Setting The Bar
Michael Stewart is, arguably, one of the most renowned pioneers of the Belfast club and bar scene and 30 years on from entering the industry he has plans to revolutionise one of the city’s biggest licensed institutions with his new business partner...
Michael with Heverlee's Joris Brams
Michael in the company of some very handsome gentlemen
Meeting in George’s of the Market at St George’s Market seemed an appropriate venue for an interview with the veteran of the licensed trade here.
Steeped in local history and culture, St George’s defines local retailing in a similar way that Michael represents the timeline of our local licensing trade.
His history is vast. The many venues that he helped launch and spearhead set the benchmark for the industry that we know and love today.
However, he could’ve been destined for a career in travel, teaching and even the Hong Kong police force he told HRNI!
Born and bred on the Shankill Road, Michael, 56, studied Geography and History at university with the goal of becoming a PE teacher. A few pivotal plot twists in his life made it obvious that the powers beyond us had him earmarked for a role in hospitality here and aren’t we glad?
He can recount those significant developments with precision, naming days and dates with incredible accuracy. “That’s just something I’m good at, remembering dates,” he admitted before moving us from the balcony of George’s to the interior for clearer acoustics for our recording.
“Good afternoon folks, my name is Michael Stewart,” he said jokingly when he’s asked to take us through the This is Your Life version of his career, using a humour that those who know him well are all too familiar with.
“I was accepted to go to Loughborough University,” he divulged when referencing that initial interest in teaching PE. “I was also accepted to be an inspector in the Hong Kong police. I was flown to London for the interview and the job would see me look after a battalion of men and women. I’m glad I didn’t take it. It would’ve taken me on a totally different trajectory,” continued Michael who returned to Belfast post interview to work in M&S.
His other unexpected job roles included selling advertising for a packaging magazine in London where his next door neighbour offered him shifts in a pub in Norwood Green, near Hounslow. And so it began. With Bob Cratchit’s.
Michael in his younger days
“It was the day of the Poppy Day Bombing in Enniskillen on the 8th of November, 1987 when Pim Dalm called me about Bob Cratchit’s in Belfast for which he was asked to source a manager by Guinness Northern Ireland who owned Croft Inns.
“I said to him ‘why would I want to come back given what had happened at home that day?’” recalled Michael.
He did come home for the interview and the late John Lavery offered him the job on the spot. “I asked if I could think about it and he looked at his watch and said ‘okay do you want it or not?’ – I said yes.”
The rest is history.
On December 1, 1987 Michael began his role as manager of Bob’s in what he says was a ‘baptism of fire’.
Referencing his decade at Bob’s Michael has mixed emotions; “There were good times, bad times and some horrible times. The murder of our doorman, Jackie Smith, tested our resolve. That was an experience that makes you think how do I come back from this. How does his family come back from this?”
Jackie was just 21 when he was shot dead, in what was a sectarian murder, while covering the door of Bob Cratchit’s. Michael held his hand while he passed away.
In 1998 Michael left Bob’s and joined forces with Jas Mooney, owner of Madison’s, McHugh’s, The Fly and The Botanic Inn. He was instrumental in the opening of The Fly, The Apartment and The Northern Whig as well as the Lisburn Road’s Ryan’s Bar and a refit of the Globe on University Road.
The Rotterdam and the Parador were also members of Jas Mooney’s empire of which Jas once said ‘Michael manages the sexy ones and I look after the six that make money’!
“Jas then had the opportunity to buy the King’s Head but to buy it he had to take on Bob Cratchit’s as well. I went down and looked after Bob Cratchit’s and that was challenging times,” said Michael whose career went full circle at the turn of the new Millennium.
A role in Ultimate Leisure followed which involved running the, then, lucrative Bamboo Beach Club, Irene and Nan’s, Bar Bacca, La Lea, Pot House and The Advocate.
“That was all very profitable,” continued Michael who was, in another fateful twist, made redundant in 2007 by the company only to be called on board on a consultancy basis days later.
Michael launched Bar Czar in 2007 – a consultancy and training business for the trade offering everything from security training to drugs awareness and responsible alcohol trading.
“I finished with Ultimate Leisure on a Friday and began working for them on the Monday on a consultancy level,” revealed Michael who believes his career path has been pretty much mapped out for him with the best intentions.
“Things happen for a reason. There’s a karma and a fate out there. UL went into administration and I was asked to look after their properties by License Solutions.”
While still running Bar Czar, which he still operates today, Michael was also one of the directors who opened the Hudson in 2011 with three other business partners, leaving the establishment last year on his birthday, April 1.
That brings us to the current day when he is in the midst of transforming Madison’s on Botanic Avenue with his new business partner, Alan Clancy – dubbed as a new breed of investors in the Republic and the man behind Dublin’s House and 37 Dawson Street.
Together Michael and Alan have created Botanic Way Ltd which has major plans for Madison’s – a bold scheme that Michael is not quite ready to expand on.
“That’s the vision for the future. We will be closing it soon and rethinking the whole place. It was an iconic venue in its day but we will have more to come on that later,” he suggested.
Some 45 minutes and a fish and chip later we’ve only slightly glossed over the career of an industry legend and we’re left with 15 minutes to discuss his views on the trade today with a compare and contrast mindset. It’s hard because the man has so much to say for himself and the industry which he is so obviously passionate about.
“Frankie, is there baked Alaska on the menu? Can you bring it to the table and burn it for me,” he asks our waitress before moving on to industry topics.
“I love the banter with staff. You’re really interviewing them when you do this. I don’t care if she has skills from university but if you can have that banter with her and she knows when to come and go, that’s enough,” continued Michael.
And on the subject of skills in the trade… “There are 25 hotels due to open here. Some very soon. That requires, by 2024, 30,000 new employees. 2,000 of those jobs are for chefs and the Government needs to wake up to that and help with training.
“When you’re the biggest employer in NI to be treated the way we are by various bodies is nothing less than atrocious.
“The hospitality industry provides one in 20 jobs in Northern Ireland, we pay £75 million in corporation tax and 18 million in business rates. We need a minister for tourism and hospitality,” said Michael who went on to add that any immigration restrictions brought about by Brexit would be ‘nothing short of a nightmare’.
And while Michael has seen his fair share of nightmares having played a key role in moulding the bar scene here throughout the troubles, he still reflects fondly on the past referencing it as more positive times.
“Back then we were busier, I don’t know why. There was a resolve in people. When something happened they seemed to rally round. Yes they were bombing the city centre and it expanded to the peripheries like the Golden Mile but there was a comaraderie.
“Back then it was fun, fun fun. And there is still fun or you wouldn’t do it. But now you’ve gotta run it like a business. I remember we had a street party with the Fly and we had a full carnival. They were the days. There is so much bloody red tape now these days with everything.”
Aside from running Bar Czar and delving into revolutionary plans for Madison’s, Michael continues to travel as part of his role. The day after our interview he flew to Belgium with Heverlee – one of many work-related trips he takes annually.
He’s also Junior Vice President and Executive Committee Member of the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce. He’s Chair and Board Member for Hospitality Ulster and Executive Committee Member of the Institute of Hospitality – voluntary and time consuming roles that illustrate the dedication he has in supporting the industry.
“Time is the new currency. We don’t have enough of it, the bank doesn’t lend it, we don’t get interest on it and people want more of it,” he announced without the slightest resentment for giving his so freely to the industry.
Beyond the scene Michael is married with one son and lives a ‘very happy life’ and he expects to continue making his mark on the industry for the next decade, at least he added: “I’ve probably got 10 to 12 more years left doing what I’m doing and then hopefully I can relax after that.
“I was 26 when I took over Bob Cratchit’s. We were all kids and it was good fun. I see those kids and they are nearly my age now and they have their own kids. Some of them have remained in the industry and that’s where there is hope is for the future. Praise be to the Lord!” he concluded!
‘There are so many but I’ll plump for Coppi.’
‘Rum. I like to collect it but ironically at Christmas just past, I got into gin.’
Bill Wolsey – ‘You have to admire him for what he has done and the employment that he brings. It’s also nice to look at the smaller, single operators who have come through the hard times. I have to mention my business partner, Alan Clancy. He has nine or 10 venues in the the Republic of Ireland and has taken the leap of faith to come into Northern Ireland.’
FAVOURITE BAR IN THE WORLD:
The Hotel Nacional, Havana, Cuba
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