Stephen Larkin sat down with Pat Keane from Hanged Man’s Bar and Restaurant in Kildare to discuss their recent success, Pat’s career and the challenges facing the pub industry.
Located in the quiet Milltown area just outside of Newbridge, lies one of Kildare’s biggest hidden gems, and one of Ireland’s best country pubs.
Hanged Man’s Bar and Restaurant has been operating since 1981, but it was only 20 years ago when Pat Keane and his family took over the pub that Hanged Man’s reputation really began to explode. In 2015, it was listed as one of the top ten pubs in Ireland by the Irish Times.
The building that now houses the Hanged Man’s was originally built in the early 18th century as part of the development of the Grand Canal. It started as a depot for the Canal Company, but the building later became a RIC barracks and finally a bar and grocery. The Kelly family managed the bar and grocery for nearly 100 years, until Pat purchased the property.
“I’m a country boy at heart and even though I spent so much time overseas, my plan was to return to the pub business”
Pat’s career has taken him in many different directions, but his heart was always in the country pub business and despite spending a number of years working abroad with international companies, he always knew he’d return to his beloved country pub.
“I have been very lucky that I have had a glorious career with multinationals throughout the world. I was working in the pub business right up to my thirties. I had also been doing some consultancy when I got the chance to move into corporate life. I was the managing director in the leaf operation in Kilcock, before moving onto Musgraves and then I went out to work as the head of marketing in one of the biggest food companies in the Middle East”, said Pat.
“I came back to Ireland to work as the managing director with an advertising company for four years which brought me up to the point where I bought this pub 20 years ago.
“The traditional Irish pub is one of the key factors in bringing visitors to this country and unfortunately many are no-longer open”
“I think when you have worked for yourself, despite contradicting myself by going to corporate life in the middle of my career, you’ll always have the desire to go back and work for yourself. I’m a country boy at heart and even though I spent so much time overseas, my plan was to return to the pub business. I saw the opportunity to buy what was a classic country pub and I thought there was a great opportunity to produce really good food in it,” he added.
Since taking over the pub, Hanged Man’s has enjoyed enormous success, with its food offering renowned right across the region. “We’ve been immensely successful with our food offering and I’m particularly lucky now because my son, Jeff, is my head chef and he brings a wonderful touch to everything he creates. In the first few years in business, we won the Black and White Pub of the Year twice in a row, which was a huge competition to win at the time. More recently, we’ve just won the regional awards for the best food category in 2018 and 2019, making us the only pub to do so twice in succession.”
While all of that sounds fantastic, none of it would be possible without the team in place, according to Pat. While staff retention can be a challenge in the pub business, many of the staff in Hanged Man’s today have been there since Pat took over the business, which gives a real “family feel” to the pub.
Despite enjoying all of that success, Pat believes the country pub industry in Ireland is on its knees, with legislation playing a massive role in a number of pubs being forced to close their doors for good, and he worries that more closures are to come.
“But we can either lie down and die, or we can do something about it”
“No one advocates drink-driving, but the zero tolerance is destroying something unique we have in Ireland. The traditional Irish pub is one of the key factors in bringing visitors to this country and unfortunately many are no-longer open. If you look at the statistics on pub closures, 1700 pubs have closed in Ireland over the last five years, and that number will double over the next five years.
“When Jeff was doing his thesis for his masters, he looked at succession in Irish pubs and as part of it he interviewed publicans, and very sadly, the greater proportion admitted they were the last generation that would operate the family pub that may go back several generations. But we can either lie down and die, or we can do something about it.”
To prevent more country pub closures, Pat believes food is the key to growing the business and says it doesn’t need to be a complicated food offering, as long as its original and fresh. “If they make it difficult, they will fail because it won’t be sustainable. It can be something as simple as offering soup and sandwiches and taking it from there.”
In his 20 years in business, Pat has seen both the good and bad times, and during the bad time both he and Jeff, which “kept the business alive”.
“But most importantly, have fun. When you lose the fun, it’s simply not worth doing anymore”
“We did have a few scary moments where it was touch and go. We had to make sure our customers were getting value for what they were paying for. This meant we started off by analysing our pricing. Secondly, we made sure our service was second to none because it’s a very competitive industry and I believe the service is just as important as the quality of food.”
Looking to the future, the management team at Hanged Man’s are looking at ways to improve their offering, and are now looking to open a boutique hotel. “We’re in a fantastic location right on the banks of the grand canal and if we go down that route, it will allow us to offer so much more from weddings to other occasions.”
Given his fascinating career across multinationals and in the pub business, it seemed only right to ask Pat to share one piece of advice with someone starting out in business.
He finished, “Whether you’re in the pub game or relaunching a brand, you have to be different to the person next door. My advice to someone taking over the family business is to identify something that can be improved and make that difference. But most importantly, have fun. When you lose the fun, it’s simply not worth doing anymore.”
Hanged Man’s Pub and Restaurant was just recently voted the East Regional Winner of the Food Category in the Irish Pub Awards 2019.
Written by Stephen Larkin
Published: 27 September, 2019