Licensee Interview: Michael Kilkie and Neil Connolly

December 12th, 2017 | Posted in: Editors' Picks,Features

Chef Michael Kilkie and bar operator Neil Connolly are no strangers to winning awards, and the two slick operators are going for gold with their new venue The Dapper Squirrel in Kilmarnock.

The former trading standards office, and ex home of Franklin and Sloane at 14 London Road, was initially refurbished by G1 Group in 2015. It has now been gutted, refitted and finely tuned by Michael and Neil.

Kilmarnock local Michael, who also works as a new product development chef supplying recipes for the Co-operative and Tesco supermarket chains, is also a DJ, but trained as a chef in 2000 and, in 2002 alongside his sister, opened Mezzaluna in Ayr. In 2005, the duo sold up to fund Michael’s next venture, the award winning Jefferson restaurant in Kilmarnock, which opened in late 2006. After moving on from The Jefferson, Michael worked for various businesses including G1 and also passes on his skills by teaching at the ‘Cook School at Braehead Foods’ in Kilmarnock and now works as a consultant for Morrison’s and Tesco.

Michael realised he needed a business partner to help him turn the new Kilmarnock idea into reality and approached Neil, who he had known since both men were on the Scottish clubscene in the nineties. Neil interjects. “We met in the Rock Garden in the early nineties,” he says. “There was a group of us that ran about in those days, then I was involved in the Rock Garden, O’Henrys and Chimmy Chungas.” Neil went on to set up Scotland’s first Budda bars and clubs before branching out on his own with Moskito in 2000.

He says, “When the opportunity arose and Michael phoned up and asked if I would help, I came down and fell in love with the building. It’s got such a unique feel to it and with the outside areas like the sun terrace beer garden and car park. It’s got a lot of potential. I can see us running all sorts of things from October Fests to family days – we can sit 200 people at the rear and 40 out front.”

Michael, who had several club hits including the anthem Cry India with his duo Umboza, said, “My plan was always to keep on my job as a development chef. I knew Neil from my djing days, and from living in town, and we’ve been pals since then.” On his reincarnation as a chef, he told DRAM, “When I was Djing, it was a young person’s game, there was loads of young guys doing it and digital was starting to make itself felt. “They were offering to do gigs at £50 a night, and you couldn’t compete. It wasn’t a career for someone who had a young family.”

Michael’s children are now more grown up, so he can still keep his hand in. He says, “I do about 4 gigs a year, but I tend to pick and choose them so I pick high profile ones that mean something to me.” It doesn’t get much more legendary than Soul II Soul, which he supported at their recent gig in Glasgow. However, he is totally committed to his new venture. He says, “The building is fantastic. It’s unique with lots of character, and is the perfect spot for what we want to do. I used to run various units for owners G1 four years ago and realised this site would be great for a bar and restaurant. I could see the potential of the building and grounds, and though G1 are still landlord for the building, we are completely independent from them and rent the property from them under a free of tie lease.”

Michael adds, “We wanted to make it a type of place where you can get everything from just a pint to a steak and bottle of wine. I suppose the word gastro pub is over used but it is a food-led operation and as we progress, we will utilise the size of the place and outside areas and make it multipurpose. As we go into spring and summer, customers will be able to go outside and we can have gin festivals over the weekend as well as craft beer festivals, street food festivals, a farmers market and a big screen out for the World Cup. There will be a kids’ play area with more trees and a stage in the corner for music. We have so many options.”

For Neil, the chance to operate a different style of business to Glasgow city centre bar and restaurant Moskito was too big an opportunity to resist. He said, “There are no DJs or doormen, and it’s a different location in a nice neighbourhood with the focus on food and family. I enjoy driving down here, and I have enjoyed the process – it’s relit my fire.”

The transformation hasn’t been without its challenges as what looked like a small facelift, became a major scale operation. Michael said, “I’m probably here most nights and weekends. Our small plan evolved into a bigger one as we went along. Neil is quite a fluid person when it comes to doing things, which is reflected in the whole project.” Neil added, “I am in every day at the moment. Working a small independent, and being hands on, brings something different to the table and the staff see how committed we are. We are very passionate about it and have a real desire to make it special. There is something very unique about the place.”

The two men got the keys to the building on September 4 and opened just three weeks later thanks to the help of local contractors and fitters. Michael said; “We tried in terms of using a base of people we know including our friend Brian Mullen who used to run the Sub Club and did the painting, plastering and restoration of stonework.”

Neil also put his network from Moskito to use. He said, “There was already a great heating and Sonos sound system, and Complete Solutions, owned by Scott Adams, helped us with the decor and main joinery. They built a nice bar and made all the tables for us and fixed seating too. Having a main bar that was operational was important and they had a dispense bar that wasn’t suitable before us. We put plug points at most booths so people can plug in their mobiles and RNR Electrical helped us with the electrics. Neil Morgan provided independent catering equipment and our florist is also local company Flowers By Karen.”

The venue uses a lot of wood downstairs to complement the natural feeling of the venue and as well as a spacious bar and dining and lounge area downstairs also offers up a forty seated function room upstairs. It’s ideal for birthdays, baby showers and other private parties and can be split into two with a partition and its own bar. Neil said, “The idea was that people can naturally gravitate towards the bar area on the right or dining area on the left as they come in the front door but it’s really up to them where they sit. Upstairs we can host karaoke at a Christmas party or any type of special event in private.”

Chef Michael has added his own twist to traditional dishes using shin of beef in lasagna and Italian sausage for his meatballs, serving breakfast and weekend brunch alongside an all-day menu. So far the bookings have been strong and Neil and Michael are already looking forward to a booked out Christmas with over two hundred covers.

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