The Bigger Picture

It’s a cracker…

In the latest of a series, Emma Deighan looks at internationally-renowned hospitality figures providing a source of inspiration to the local trade

It’s a cracker…

It’s a cracker…

It’s a cracker…

Tony Carson is a serial entrepreneur in the world of hospitality. Here, the son of legendary comedian Frank Carson chats to Emma Deighan about bringing a 300-year-old brewery back to life, his string of trade awards and why he’s investing in the future of NI business through the younger generation

In recent months Tony Carson, as board member of Sullivan’s Brewery in Kilkenny, was instrumental in reawakening the Maltings Red Ale brand that had disappeared from the hospitality map over 100 years ago.

Today, via C&C and Tennent’s, the uptake of Sullivan’s is growing week by week here, Tony told Hospitality Review. And he’s on course to do exactly the same with a similar obsolete brewery in Liverpool.

“It’s been very well received and the volume of sales is above our expectations and that’s possibly to do with the quality of the product,” began Tony on Sullivan’s Brewery, that coincidentally lifted the global Champion Keg Ale trophy for its Maltings Red Ale at the International Brewing Awards just days before its NI launch.

It doesn’t surprise Tony, who is also a property tycoon and philanthropist with business interests spanning a host of sectors including science and technology.

“The guy who brews it was Smithwicks’ head brewer for 40 years. He’s no Johnny-come-lately. This is a guy who technically knows his stuff,” he continued.

Tony has been on the board of Sullivan’s brewery on an advisory capacity since last Christmas. Since then, he has overseen the construction of a new brewery and tap room in Kilkenny while further plans include a visitors’ centre.

Sullivan’s, which was always based in Kilkenny, has a long history with the Smithwicks brand but when it was sold to Guinness, Sullivan’s Malting Red brand and its brewery were left behind and subsequently lost on a horse bet. The brand was no longer.

“We were literally coming back after 100 years but the truth is, this brand is 300 years old, predating even Smithwicks,” Tony revealed. “We wanted to bring something back to life and give the city back its heritage which was left void by a corporate giant.”

And with objectives being met quicker than anticipated, Tony has been inspired to invest in another brewery – Liverpool’s Higson’s brand – which was also bought by a corporate giant, in the 1980s.

An ex board member of Meantime Brewery London, where Tony is also a board member, acquired the old trademarks recently and together the pair raised £3.5m to rebuild the brewery and a tap room.
Investing in breweries is just the tip of Tony’s hospitality iceberg however. The 60-year-old has spent most of his life working in bars, hotels and restaurants.

He ran a large portfolio of hotels, spas and leisure villas in Lanzarote which saw him develop as a property investor. Prior to this, and after receiving an honours’ in Business Studies, Tony entered the sector when he worked for Grand Met Hotels at the age of 21.

He then ran his own bar empire in London in what he describes as an ‘East meets West’ hospitality chain.

“I think, ‘Jesus, did I do that many days in hospitality,’” he reflected, when running through his pretty impressive business achievements.

“I didn’t think of it like that then,” he confessed. “It’s a hard industry to be in but because it’s a passion it didn’t feel like that at the time. Looking back, I feel like so much of my life went into it,” added the father of five.

He has no regrets for investing his time and effort into the trade as he admits he’s ‘been very well remunerated’ and reaped the rewards of selling property from his hospitality estate.
He’s also been heavily decorated over the years. Among the accolades he’s attracted are: the honorary title of Chevalier de Champagne (for his contribution to Champagne), he’s a Fellow of the British Institute of Innkeeping and in 1999 he won multiple Catey Awards for running the Jim Thompsons chain. He also proudly holds a Business Person of the Year Award and the Best Pub Restaurant in London Award and these are just a few examples.

Since leaving the long hours of the sector behind, Tony has been focusing on his charitable efforts, namely championing the Integrated Education Fund, which he believes is vital in improving business prospects here.

“It struck a chord with me and allowed me to contribute to the society that I came from,” began Tony, on becoming an ambassador for the Belfast-based charity.

“I grew up in the New Lodge and experienced the nastier parts of society and for me it seems like integrated education is the natural bridge to bring people together.

“I got my dad involved so the two of us did what we could. We gave our time and money and I continue to keep topping up the pot.

“The obvious thing is integrated education brings kids together and promotes cohesiveness of society. If kids grow up together, they tend to do business together and the more business that goes on, the more entrepreneurship goes on and this is good for NI plc. It glues people together and hopefully it will stop some of the kids going to the UK and living their lives there and building their wealth outside of NI. It could help people to come back where more good business is to be done.”

And on the subject of homegrown business, Tony has nothing but praise for local publicans and restauranteurs who he says are working on a ‘capital status level’.

“I left Northern Ireland when I was 12 so I can’t say I’ve lived here but I’m a social person and when I’m back I definitely see that there is a nice edge, people want to do more than the ordinary there.

“The decor, the proposition, the service levels, the food, it’s capital status, it’s not a little backwater. It’s growing up and pulling its boot straps up itself.

“Deanes is an excellent example of someone doing it well. It’s recognised for being way way above the average and generally the bars, especially around the Cathedral Quarter, are enthusiastic and people are willing to put their money back into their businesses because they’re privately owned. The penetration of big brewery chains is much less there and that’s great.”

While Tony divides his time between London and Spain, his dedication to Northern Ireland and its future doesn’t show any sign of waning.

And in memory of his father who passed away five years ago, this passion and interest is more heartfelt than ever.

“The biggest thing I learned from him was to embrace life and have a smile on your face and be very positive,” he pondered. “He was very good at overcoming failure, he would say ‘that’s another day, get on with it’.

“My dad did the best with what he had. He was warm and generous and that reflects in my values. The more you earn, the more you can give and I strive to do that.

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