Bar Profile

Bringing community spirit back to North Belfast

Reviving the fortunes of a rundown pub has been a joy, Kelvin Collins, owner & director of Ben Madigan’s Bar and Kitchen, tells Alyson Magee

Bringing community spirit back to North Belfast

Designed in the style of a traditional Irish bar, Ben Madigan’s features extensive woodworking across its bars, pillars and display cabinets; all created bespoke on site by RJB Joinery.

Bringing community spirit back to North Belfast

Designed in the style of a traditional Irish bar, Ben Madigan’s features extensive woodworking across its bars, pillars and display cabinets; all created bespoke on site by RJB Joinery.

Living locally, Kelvin Collins knew there was a gap in the North Belfast market for a quality pub when he took over the Cavehill Inn – now Ben Madigan’s Bar and Kitchen – last summer.

And as a well-established operations manager behind such venues as The Wolf and Whistle in Andersonstown and The Devenish Complex in Finaghy, Kelvin felt he had the experience and connections to embark on his first owner/operator venture.

Transforming the rundown site into a family-friendly food and drinks venue has, however, exceeded all expectations in terms of its impact on the local community.

“Some of our customers are telling us they’re seeing neighbours they haven’t seen in years because they’re staying local now,” says Kelvin. “From the beginning, our marketing strategy was #YourNewLocal, and that really has stuck.”

Instrumental in the site’s transformation from local eyesore to community pride has been a proactive approach to getting locals on board.

Hosting councillors and residents for a meeting before he began a major refurbishment of the property, Kelvin found it was the first time most of them had set foot in the pub.

“At the beginning, it was a wee bit negative with people saying you’ll never change the image of the building but, by the end of the conversation, they were planning where they were going to sit for the pub quiz,” he says.

And four weeks post-refurb, a high point was Christmas Eve at 5pm when the pub was jam-packed with local families there to enjoy complimentary mulled wine and mince pies and a performance by the Cavehill Community Choir.

“The choir stood and sang Christmas carols for 40 minutes and everyone joined in,” he says. “There was a great buzz and, with the pub previously being a no-go area for some people, the fact they felt welcome has really had an impact. We’ve got people coming in from all areas now really, and they’re mixing really well.”

Locals are also helping staff the venue, which employs 18 people across its management, bar and kitchen teams. “When people walk in, they see a face they recognise and we’ve retained almost everyone from when we opened,” says Kelvin.

With his previous role at the Conlon Group affording insight into the complexities of getting new venues up and running from working with designers to installing telecoms, Kelvin took on the Cavehill Inn in July 2019 and ran the bar as it was for three months to get a handle on the operation and finalise plans for the refurb.

The Cavehill Inn closed in early October, reopening five weeks later in mid-November as Ben Madigan’s Bar and Kitchen in a nod to the historic name for Cave Hill. “We wanted to retain something of the area and give it that local feel,” he says. “It’s nice to keep that connection, and our logo has the outline of Cave Hill in it as well.”

Aiding the tight timeframe for the project, the main building contractors on the project – Hugh Griffin & Sons of Ballymena – are in-laws of Kelvin and own the site of the pub. “They realised the importance of getting things done quickly,” says Kelvin, “and were quite happy to add value to their premises as well.”

Significant structural work went into refitting the main floor, while the whole building was reroofed including an old store at the back of the premises, converted into a kitchen.

Working alongside Hugh Griffin & Sons was Derry-based RJB Joinery. “Neil Browne and his brother Eamon are master joiners, almost like carpenters of old,” he says. “They were here seven days a week, getting it all done.”

Designed in the style of a traditional Irish bar, Ben Madigan’s features extensive woodworking across its bars, pillars and display cabinets; all created bespoke on site by RJB Joinery.

Other suppliers, meanwhile, included Nugent & Gibney for furniture, Hugh Jordan for kitchen and bar equipment, BK Electrical, and Robert Oliver for TV/CCTV installation.

“We essentially doubled the size of the bar, but you wouldn’t realise it,” says Kelvin. “The bar is designed so, wherever you’re sitting, it doesn’t really feel too big. It almost has four sections with the raised and lower areas, what used to be the off licence and then the snug at the back, so it’s not like you’re walking into a big bar and it’s maybe overwhelming.

“It’s still got a cosy feel to it. Part of the design brief we gave to Intec Design was we wanted to retain the traditional elements of the bar.”

Many features of the refurbished bar are original or repurposed, from the green leather seat backs to wood and tiling salvaged from other parts of the building.

As befits a period building, the refit was not without challenges. “There isn’t a 90-degree angle in this building at all,” says Kelvin. “Everything is offset or runs in, and that carries on upstairs, but it adds a bit of quirkiness and character to the building as well.”

Intec was briefed to embrace the Victorian character of the bar in its design from wallpaper to lighting, with the warm blue colour scheme achieving a period yet modern feel.

Central to opening the bar to a wider family-friendly market has been its food offer. Back in the 1970s into the early 1980s, it was a popular destination for food as Crangle’s Bar, but all foodservice disappeared during its tenure as the Cavehill Bar.

“We serve food seven days a week, and food has been crucial to changing the dynamic of this bar,” says Kelvin. “The bar has a history from the troubles, and people would cross the road rather than pass the pub; even as recently as last year.

“I was always aware that food was crucial to changing the clientele, to bringing in families and people who have time for lunch.”

Food is now on offer daily from noon to 8.45pm from Monday to Saturday, and to 7.45pm on Sunday, with most main courses priced around £8 to £14.

“My brief for the chefs was good quality pub grub using fresh ingredients at a keen price point,” he says. “We didn’t want it to become somewhere people only came to on special occasions.”

And the strategy has paid off, with many local families already repeat customers, and the venue attracting over 100 five-star reviews on TripAdvisor.

Foodservice has been so busy, with even the traditionally quieter Monday lunchtime slot typically attracting 45-50 covers, Kelvin has had to install a new portacabin in the backyard as an additional prep kitchen.

“A lot of bars in town have a lunchtime rush and that’s them until evening time,” he says. “We’re getting customers the whole day through. It’s mainly locals, and people beginning to hear about us now from further afield.”

In terms of suppliers, local companies are favoured including K&G McAtamney’s for meats, Walter Ewing for fish and Henderson Foodservice for dried goods. Drinks partners, meanwhile, include Dillon Bass for spirits, Counterpoint for soft drinks, Tennent’s NI and Bibendum for wines.

While North Belfast has suffered from a dearth of quality options in recent years, Ben Madigan’s is one of a number of venues spearheading a recent revival including The Lansdowne Hotel and The Chester.

“I live at the top of the Cave Hill Road and, for the past nine years, have had to go into town to eat because there’s been nowhere to go,” says Kelvin. “I think why we’ve been so successful is people have realised we have a good offer at a good price, and it saves them money having to get taxis into town and paying town prices.”

A second phase of the refurb, to be completed by the summer, will include the upstairs and outside areas of Ben Madigan’s.

The first floor will become a function room for parties, christenings and private occasions. “North Belfast is crying out for a place like that,” says Kelvin. “Even though we’re only open three months, the number of inquiries we’ve had shows there is a lot of demand for it.”

Entertainment currently extends to live music on weekends, usually a one-piece acoustic set expanding to a two-piece around 10.30pm when foodservice has finished, and pub quizzes on Wednesday evenings.

Opening the upstairs space will offer more scope for events, says Kelvin, while creating outdoor seating in the expansive front area of the building will complete its evolution.

“There’s quite a big area there which wasn’t licensed before but is now,” he says. “It gets the sun all day, and the demand is there for an outside space. More and more bars have it now because people like to sit outside like they’re on holiday.”

Once the second phase is complete, Kelvin may look for another venue. “But it needs to be the right location,” he says. “This was almost like the perfect storm where you’re starting with 20 customers and you’re not going to annoy anyone by making changes.”

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