Riverdance gave them life, but have the punters finally tired of all the blarney and craic surrounding the Irish theme pub? Kitty Johnson reports.

The validity of the themed bar versus the traditional pub so dominates the marketing strategy of the UK's drink retailers at present, that it is even grabbing headlines in the national dailies. And, at the centre of the controversy lies the Irish theme bar - the original theme pub.

It is the life-cycle of the themed establishment that is of particular importance. And, supporters of the traditional city and town locals are rubbing their hands with smug glee at indications that the "Paddy O'Scruffy's" of this world have reach saturation point and are on the verge of a sharp decline.

However, this is a trend that is not necessarily borne out in the activities among the UK's retailers. Punch Taverns, for example, has recently acquired some 30 Scruffy Murphy's from Allied Domecq. The business direction of this new estate is unclear, but some commitment to the Irish sector is apparent. "We are in the middle of a segmentation exercise which will deliver a clear strategic direction for each of our business units as well as our brands. Until this is completed in August, I would prefer not to comment," said Richard Pope, the company's commercial and marketing manager.

Bass also bought properties in December 1999 and is planning to turn them into O'Neill's. A Bass spokesman confirmed that they have no intention of putting the brakes on their "Irish bars". The new O'Neill's in Reading is "very successful," he said, and the company will add 30 more to the current list of 117 by the end of 2000.
The Irish theme chains' power punch is of course Guinness. And the popularity of this drink shows no sign of abating, whatever the noises from the Irish sector as a whole. The success of the "black stuff" in Irish pubs cannot be overstated. Indeed it is Guinness that is seen as the saviour for many pubs, the ballast that will keep struggling Irish inns afloat as things get rough out on the Irish theme sea.

The drink has taken off with such velocity since the early 1990s that pubs like the Toucan, with two sites in London, have marketed themselves as a dedicated Guinness theme bar, pure genius!
O'Conor Don in Marylebone Lane shares the same confidence. The manager there said the stand-alone outlet, owned by an Irish family, is "an Irish pub in London not an Irish theme pub". It has been around for seven years, he said, and is "doing better than ever". Both attribute between 70%-75% of their wet sales to Guinness.

Guinness realised the potential that lay before them in the Irish theme pub, back in 1992 when they set up the Guinness Irish Pub Concept. Since then, they have overseen the opening of 2,000 Irish pubs worldwide, all adhering to the stipulated critical success factors. This involves a good location with good management incorporating Irish staff, décor, food, drink and music. As other breweries and independent companies have taken up similar challenges, we soon found a leaping leprechaun on every high street.

But confidence in the pulling power of the Irish theme is far from universal. And despite its purchases Bass admits it is "reaching critical mass" among its O'Neill's establishments. Its next stage, it says, is to focus more on developing "existing sites that give more returns." This includes the addition of music rooms with a 'Blarney merchant' ( that's a DJ to the uninitiated) in the larger sites and later licensing. However most significantly perhaps, is that it confirmed that smaller operations may be debranded in the future.

An O'Neill's spokesman painted an even more negative picture. He added that within the whole industry "debranding was already happening and that pull backs across most companies had already started". He was of the opinion that "the shelf life of the Irish theme bar was coming to an end" and that O'Neill's had "outlasted some of the others because of its relaxed, fun atmosphere".

The answer to an over crowded market place for Glendola Leisure project's Waxy O'Connors has been to think big. With its two vast, multi-levelled bars in London (the largest single volume pub outlet in the UK) and Glasgow, it has developed a brand which it sees as strong enough to withstand any waning trend in Irish theme bars. The London site has spilled out over its maximum capacity of 700 plus people, to a nearby location; Waxy's Little Sister. It offers a more "female-friendly" atmosphere and is "trading very well," said Alexander Salussolia, MD of Glendola Leisure. He continued that with its smaller 150 capacity, it is "proportionally as successful" as its big brother and the company may well open more around the country in the future. In the meantime, Manchester and Birmingham, are to be hit by a couple of giant Waxy's: Manchester first by 2001, and then next stop the US!

Despite some exceptions though, signs of a downward spiral for the Irish theme pub are becoming increasing apparent. The Grove Tavern in London's Beauchamp Place became JJ Murphy's in March this year. Rather sharpishly, it did an about turn and became The Grove Tavern again. The pub's manager said: "We are doing better business now." Of the Irish theme pub, in general, he claimed: "We have moved on, there were too many".

The Greene King venture, Molly O'Grady's, has diminished to one remaining site out of the original four. A spokesperson for the sole survivor argued it is tourism that is keeping them in business. But of course not every theme bar can have a prime tourist grabbing location, and pandering to local tastes is a must.

The problem here though is that with any successful themed idea, it can all too quickly grow out of proportion. Décor that is replicated time and time again reveals itself to be merely an imitation and not the genuine article at all. Inevitably and unavoidably, the customer recognises this and tires of it, moving on to something else.

Each concept pub owner believes, as saturation point is reached, that only the quality ones will survive. Naturally, they wish to count themselves among them. But "the cartoon pubs", as a spokesperson from the Toucan referred to them, will soon reveal themselves for what they are.

Kitty Johnson