Licensee Interview: David Brown – A Man With An Appetite For Success

By Susan Young

David Brown of The Palais in Dennistoun is a poster boy for hospitality – in that he did a degree in Architecture, decided an office job was not for him, instead he came into hospitality and made a career of it. Now he is technically Area Operations Manager with a share in the business.

Says David, “I am not 2nd generation hospitality so I have had to get my foot on the ladder in a slightly different way.”

He fills me in, “Before going to Uni I did a ski season in Chamonix, then went to Edinburgh University and did Architecture. But after graduating I realised that it was not for me – the work was just too formal and office-based. I then went traveling to New Zealand, Australia, and Canada, and when I came back set up a small T-shirt business called ORIGINAL T, (which he still has today) and also worked in a few bars in Glasgow’s West End before joining The Brunswick Hotel in the Merchant City.

Now anyone who knows former owners Stephen Flannery and Michael Johnson will realise that was probably a baptism by fire. But David flourished under their mentorship.

Says David, “They taught me everything. I felt like I had two father figures – Stephen taught me to consider the bar like a catwalk while Michael taught me the business side. Although I was a bit shy to begin with, I soon realised I loved it. It was also one of the best bar teams I have ever worked with. It was crazy as hell, but it gave me a real bug for hospitality.”

While working there David met Michael and Tony Woods who had just bought a church in the Gallowgate – Saint Luke’s. Michael had been a regular at The Brunswick, with his dog Sonny, and he and David had struck up a friendship. When David and the Woods’ brothers went off skiing together at Whistler they broached the idea of him working with them.

David smiles, “We were in Whistler, and over a few drinks one night Michael and Tony said why not come on board and we will set up a bar at Saint Luke’s too. That became The Winged Ox.

“Michael and Tony were in the construction business and were both very kind to me – they allowed me to be fully involved and think outside the box. I got to set up the Winged Ox – everything in the bar from the interior design and fitout to the brands on the shelves and the hiring of the team. It was an amazing experience and over the three years I was there we built a really successful business. We had a very diverse crowd and the venue got a lot of publicity. We also won some awards including Sunday Mail Pub of the Year and Dog Friendly Pub of the Year. I was living the hospitality lifestyle but more and more I wanted to get into the business side of things.”

After a short interim period when David dipped his toe into events and branding he got that opportunity with John Lonergan when Paul McJimpsey, John’s partner, contacted him and asked if he wanted to run the Record Factory in Glasgow as GM. David said, “I didn’t really want to do that. I wanted more direct involvement in setting up a new business from scratch.

“That opportunity surfaced when John asked me if I wanted to come on board and help look for new opportunities to drive the business operations forward.”

His first task was to improve efficiency and he did this by putting in the organisation management and technology to take the Record Factory to the next level.

Next, the trio invested in The Palais, which was formerly The Duchess of Duke Street, this time with David as part-owner.  Says David, “I loved it was a neighbourhood bar, but when I went to see it the bartender was listening to techno. I could see the opportunity. It was painted red, had vinyl over the windows so you couldn’t see out and a lot of the lovely original features were hidden.”

You can see his architecture background surfacing now and he admits he does enjoy the creative side of setting up a bar. “I like the design side and I am particularly handy when it comes to breaking things and putting things back together. This also helps keep costs down.

“We used a neutral colour palette, reused furniture, reinstated the lovely tiles on the floor, and created a fresh and airy bar. We wanted to appeal to locals, families, and everything in between and the location is perfect, right across from a Glaswegian icon – Coia’s.”

Today The Palais is a busy and bustling community bar. Its customers come from all walks of life and the pub also has a great reputation for gastro food. Says David, “We offer one of the best Sunday Roasts in the area.”

They have also been very busy since the business has been back operating. But I asked him how lockdown had been.

“Staffing wise we furloughed everyone. We tried to keep going for as long as we could with takeaway cocktails, only serving outside etc – we did everything we could and this allowed us to retain all the management and the folk that wanted to stay.”

“We have come back with a bang and The Palais is busy seven days a week. We have been able to employ more staff and increase wages. We do look after our people, and the credit for the fact that we bounced back so quickly at both venues must go to the staff and management teams.”

I run both the team at The Palais and at The Record Factory., though John, Paul, and I speak daily. Paul is more to do with marketing and John the business side and I have learned a lot from both of them but I enjoy that they give me the autonomy to make operational decisions.”

Over the years David has honed his skills with regard to making the bar more efficient, and, of course, his bar skills, but he admits he doesn’t ‘sling’ many cocktails these days. Instead, David puts a lot of effort into food and drink photography and is constantly putting the Palais offering front of mind with customers.

He says, “Social media drives customers in and presentation is very important. Now if I put a picture of a cocktail up on a Thursday some people will come in half an hour later and ask for it. Sometimes they show us pictures of drinks we put up months ago but we still make it for them. Nothing is too much of an issue when a customer makes a request.”

Nothing is too much of an issue when it comes to staff training, but David doesn’t necessarily believe you have to formalise things. I always think it is best to show someone how to do it, whether it’s changing a plug or showing them how to make a cocktail, carry three plates or how to keep an eye on your customers. We like our new staff to be given the opportunity to reveal their personality and show what they are made of!”

Equity is important to David who thinks other owners are missing a trick by not bridging the gap between management and ownership. He says, “There are a lot of talented people who are hungry to go further, but it is difficult in this industry to get the opportunity to invest in a share of an existing business. But there are a lot of passionate staff who would jump at this.”

As well as loving hospitality David’s creative side is also coming back to the fore.  During lockdown he started freehand sketching again. It is always something that he has been able to do but has let it slide over the years. But now he is back doing it again. He tells me, “I did one recently of The Palais and I realised that I had forgotten how much I enjoyed it.”

He may also be on the lookout for a new home -although his current one has benefitted from his creative eye. Says David, “I won the regional heat of Scotland’s Home of the Year with my flat. I think the producers liked the fact it was just me and my wee dog living in this radical minimalist interior. But I did spend a lot of time picking the right furniture and colours and I also quite enjoyed doing the filming!”

So what is next … “I am hungry for the next challenge. Currently, we are looking for another place but I would also love to do a bit of bar consultancy. I would love another opportunity like The Palais elsewhere in this city that I know and love, but would consider locations further afield. I believe if you put the time and energy in you get the result you want.”

There is no doubt that David is passionate about hospitality. I wish we could bottle it!