Why Irish Pubs Became the Biggest Food and Drink Export Since McDonald's
They're everywhere from Palestine to Puerto Rico – and there's a shadowy organisation behind their global rise.
A barmaid wearing Guinness contact lenses at The O'Conor Don Irish pub, London. Photo: Michael Stephens/PA Archive/PA Images
I'm writing this in Macedonia, at the Albanian border, on the shores of Lake Ohrid. It's a beautiful spot of serene natural beauty; the lake, backdropped by snowy mountains and 10th century monasteries, has a promenade that stretches along the crystal-clear water's edge.
Yet, even here, there's one. There's always one. An Irish pub. Lake Ohrid's is inventively named "Dublin Irish Pub", and boasts fiddles on its walls and emerald balloons flanking its doorway.
Of course, I don't need to be in Macedonia to see this. I could be anywhere: Paris or Milwaukee, Moscow or Chiang Mai, on Gili Trawangan, a tiny island miles off the coast of Bali. Irish pubs are one of the world's biggest and most iconised food and drink exports, the breadth of their diaspora matched only by US food giant McDonalds. Like a fast food restaurant, they tend to be soulless, anonymous commodities, and utterly unlike an actual Irish pub in Ireland – a Universal Studios replica, called O'Malley's, or O'Shea's, festooned with knick-knacks and leprechaun figurines, and, of course, serving Guinness on tap.
That last point is the key to the spread of Irish pubs, because even though they all have their own name and their own designs and often their own owners, their rampant virality is largely thanks to Guinness, who noticed the popularity of Irish pubs rising in the 1980s and set up a firm called Irish Pub Concept, which sells that concept to potential publicans all over the world.
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Irish Pub Concept is an online consultancy that provides information and advice to prospective publicans about setting up Irish pubs, as well as being a platform designed to increase the sale of Guinness off the back of freshly-launched Irish pubs, which will naturally want to stock the black stuff. The company's website is littered with the Guinness brand logo, and speaks in the voice of Guinness (saying things like "Guinness is not responsible for the actions of any vendor" and "Guinness is not financially tied to any vendor we may recommend"), but weirdly, Guinness seem uncomfortable being publicly associated with it.
I contacted the brand to ask for a quote about the finer details of their relationship with the Pub Concept, but they refused to comment on it at all. Instead, I spoke to revered academic Bill Grantham, a visiting professor at Loughborough University, who has written at length about Guinness and cultural appropriation, to get an academic opinion on the state of play between the two companies.
Grantham told me: "The Irish Pub Concept belongs to the international drinks conglomerate Diageo plc, through its wholly-owned brand Guinness. Neither Diageo nor Guinness, for some reason, will divulge how the IPC fits into the company's corporate structure. However, the IPC website makes it clear that the IPC is a Diageo/Guinness initiative. For instance, the 'Overview' section of the site speaks of market analysis carried out by Guinness, and Diageo conducting research to establish the 'critical success factors' of Irish pubs in Europe."
He added: "The site also carries the GUINNESS word trademark and its associated harp logo throughout. The first page of the site and the 'About' section feature prominently a pint glass with the word 'Guinness' on it. There is also reference to the successful Irish pub 'always serving great Guinness', and the trade dress of the site is in the black and white associated with the beer."
Grantham also agrees that "the entire site exists to facilitate the company's stated aim of selling more Guinness through the promotion of Irish pubs worldwide."
The website doesn't hide this; speaking in the voice of Guinness, the website offers "Fun Facts" to convince users that investing in an Irish pub is the right thing to do: "As a result of the Guinness Irish Pub Concept initiative," they say, "approximately 8,500 pubs have been opened in 152 countries throughout the world and continue to grow at a healthy rate in all markets."
Financially ambitious publicans are then asked to fill in an online form, before receiving a call from a Guinness representative who will offer financial consultancy advice and can also help with writing a business plan. For as little as $150 (and, eventually, a large loan from banks and investors) Guinness will guide first-time Irish pub buyers in the right direction by writing a business plan, explaining what they call the "Critical Success Factors" of Irish pubs and making introductions to companies that can actually design and build the pubs, who advise owners that they'll typically see profit in three years.
Guinness has set up partnerships with nine key build brands: Ballance Hospitality, Irish Pub Company, Bar None Designs, Irish Business Solutions, Irish Pubs Global Federation, Mathias Foodservice, Tourism Ireland, Food Ireland and Irish Food Board, which build and service Irish pubs for Guinness worldwide, abiding by Guinness's "Critical Success Factors", which they say ensure new Irish pubs bring the "craic" – the Gaelic term for fun.
The "Critical Success Factors" which Guinness say will make your Irish pub successful are: Irish decor, authentic Irish food, authentic Irish beverages, authentic Irish music, Irish-led employees and engaged management and ownership. Of course, at no point do Guinness acknowledge the challenges of boxing and shipping all that authenticity.
In 25 years, one partner firm, The Irish Pub Company, has designed some 2,000 "culturally and commercially successful" Irish pubs for publicans in 53 countries. They say they deliver an authentic experience, "combining stunningly-accurate interior design with great food, drink, music and, most of all, people … guests are immersed in another world of warmth, conversation, laughter and fun. What the Irish call the 'craic'..."
"I went hitchhiking in the 1980s, got to Copenhagen and met an Irish guy in 1992 who already had one Irish pub opened in Sweden," Gus Brown, the owner of The Dubliner pub in Copenhagen, tells me. "I opened Copenhagen in 1995 and we've been here ever since. We built the first Dubliner in Copenhagen with the Irish Pub Company. We sent Mel McNally, [the founder of the] Irish Pub Company, the specs, the blueprint for the bar and a budget. He sent us back a couple of options and we came up with the layout we have now."
It's a similar story with other pubs I speak to. "I haven't even travelled to Ireland yet, due to finance issues, but would love to! They say PJ Gallagher's is more Irish than actual Irish pubs in Ireland," says Jacqueline Tougher, a publican in Sydney.
There are obvious problems with equating commercial success with the idea of Irish authenticity. The Irish Pub Concept say they can engineer the craic with their success factors, but craic is a state of mind, defined by centuries of Irish folklore and tradition, and while punters definitely still enjoy themselves in any given Irish pub around the world – enough alcohol in the company of friends is a pretty safe bet for a decent night – this innate sense of Irishness cannot simply be conjured up by a design firm.
The academic Bill Grantham sums it up by referencing the work of Mark McGovern in his essay Craic in a box: Commodifying and exporting the Irish pub, when he says that craic – rather than an authentic state of mind – has become "a commodity that can be bought, sold, branded, manufactured, packaged, put in a box and, above all, exported".
Truly authentic pubs in Ireland are as rich and diverse as they are in any modern country. They have all the requisite sharing platters, all-day dining menus and trendy scotch eggs you could shake a shamrock at. On the contrary, the Irish pubs Guinness sell are, as Bill Grantham carefully points out, specifically sold to pockets of countries that don't have a natural Irish community or identity – but nevertheless, commercial success is predicted. Rather than being truly authentic, Guinness are choosing to sell their Irish Concept (with a capital C) to places that aren't familiar with true Irishness.
What the Irish Pub Concept really mean by "authentic" is marketable. They say that "casual dining restaurants usually require significant local populations (75,000 or more) to survive and thrive… [but] because of the frequency of consumer visits to an Irish Pub, they can thrive in populations of less than 15,000".
But plonking these "Irish pubs" in areas with no Irish people or culture really just cashes in on small neighbourhoods with no Irish culture of their own. The whole endeavour, of course, is about as Irish as Pizza Hut is Italian – but it's a genius sales technique on Guinness's part. The brand benefits hugely from there being more Irish pubs about; as well as consulting prospective publicans on financial services, they have a monopoly in supplying every successfully built Irish pub they consult with. And there's a knock-on effect for local, non-Irish pubs, too. To keep in line with the competition, competitor pubs also start serving Guinness.
Irish Pubs seem like a celebration of the Irish diaspora, local publicans opening a piece of home around the world. But a huge part of the market is controlled by the brand that has the greatest interest in their success. In reality, many Irish pubs have no connection to Ireland, and were it not for the efforts of Guinness, they might not exist at all.