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The Sunday Business Post Interview – Pat O’Sullivan

Monday, September 17, 2012


Pat O’Sullivan

Role: Owner of Café Noir and managing director of Masterchefs Hospitality

Lives: Ard na Croise, Limerick

Age: 45

Favourite eateries: Dublin restaurants L’Ecrivain and l’Gueuleton

Hobbies: charity runs to raise funds for Self Help Africa (selfhelpafrica.org)

Holidays: has a cottage in Murcia in southeastern Spain

Most recent read: The Secret by Rhonda Byrne

…..

Pat O’Sullivan got into the hospitality business when he was just 16 and he hasn’t stopped since. You can see it in his demeanour, in the restlessness and the sales patter. You can see it in the plans and the projections – O’Sullivan is a born entrepreneur. Before that, however, he was a chef.

O’Sullivan, a Kerry native, got his first summer job working in the kitchen of a restaurant in Waterville. Now, 29 years on, he runs hospitality firm Masterchefs, alongside restaurant chain Café Noir.

O’Sullivan employs 140 staff directly and many more part-timers for one-off catering events. His businesses had revenues of €4.5 million last year, and he confidently predicts this figure will rise to €6 million in 2012.

But O’Sullivan has a problem, a fly in the ointment that is threatening to spoil his plans for continued growth. As he sees it, this is not a good time for entrepreneurs in Ireland and his problem is the banks.

O’Sullivan launched his Café Noir chain in Limerick in 2008 to bring French café culture to the Irish high street. A predominantly day-time operation, the chain has three outlets: Limerick’s Robert Street, Castletroy and UL’s Academy of Music and Dance. It recently opened its first outlet outside Limerick in the Glór Theatre in Ennis, Co Clare.

The café chain’s sister company Masterchefs manages on-site restaurants and catering for the likes of Thomond Park Stadium, NUIG Galway, UL and Powerscourt Park Racecourse in Clonmel.

For the Volvo Ocean Race festival, which took place in Galway in late June and early July, the company served 35,000 meals to visitors over nine days.

Two years ago, it won the catering contract for UL’s Pavilion, which opened last February as an all-purpose bar and restaurant venue for corporate functions, banquets, weddings and other events, which is where this interview takes place.

O’Sullivan positively glows as we enter the glossy, light-filled interior – the jewel in the Masterchef crown – overlooking UL’s impressive sports grounds. “We were in at an early stage so we were able to design kitchen layouts to our own spec,” he says. “It’s like walking into a five-star facility for banqueting, conferencing, anything really. We want to attract the corporate and non-campus communities, and we’re selling between 150 and 200 Sunday lunches here already.”

Despite a busy year, however, O’Sullivan’s banking problem is a bugbear and he is keen to talk.

“I think I’m the first and only operation to have been awarded facilities by the bank locally that were then rejected by head office, but recommended by the Credit Review Office – and then refused again by the bank,” he said.

O’Sullivan is talking about an application he made to his local bank for a €450,000 loan to set up a centralised production facility for Masterchefs and Café Noir.

The move would, he says, create ten jobs immediately, with the potential for more down the line.

Instead, he claims to have spent a year “toing and froing” between his bank and the Credit Review Office, with little to show for his efforts.

“The Credit Review Office came back to the bank initially to say: ‘This is a viable proposition, you need to give them the money.’ The bank still said no,” he said. “This has been going on since this month last year. The Credit Review decision was in February and it’s still going on.

“The Credit Review Office told me that, though it had no statutory control over the banks, it would be surprising if they went against its recommendation, but the bank point blank refused to give us the money.

“It’s now at the stage where it’s offering 25 per cent of what I was originally approved for.”

Seated across from me in the Pavilion, his frustration is palpable.

“If the bank isn’t going to invest, someone needs to drive it on,” he said. “I don’t want to go out with headlines like ‘The banks are killing me’, but the Credit Review Office is saying ‘if you’re not happy with your banking decision, come to us and we’ll tell you whether you’re right or wrong’. They said to me, ‘do you know what, Pat? The bank is wrong here and you’re right and we’ll tell the bank that’, but the bank came back to say, ‘take a running jump’.”

As a result, O’Sullivan said he was on the look-out for private investment “from an angel investor or possibly a partner” to fund his next move into the franchising market.

He has other plans as well. O’Sullivan is eager to capitalise on his Café Noir business with an evening menu that would double opening times in existing outlets.

He is no stranger to the vagaries of the high street, however, where footfall can fall or rise on a whim and loyal customers are hard-earned. He has already lost one Café Noir location on Limerick’s O’Connell Street to poor sales.

“We are developing some sites that will lend themselves to doubling up as having an Italian offering in the evening and Café Noir during the day,” he says. “In some sites, it will work. In others, it won’t.

“I’ve learned a lot about operating in the high street. Some locations will only work in the day, some only in the evening and some will work for both timeframes.

“We have one particular Café Noir in mind, where we will open our first Italian next March.”

One of eight children in a farming family, he started out in the Butler Arms Hotel in Waterville, Co Kerry, where he worked in the kitchen for two summers from the age of 16.

There he met head chef Martin Shanahan, who would go on to establish acclaimed seafood restaurant Fishy Fishy in Kinsale, Co Cork, and he was, he says, “hooked”.

“I just had a real grá for it,” O’Sullivan said. “I used to follow the chefs around the kitchen helping out. I lived for the buzz of service – the madness that is 7 o’clock on a Saturday evening. I thrived on it, whereas some people at that age might have been frightened.”

By March 1991, aged just 24, he had become head chef at Casteltroy Park Hotel. Seven years on, however, he had had enough of cheffing and set up his own consultancy in 1998.

The move brought O’Sullivan into contact with Dublin-based hospitality firm Masterchefs and he subsequently set up the company’s Munster branch in Limerick.

By the time Masterchefs Dublin went into liquidation in 2009, O’Sullivan’s operation was a standalone business.

“I came up the hard way and I take no prisoners. I worked in a very traditional system, which wouldn’t really be recognised any more, but it did me no harm.”