The West Port dynamos
When Andrew McMahon and Jakub Zakrzewski teamed up five years ago to run the function suite at Perth Airport, anyone familiar with the ambitious pair would have known it was likely to be the start of something big. Today they have three bars – all on the same Dundee street – and are set to open their fourth one this month.
Andrew (36) – known as Macky – went into the licensed trade at 17; starting out with a job behind the bar before working his way up to a series of management and consultancy posts. He was inspired to go into the trade by his father Tom (85) who once owned a string of bars in the city, including The Hawthorn, The Pullman and The Mirage. Macky says, “Dad retired when I was 12 but I was always looking up and seeing him mingling with customers and staff, and the music and the buzz – it was great and I loved it. He’s 85 now but he comes into The West House every morning for a coffee, and keeps us on our toes. He pulls no punches so if he sees something wrong he will definitely tell us.”
Jakub (31) was born in Koszalin, Poland, on the Baltic Sea coast. He started studying in his home town but transferred to Dundee University for a change of scenery. He finished up with a degree in international finance and business, took a break and then did a postgrad in IT. But like Macky, his heart lay in the licensed trade and his first job when he arrived in Dundee was working behind the bar in the Students’ Union. He says, “I used to work in the licensed trade back home. I thought it was a fun industry, and it was a great way of making money as a student.”
The two men first met ten years ago when they worked at The Underground nightclub, where Macky was general manager and Jakub was supervisor. Their paths criss-crossed again as time went by – they worked together at The Playwright, and helped open several bars. Both say that Dundee is such a small place – particularly in terms of the licensed trade – that it’s easy to keep tabs on what your friends are up to and so they never really lost touch.
When Macky was approached by Morris Leslie to carry out a critical appraisal of several businesses at Perth Airport, he asked Jakub to join him and soon afterwards, in January 2011, their business was born. Macky explains, “I needed a colleague to help with my assessment, so Jakub came with me. Basically the management team at the function suite were not doing a great job and the landlord was going to close it down, so we volunteered to run it for him. That’s when we formed our company, and that’s why it’s called Perth Hospitality – which is something everybody always asks us about given that we’re actually in Dundee.”
The suite, called The Hangar, was great for weddings and ceilidhs but those are predominantly weekend events and the pair knew they needed something else. They started to look for places in Dundee and came across The Ascot Bar in the city’s Westport area. Macky says, “We got it in November, but the problem was we didn’t have any money and it was in a real mess. We didn’t want to close over Christmas and do a make-shift refurbishment, but didn’t want to trade as it was either – so we decided to do a pop-up.
“We painted everything white, put up Christmas trees and loads of tacky decorations and called it The Snow Bar. Then we went round offices, friends and family and got them in for their Christmas parties. Needless to say, on opening night it was wet walls, wet floor – the paint wasn’t dry. We put loads of polystyrene balls down as fake snow – it was great fun.
“We traded until the end of January and used the money that we’d made to do a better refurbishment.”
The work, which cost around £85,000, was carried out in February and March, before they re-opened as The West House in April 2012. Jakub says, “We took out everything basically – down to the bare floorboards. We took every single wall inside down, re-wired, re-plumbed and re-glazed the building – it was a massive job.”
Macky admits, “We knew it was going to be tough because most of the area’s pubs were either closed, or only open in the evenings and at weekends, but we believed it would work because we were on the University campus, close enough to the city centre and in what was historically the cultural quarter of Dundee.”
Another challenge the pair faced included planning restrictions on any extraction outside the listed building, which meant they couldn’t fry. Instead they decided on a pizza and pasta menu, and cocktails, appealing to the female market. Jakub adds, “We also decided not to put a telly in. What was coming to the West port at that time was a bit the scallywag element, so we hoped our offering would deter them and attract a different crowd.”
Three months later, another pub on the same street came onto the market and they jumped at the chance to take it on. Macky says, “The idea was that it would be a proper pub – a gastro pub with good food, TV on, much more casual than our first place. Of course, after such a big spend on The West House, we didn’t have any money and it was coming up to Christmas time – so Snow Bar Two was born. Out came the white paint again.” Jakub laughs, “I remember wishing we’d kept all the decorations from the first time. We got the keys in November and it was a six-day turnaround.”
But their plans for the gastro pub were scuppered when a great chef came along – so they changed the theme and decided to open as a restaurant, The D’Arcy Thompson, instead. Just as they had done with The West House, which has an old printing press and chemistry benches from the university, as well as etching plates and metal stamps once used on the jute sacks the city is famous for, Macky and Jakub turned to history for inspiration. Jakub explains, “We were keen to keep the tie in with local heritage and we thought it would be a great way to celebrate D’Arcy Thompson, who was a pioneer of mathematical biology. It turned out he was also a bit of a rascal and liked to have a good time in the pub with a few glasses of whisky, so he seemed a good person to name the place after.”
They opened in March 2013 and the venue has proved a hit locally. It also won Scottish Gastro Pub of the Year 2015 last year. But Macky and Jakub still felt the area was missing a quality burgers and gourmet pies venue for the students – and that they were still missing a pub. So when the place next door to the D’Arcy Thompson came up, they went for it and embarked on a seven-week refurbishment, which cost around £90,000, before opening The Tinsmith in June 2013.
Jakub says, “That was our biggest project so far in terms of the work. We moved walls and we moved the toilets to let more light in because the pub was very dark inside. We wanted it to feel light and airy.” The venue, which has a chunkier, more industrial feel, is named after Tommy Smith, a tinsmith from Dundee who noticed that the light cast off his candle flame was greatly enhanced by a piece of battered tin. His discovery took him to Aberdeen for the first lighthouse and he went on to design the first gas street light network in Edinburgh. Jakub and Macky worked closely with Andy Rice at Not Just Design on the project and found his help invaluable. The steel work was done by Lawrie Fabrication – run by Macky’s brother-in-law – and they also worked with West End Cladding and Joinery.
Their latest venture – The Westport Gallery – had been around for 22 years and was something of an institution. So when they heard the owners were moving to Spain, they decided to act. Macky jokes, “We thought it had been a while since we’d opened anywhere, but because of the council’s policy on over provision we knew that getting a licence was going to be very difficult. We got letters of support from people like Dundee University, V&A Dundee and Creative Dundee – the heavyweights. Janet Hood Consulting also played an instrumental role in helping us to get the license. Jakub says, “It was the first time we had gone to the Licensing Board knowing that we had a bit of clout.”
The tapas restaurant and gallery opens on April 13th, after a £50,000 refurbishment, and will feature work by artists from across the city. But these two never do things by halves and are geared up – through their second firm, West House Events – for a busy summer of outside events with their marquee, bar and catering business. They seem to have no shortage of energy or ideas, and boundless enthusiasm for what they do – as well as for their city. It surely won’t be long before they are on to their next venture. Snow Bar Three perhaps?