Jason Caddy did a wee jig when the usually publicity-shy Simon Keane, Director of Malones Irish Bars, agreed to this interview. They met in the newest member of his pub family, Edinburgh’s Cask Smugglers.
Your odds of finding a four-leaf clover are 1 in 10,000, but there’s a far greater chance of meeting someone who’s enjoyed one of Simon Keane’s Irish pubs. That’s because this Edinburgh-based pub company MD prides himself on running “authentic” Irish bars with great craic – plus they’ve been trading since 2009, the year the world first met Malones in Aberdeen, followed by Edinburgh in 2010 and 2017 (this one closed and then re-opened in a different location) and Glasgow in 2014. Cask Smugglers, his bar atop Edinburgh’s Waverley Mall that started life as a pop-up, is the latest addition to his Malones Irish Bars/ Pop-Up Pros stable.
Simon and his business partner father Robert, who also owns a property company based in Aberdeen, spent £100K renovating what was a former tourist information centre after getting an occasional licence last August. The company has operated pop-ups on the top of Waverley Mall, both outside and inside during Christmas and the Edinburgh Festival, since 2017.
Said Simon, “The whole Cask Smugglers brand was born out of a whisk(e)y club at our Edinburgh Malones whose aim is to modernise whisk(e)y in Scotland by showcasing unique whisk(e)y cocktails along with other boutique spirits. We’re looking to expand the Cask Smugglers brand as well as the Malones brand, which has been slightly side-tracked lately because of all the pop-ups we’ve done – like at Murrayfield last year and Edinburgh cocktail week at Festival Square.”
So, in the month when we celebrate a certain patron saint, what, in Simon’s professional opinion makes a good Irish pub?
“Great craic. But also remember that we’re Irish people running an authentic Irish pub – not an Irish themed pub. You’ll find no Paddy-wackery stuff here. It’s all good quality drinks, live music seven days a week, sports and great food that is locally sourced. We’ll be marking the occasion this year with more of the same, showcasing the best of local Scottish and Irish musical talent all year round.”
Is there anything that differs between his venues? Simon explained, “Different cities mean different customer appetites. For example, Edinburgh is rugby, Glasgow is football and Aberdeen is a mixture of the two.
“On the music front, Edinburgh likes a little traditional music to whet their appetite, followed a lot of pop and rock. Glasgow likes its traditional Irish music, and Aberdeen, again, is somewhere in between.”
And Simon reckons that no operator can now afford to rest on his or her laurels. He explained, “Any operator will tell you that in the last ten years gone are the guaranteed busy Friday and Saturday nights – you have to work to attract and retain customers and good quality live entertainment works for us.“
Is the business more challenging in other respects too these days? “Margins are very different because of higher taxes on purchases and sales, the hike in the minimum wage and rates. Then there’s holiday pay, pensions, and a £10m liability before you even open your door and start trading. Having worked in bars when I was a student, I know the importance of paying a decent wage to good staff but, more needs to be done to help hospitality business owners and protect the future of local pubs and their staff.
Continually re-investing in the business can’t always guarantee your survival in the jungle, but it certainly can help shore things up. He explained, “Malones has become a bit of an institution in Aberdeen, and it’s still improving year on year. Glasgow and Edinburgh (both two floors and similar in size) are also performing really strongly.”
Speaking of which, now that Cask Smugglers has been refurbished it’s full steam ahead for the business and Simon is now firmly on the acquisition trail.
“I’m a people person so I loved being hands-on at the start. These days, it’s people management and looking for the next acquisition and we want to build both the Malones, Smugglers Cask and The Pop-Up Pros brands. We’re looking at sites in Dundee, Inverness, Newcastle, and Dublin – plus we wouldn’t say no to a second site in Edinburgh, so watch this space.”
Originally from Dungarvan in County Waterford, Simon reckons that entrepreneurialism is in his blood. He said, “My dad’s side of the family is a family of business owners – growing up my aunties all owned and ran businesses from coffee shops, chip shops, and restaurants to fishmongers and equestrian centres. My grandfather also owned ran a pub, although that was well before my time.”
Simon made regular trips to Scotland to see his father, who was also based in Aberdeen back then, and decided that Scotland was a place he wanted to be, opting to study at Heriot-Watt University.
Not knowing what to do with his business degree once he graduated, he went to work in his father’s residential buy-to-let property business for five years from 2004 before making the move into the pub-ownership business after his family renovated and opened a bar which became an overnight success.
Simon explained, “My father was one of the owners The Douglas Hotel in Aberdeen and he decided to buy the bar next door, The Ship Inn, which was in a bit of a sorry state at the time. They completely refurbished it and opened it as an Irish pub called Malones (the hotel restaurant was called Molly’s) and it was an immediate success.”
This is what lit a fire under Simon and his family and then their pub business was born. They then went onto purchase the freeholds for Aberdeen in 2009, Forest Road in Edinburgh in 2010 (which they sold to Caledonia Inns later re-opening on the new site of Diane’s Pool Hall after purchasing from Diane McNair) and then Glasgow, on Sauchiehall Street Lane in 2014. The pop-ups were started in Edinburgh to keep the brand name alive in the capital while we looked for a new freehold opportunity which we did in 2018 on Morrison St near Haymarket Station.
Said Simon, “We were lucky to get Diane’s Pool Hall because at the time we were looking for a new site. This was October 2017 and we opened in February 2018 after a big refurbishment.”
All of his venues are dog-friendly, and Simon has two dogs that couldn’t be more different from each other. “I’ve got a Burmese Mountain Dog called Teddy (he looks like a teddy bear) and a dachshund (sausage dog) Albus after Albus Dumbledore. My partner is a massive Harry Potter fan. We also had a doggy Howl-o-ween costume party in Cask Smugglers last year, which was won by a sheepdog dressed as an aircraft pilot,” he explained.
Simon likes to take two big holidays a year because his pub business is a “seven-day a week job” and he finds it impossible to switch off – but it sounds like he may have to sacrifice one of those holidays once those expansion plans start to materialise.