they are doing. This year, even though business is down, tips are up, people are doing their jobs better, staff are following our lead and being very hospitable. You can’t fake that; you have to be genuine. Our staff tick all the boxes; the meetings have ensured that care for our customers remains at the forefront of what we do. 

What do you think publicans will have to do going forward to keep trading?

We have to think about making changes around what customers can to do at night time. People come in the evening and they can’t get standing space but once food is finished at around 9.30pm, it looks like place has been evacuated. It’s the same summer and winter. We have a few locals we rely on but that’s it really. 

The alcohol-free drinks are selling much more. People are more health conscious. People still want to come out but they don’t want to spend a fortune and they don’t want to drink too much on a week night. We need to come up with more to offer them.

As I said, our mum believes consistency is key. There are some new creations on the menu but we believe keeping our warm welcome and the quality of our food the same will keep people coming back. 

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Interview by Olivia McGill

Published: 15 October 2019