Licensee Interview: Neil Connolly, Pania

By Nicola Walker

One of my favourite things to do on a Spanish holiday is to spend time in an intimate charcuterie bar watching the world go by as I fill up on wine and tasty morsels of food. It turns out that this is also one of Neil Connolly’s favourite things to do and why he has just returned to the trade and launched Pania in Glasgow’s Merchant City.

EB640EF3-9C55-41CA-8C6B-282F2CC1CD7CA hard-working industry veteran, Neil has worked in the trade for 40 years and is well respected. This may be the first time we’ve met, but I felt like I was laughing with an old friend as we began to reminisce about the 90s in Glasgow. Hence the reason I’ve had to edit out most of the swear words!

Neil says, “I got into hospitality because the thought of sitting behind a desk wasn’t for me. My pal always said my arse was making chocolate buttons as I couldn’t sit still! So, I did a three year HND in Hotel and Catering Management and that got me sucked in. Hospitality is great fun and that’s what I try to make it. It keeps you young. I love the music, the buzz and ‘ve been fortunate to run some fantastic places over the years.”

Glasgow in the 90’s

After working with Stakis and Alloa Breweries in the mid-eighties, Neil went on to manage some great Glasgow venues including Chimmy Chungas, O’Henry’s and the Rock Garden. He says, “It was the early nineties, so it was a bit crazy and great fun. The Arches and the Sub Club had just taken off and there were lots of independents – Glasgow felt really good then.”

Neil then went to work for the original Bar Budda group. He says, “That was probably the worst experience I had. I ran five places for them, and they sold up without telling me and then went bust two weeks before Christmas in 1999. I nearly left the industry.”

It’s often at these low points that the magic happens, and Neils story was to be no exception as he went on to launch his his first venue, Moskito. He says, “I heard about this site on Bath Street, so I went to look at it, and the rest is history.

Moskito Opens

“We opened Moskito in September 2000, and it just took off. It was just the right place, the right offering, at the right time. There was nothing else like it. I created it for people who wanted to a bit of fun, it wasn’t about trying to be cool. We had students, suits, a mixed age group and offered a relaxed atmosphere with good cocktails, food and great DJs, but mostly it was all about the fun. I think this just resonated with lot of people.

“We were surrounded by offices and in those days, people went out for lunch and went to the pub after work. In 2008 I got a hybrid 3am license and expanded through to next door. It was a big risk because I’d had another failed business with a pub called The Brick across the road. However, the risk paid off and it just went bonkers. The busiest day we ever had was a Scotland vs England game where we did 18k in one day.”

He laughs, “There’s actually a couple of my pals that blame me for the demise of clubs that happened around that time, but it really was just the change in people’s habits.”

I can’t help feeling Neil is being modest as Moskito was one of the first late night bars in Glasgow, groundbreaking in its concept and famously the place to be at that time.

The landscape changes

Neil continues, “Eventually everything changed, for a variety of different reasons. Around 2011 I had some personal stuff going on which meant my eye was off the ball a wee bit. That coincided with a lot of big offices starting to move away from the area. The landscape was changing, the lunch trade was in decline, and you lost a bit of the fun aspect.”

After another few years Neil decided it was time to move on. He explains, “I had a buyer, but they disappeared at the last minute and left me in limbo. By that time, I’d started a second family and I wanted to spend more time with them. So, in 2018, I just closed it after 18 years.”

Following this disappointment, Neil was without a plan. He says, “I did bars for various outdoor events such as the Riverside Festival. Doing a few in the summer was great fun, but I didn’t want to do more than that.

“In 2020, my son was diagnosed with autism, and I needed to look after him. He’s also got a condition called PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance) where he has to be in control of his environment. His sensory issues mean being in a crowded or noisy area or even being at school, is difficult for him. So, he became priority, and my partner Lesley worked full time.

“I enjoyed it, you might not get much money being a carer, but money isn’t always everything. It was only last year we started talking about me going back to work.”

Pania is born

5DD7530B-F246-418B-A860-08D7CB5F8F5FNeil then did a bit of consultancy work. He laughs as he tells me, “I’m one of these people that finds it very hard to step away from something and I really didn’t like it when you gave people advice, and then they did the opposite of it!” It was then Neil decided to take the plunge with his own business and Pania was born.

He says “My first business plan for this idea was drawn up about 15 years ago. What I was looking for in a unit was quite specific, so when the opportunity for this venue came up, it was ideal.

“The concept was inspired by a place in London called Fernandez & Wells. A simple Mediterranean feel with great produce and a great atmosphere. I wanted it to be comfortable and relaxing. We serve coffee and sandwiches during the day and then at 5pm we start the charcuterie. It’s all about not complicating matters.”

“I used to say that Moskito reflected where I was at that time in my life. I didn’t think that any other bar was suited to me and so I created what I wanted. Now this is my ideal place. This is how I like to eat. People understand the quality of the produce, what they are paying for and they like eating this way. People are coming in, ordering, and then 45 minutes later, they’re ordering a couple of other things. That’s the part I’m really pleased about. I want Pania to be a local for the people who live and work in the area.”

2FA90983-EBA3-435C-AA78-71AD90068D76The change from the type of venue Neil was used to has been a bit of a shock to the system though. He laughs, “Being from a licensed trade background you are used to opening and things slowly building throughout the day. Now we are opening at 10 o’clock and it’s just bonkers from the minute you open the door!”

Neils enthusiasm for Pania is clear for all to see. He adds, “People thought I was mad opening in January. Even I thought I was mad opening in January! I was really trying to push to open before Christmas but it’s worked out for the best. It’s given us time to find our feet. The staff have been phenomenal we’ve been really, really lucky. I’m pretty confident that we will just continue to grow.”

Pania may not have been open long, but the future sounds exciting. Neil says, “We’ve kept things simple with the cocktail list at the moment, but we’ll have a wee Spritz menu coming in the summer, more hand carved meats and the Merchant City Festival in July. If the concept goes well this year, I’d like to expand the brand and open another couple of them.”

So, the future is looking bright for Pania. I’ll certainly be arriving early to get myself a wee table, a glass of red, a cheeseboard and some more laughs with Neil!


Category: Features, Interviews, Licensee Interview, News, People, Restaurant
Tags: Neil Connolly, Neil Connolly Pania, Pania