Licensee interview: AJ Mcmenemy – MacMerry 300, Dundee

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MacMerry Men

DUNDEE BECKONED FOR JASON CADDY RECENTLY. HE WAS THERE TO MEET ONE HALF OF THE DUO BEHIND CITY PUB GROUP MACMERRY 300, AJ MCMENEMY, WHO TOGETHER WITH BUSINESS PARTNER PHIL DONALDSON OPERATES SEVEN UNITS IN THE CITY. BUT THERE ARE MAJOR EXPANSION PLANS AFOOT…

AJ Mcmenemy and Phil Donaldson are on a mission. In their sights as co-directors of Dundee-based pub group Macmerry 300, another ten units on top of their existing seven Dundee outlets, which they opened in quick succession over the last five years. AJ came on board as a director last December, before which Phil was the sole director of the company, which now employs 67 staff and has a turnover of £2.3M.

They operate Bird & Bear, Abandon Ship, The King of Islington, and Gracies in Broughty Ferry. Draffens, The Blue Room, and BuBu are all neighbouring units within the Nethergate Building, at 36-38 Nethergate, the former Draffens Department store, now owned by the guys.

I met with AJ in Bird and Bear, typically dripping in the type of style and level of cool that we have come to expect from the Macmerry men, while Phil was busy preparing for an imminent meeting with a potential investor – because their ambition isn’t confined to Scotland: they have expansion plans for their most recent opening, Abandon Ship.

Explained AJ, a thoughtful man who radiates a quiet kind of determined confidence, “We opened Abandon Ship Bar in 2018 and nine weeks ago we set up Abandon Ship Bars Ltd. The plan is to open 10 Abandon Ship units across the UK in the next 34 months. We are busy meeting with investors to finance the expansion program. In fact, we have a meeting tomorrow with an investor who could potentially be putting up a substantial sum.“

Gracies in Broughty Ferry, a leasehold, which they still operate, was opened by Phil in 2014 followed by Jam Jar, which they closed in September 2018. Then came Draffens, Bird & Bear, BuBu, The King of Islington, The Blue Room and Abandon Ship, which opened in December 2018 in the former Jam Jar.

AJ and Phil also have plans, which are already rolling, to develop the disused floors in the Nethergate Building. Said AJ, “Upstairs from The Blue Room are three floors that we are developing into a 90-cover high-end Asian inspired restaurant called North East, which will open in early 2020.”

And the Macmerry juggernaut isn’t applying the brakes anytime soon.

Said AJ, “The basement of The King of Islington used to be a 120-capacity nightclub and this will re-open as a subterranean cocktail lounge called Nola in December this year. We have a horrible habit of opening places in December and each time it happens we tell ourselves we are never going to do it again, yet here we go again…”

It’s clear that both men were bitten by whatever it is that bites entrepreneurs, as well as seeming to possess a talent for knowing what the market wants and for delivering it promptly (seven units in five years) and with all the cool credentials in all the right places.

Let’s take their speakeasy, Draffens. No official social media. No sign outside. Just a single light bulb which when switched on tells the world that the place is open for business.
They also nurtured the talent of Dimi Savvaidis, current reigning Monin Cup World Champion and first ever UK winner, and he’s now managing The King of Islington.

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Said AJ, “I was managing all the bars for a time but this simply wasn’t sustainable, plus me stepping away from the day-to-day running allowed very talented people like Dimi and Sarah Berardi (manager of the Nethergate building) and Turtle Higgins (Bird & Bear manager) a chance to run their bars and develop as managers as well as bartenders.”

Phil is originally from Dundee but was raised in London before moving back to Dundee, while AJ is originally from Ayrshire and spent 16 years in Aberdeen where he managed a few units before moving to Dundee in 2014.

Said AJ, “Phil is a highly-motivated, self-sacrificing human being. I am someone that brings a wealth of experience and passion and an understanding of how to bring a different type of offering to a city.

“We are both focused on guests and every aspect of service. Phil also has the foresight and the guts to go against popular opinion at the time. For example, the site the Bird and Bear was in an area of Dundee that had a 12-storey brutalist building slap bang in front of it and was considered too off the beaten track for most people when he first took the unit on. We bided our time when we opened Bird and Bear in 2017 and since then this area has come up. The 12-storey building has since been demolished, there’s now a park, but most importantly there’s the Dundee waterfront development to thank for lifting this part of town.”

AJ also met a lot of inspiring people during his time in Aberdeen. He said, “Stuart Purdie, with whom I worked at Henry J Beans, was such an inspiring bar manager who recognised my enthusiasm by pushing me on to absorb as much as I could about bartending and the customer service ethos which at that time, the 90s, was still very much influenced by the American cocktail bar scene, which was very much about entertainment, flair bartending and guest interaction. Another peer who made an impression on me was Ben Iravani who went on to open Orchid in Aberdeen. He was one of the supervisors in Tonik, which I managed for seven years.

“This was 2009 and Aberdeen was ready for a new type of offering. My peers and I were all industry professionals travelling the country going to training to expos and training events where we were experiencing every level of product and service in other cities – and all of us were excited about bringing this home to Aberdeen.”

It was shortly after this that AJ moved to Dundee – the pull being his Dundonian girlfriend Suzanne Scott, a self-employed artist-illustrator, with whom AJ lives above the shop with, i.e. in a flat above one of their units. She does a lot of work around public art and the history of the city.

So, was the Dundee bar scene in need of a touch of his expertise at the time? He said, “When I first moved to Dundee, I thought this is another city, it’s bound to have a cocktail bar or two but it didn’t have the level of offering that I thought it would have had. I was still commuting and from Aberdeen a lot and ended up working for none other than my former supervisor Ben Iravani, at 99, in what was a role reversal.

“The city was catering to the type of customer it though it had and I was still seeing Dundonians coming to Aberdeen to celebrate special occasions and for a higher level of offering.”

It was at this point that AJ met Phil, who had Gracies in Broughty Ferry and the property that was later to become Bird and Bear and Jam Jar, the small annex next door, now Abandon Ship. They worked together for a while with AJ in an area management role before becoming co-directors in the business.

What is the key to their successful relationship and are they ride the crest of the Dundee popularity wave? Said AJ, “We have got to where we are because we never take anything from the business. We always re-invest and it’s fair to say that we not only invest in the units but also the teams and the local area. We are passionate about creating jobs in the area.”

He continued, “Dundee is an anomaly when it comes to chain pubs and restaurants. There are very few of them compared to other Scottish cities. When a certain well-known restaurant chain opened here last year they were queuing round the block for a month until the novelty wore off.”

Has the business seen an upturn in business since the opening of the V&A? “Yes,” he said reluctantly. “Rather than banking on the V&A, we prepared for it by bolstering and solidifying our business instead of resting on our laurels by thinking it would be some kind of miracle.”
I left AJ to continue pouring over the figures ahead of their potential investor meetings and with a feeling that these two are going places.

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