Many people dream of quitting the day job and setting up their own bar, but very few of us act upon it. Two decades ago, Kieran McGill left his accountancy job in Dublin to do just that, turning one initial pub in Atlanta into what is now a $40 million franchise.
In 1996, he established the first Fadó, Fadó pub in the US, much to the disapproval of his mother.
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” he recently told the Irish Times.
McGill’s passion for pubs runs in the family. His father owned the Maid of Erin pub on Marlborough Street in Dublin, more commonly known as The Confession Box because of its proximity to the Pro Cathedral.
When he told his mother that he was to follow in his father’s footsteps, she was full of apprehension for the busy life he was choosing for himself. Memories of 3am calls dragging her husband from his bed in Dalkey back to the city to turn off a burglar alarm were enough to give her pause for thought about her son choosing the same career path. “The pub business is where you came from not where you are going,” she told him.
McGill’s solution? Never own a set of keys to his pubs. No keys, no 3am calls.
“I am planning to do it differently,” he told her. “I don’t plan on having keys, so they are not going to be able to call me in the middle of the night and check the alarm.” And he still doesn’t own a single set for any of his 16 pubs.
Leaving his comfortable career in Oliver Freaney & Co, McGill made the decision to go into the family business when one of his clients, the Irish Pub Company, asked if he’d be interested in acting as their operations guy for a new chain of Irish pubs across the States. At the time, the Irish Pub Company was growing dramatically, opening pubs all over the world.
McGill decided to base the first pub in Atlanta to prove that his perfect Irish bar format worked without the help of a large local Irish population. It’s not often you hear of a chain of Irish pubs avoiding cities with a large Irish population, such as New York and Boston, but that’s exactly what McGill aimed to do. Atlanta was also one of the only cities to which direct flights from Ireland were offered, making travel to and from his pub easier when he was still based in Ireland.
Setting up the first pub in the US without a credit rating had all the ingredients for failure, with property agents warning McGill to expect to hand over a large cash guarantee to convince a landlord to lease him a property. As luck would have it, McGill practiced the barman skills picked up throughout his years working in his dad’s pub to secure a property: he brought the landlord to dinner, turned it into drinks and carried it on into a pub crawl to end the night with a handshake and a property where he could establish his first pub. The first Atlanta pub opened just a few months before the city held the 1996 Olympic Games.
McGill now owns 16 Irish pubs throughout the US, employs almost 700 people and has an annual turnover of $40 million. The chain has aimed to open a pub in each of the 25 US cities with the largest populations. The Fadó, Fadó chain makes up the most of these with two pubs in Atlanta; and one in Philadelphia; Annapolis, Maryland; Washington DC; Miami; Columbus, Ohio; Chicago, Austin, Texas; Denver, Colorado; and Seattle.
“Fadó, Fadó” is the Irish language equivalent to “Once upon a time” meaning long, long ago. McGill had looked for a name that would translate easily when first establishing the chain and had originally wished to call the pubs “Seanachaí” meaning storyteller. It was felt that Americans would have difficulties with the pronunciation, however, and he then toyed with spelling it phonetically “Shanakee.” On recalling how many Irish stories begin with “Fadó, Fadó” he felt that it was the perfect name for the brand.
The Tighín (meaning small house) franchise has bars in St Louis, Stamford, CT and two licensee-run airport bars at JFK in New York and Dallas-Forth Worth in Texas. He also owns The Confession Box in Miami, named after his Dad’s old pub in Dublin.
“The concept was: there were a lot of Irish pubs in the US, and by and large we didn’t think very much of the quality,” he tells the Irish Times. “ They were sort of plastic shamrock kind of pubs and mostly appealed to expat Irish or Irish-American. We wanted to do for Irish pubs what Riverdance did for Irish music. We wanted to bring it into the present day. We wanted it to be for a broader population, a broader demographic.”
With the help of Anglo Irish Bank, the company opened five more pubs in 15 months between 1998 and 2000. “The irony of the whole Anglo Irish Bank thing is that Ireland could do with an Anglo Irish,” McGill says. “Anglo Irish Bank, back in the 1980s and 1990s, got a lot of businesses off the ground.”
“What’s a shame is they went off the rails and what they saw was this whole property thing, and it became property, property, property and they went away from that,” he continues.
“When they were true to their core, they had a lot to do. Ultimately, they brought the economy down, but they had a lot to do with creating the economy that it was.”
McGill and his family have since relocated to the US, initially moving for a two-year period. Sixteen years on and now with US citizenship, the family has completely re-established themselves in America.
The time around St. Patrick’s Day is typically McGill’s busiest time of the year with the pubs taking in massive sales. Between days on which parades were held and St. Patrick’s Day itself, business accounted for three weeks’ worth of business for any other time of the year.
The opening of his second pub in Atlanta this year couldn't have been planned more perfectly. The launch coincided with the St. Patrick’s Day festival and saw Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Enda Kenny call in on his way along the parade route. McGill is still looking to expand further, with possibly a third bar in Atlanta and a second in Washington DC. Charleston in South Carolina and Nashville are also possibilities for future expansion. Each new pub costs around $2 million to open.
H/T: The Irish Times
* Originally published in 2015.