An old dog learns a new trick

Michael O’Connor and Michael Fletcher felt vindicated when their vision for The Barking Dog in Belfast gave the venue an overnight boost. Their latest project in Belfast city centre may take a little longer to crack, however…

Successful restaurateurs, Michael O’Connor (41), and Michael Fletcher (35), are under no illusion regarding the serious nature of the recruitment crisis currently facing the hospitality industry in Northern Ireland.

“With staff shortages and the burden of new legislation, we are now at breaking point,” Michael Fletcher told LCN this month. “The whole industry here is at a turning point and I think it’s been facing this ever since I started to work in the trade.”

Both Michaels are partners in long-established Malone Road eatery, The Barking Dog. They also have a new venture – and a new innovation for Belfast – in The Dog Track on Ormeau Avenue, which opened its doors in October last year.

Offering a flavour of the staff crisis that the trade is currently experiencing, Michael Fletcher reveals that the pair had set-up trials for eight prospective new front-of-house staff during the previous week. Not one of the candidates showed up on the appointed day.

“Ten years ago, if you advertised for a chef, you’d have 40 replies and you could have put 10 through for a trial and taken your pick,” recalls Michael Fletcher. “Nowadays, you’re lucky if you get one reply, or people will agree to come in for an interview and then they just won’t show up. That’s rife right across the trade.”

The pair say that they do what they can to ensure that their existing staff are content in their jobs, but Fletcher adds:

“Kids nowadays just don’t want to put the hours in. I think a lot of them just want things handed to them and that’s a shame, but unlike many in the hotel sector for example, we don’t have the time to run our own apprenticeship training schemes, we have to work with what’s out there.”

Coming as they do from two seasoned hospitality professionals, these comments will do little to comfort operators currently confronting the reality of NI’s burgeoning hospitality skills gap.

“Small companies in Northern Ireland need more help to get through this,” adds Michael O’Connor. “I think that by this time next year, you’ll have seen a sea change in the restaurant scene here. With staff shortages and new legislation to deal with, we’re at breaking point. The industry is at a turning point now and it’s been leading up to this ever since I came into it.”

 

Partners

The two men first met some years ago, when Michael O’Connor was in partnership with fellow restaurateurs, Sam Spain and Tony O’Neill.

Michael Fletcher was an experienced manager who had worked with Sam since the early days of the Gourmet Burger Bank concept in east Belfast.

O’Connor comes from a staunch hospitality background. At the age of 16, he was learning his trade in the kitchens of the Balmoral hotel and by the time he was 21, he was working for Marco Pierre White in London and deeply involved in the emerging gastropub scene around Clerkenwell.

Two years in Australia followed and a further stint in the London Docklands before a call from Sam Spain lured O’Connor back to Northern Ireland at the age of 31.

“He told me about this Burger Bank place that he had on the Malone Road that wasn’t doing very well and he asked me to go into partnership with him and help turn the place around,” recalls O’Connor.

The restaurant was in premises near the Bot that many readers will remember as an outlet in Paul Rankin’s ill-fated café chain, Rain City and even before that, as a quirky little eatery called Maloney’s.

O’Connor cast his lot with Sam and they switched the restaurant’s name to The Barking Dog as part of a raft of other changes:

“I just took the type of menu that I’d been working with in London, things like bubble & squeak and fish pie, and used them to open up the offering,” says O’Connor. “We closed the place on a Monday and opened it 10 days later on a budget of £2000, we just changed everything about the place.”

The result was a compact, cosy little eatery with a rough-round-the-edges appeal that has been consistently busy ever since.

As O’Connor and Sam Spain prospered, they joined forces with veteran restaurateur, Tony O’Neill and the trio went on to open Il Pirata in Ballyhackamore and a contemporary Italian restaurant in St. Anne’s Square called Coppi.

The partnership eventually broke-up amicably about four years ago and Michael O’Connor took ownership of The Barking Dog:

“This place has always been my baby and I just felt that previously, it wasn’t getting the attention that it deserved, it needed a bit more love,” he says.

O’Connor also brought Michael Fletcher in as a partner in his new solo venture. Fletcher had been an experienced general manager with Sam Spain’s operation right from its inception over a decade ago. He’d been dispatched to manage The Barking Dog 18 months after it opened and he and Michael O’Connor had formed a close bond.

“Bringing Michael [Fletcher] with me was just part of the deal,” says O’Connor. “We always got on well together, we’d have our ups and downs, but we worked well as a team.”

2014 was the pair’s first year together managing The Barking Dog:

“We had a vision of what this place should be like,” says Fletcher. “Good honest food served without the nonsense that goes on in some places, a waiter at your shoulder to pour wine every two seconds, having to say “thank-you” 50 times during your meal. We wanted to get rid of all that and give people a proper, Irish welcome.”

Few physical changes were required at The Barking Dog but they did rejig things a little upstairs, removing an under-performing cocktail bar to add 30 or so additional covers. Between both floors and the space outside, the venue now accommodates around 120 diners at capacity.

In their first year operating The Barking Dog, the pair made profits of around £80,000 – a pleasing improvement on previous years when the restaurant had struggled to break even.

 

City centre

Success at The Barking Dog encouraged the partners to think about expansion. They believed that there was potential in the west of the city, but failed in a bid to acquire the Hunting Lodge on the Stewartstown Road. After that, they turned their attention to Belfast city centre:

“We knew that if we were going to go into the city centre, they we had to either bring some new cuisine or have something quirky to offer,” says O’Connor. “We decided on the quirky approach. We had this idea for a restaurant with a track, similar to that used in Yo! Sushi but doing western tapas food instead, everything miniaturised and served on small plates.”

The partners found vacant premises on Ormeau Avenue in Belfast and spent a year putting the concept together with help from the Galgorm Group and O’Donnell O’Neill Design. It opened to the public in October last year.

“This is completely unique to Belfast,” says Michael Fletcher. “Some people don’t know how it works, but we explain it all to them. We have a section on the menu – ‘From the track’. It’s all cold stuff on small dishes, 12 separate dishes and half-a-dozen desserts. They can just lift from there or they can order other food conventionally from our menu and have it cooked in front of them.”

The Dog Track is bright and airy and the big central food track makes for irresistible theatre, but with characteristic frankness, Michael O’Connor admits that the restaurant hasn’t been quite the instant hit that the partners had hoped:

“Business has been tough,” he says. “The hardest part is that it’s something new and different and trying to get the ethos over to people can be hard sometimes. Some people are saying that it’s fantastic, it’s brilliant, but others are looking in the window and saying, it’s a sushi restaurant, and walking away. So that’s going to be the hardest part. We need to have some time and we need to educate people about what we’re trying to do here.”

Efforts to boost the appeal of The Dog Track are underway. The lunchtime menu has recently been simplified to speed the process for diners with limited time, but the partners have had to postpone their original business plan that called for two more Dog Track restaurants within five years.

“Nothing is easy,” says O’Connor. “If it was, everyone would be doing it. We need to believe in this product and we need to keep pushing and getting our name out there.”

Both men believe that a wider malaise affects all small and medium business in Northern Ireland. And it’s about more than just the skills gap, says Fletcher:

“This is death by a thousand cuts for business. We have GDPR, we have new legislation coming in every few months that usually involves additional expense for us. Small companies are at breaking point and I think that many of them are going to need more help if they’re going to survive.”

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