breaking news

Looking to new horizons

January 30th, 2018 | by LCN Editor
Looking to new horizons
Venue Spotlight
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2018 is likely to be something of a seminal year for Belfast restaurateur, Tony O’Neill, and his wife, Andrea.

By the time you read this, Tony and Andrea O’Neill will probably have opened Buba, their new restaurant in the city’s St. Anne’s Square in premises formerly occupied by The 4th Wall.

It’s not the first time that the pair have set-up a business together – in 1994, they opened the Cock ‘n’ Bull Bistro in Australia, where they met – but this is the first time that they’ve collaborated on a restaurant opening back at home in NI.

The name of the new venue harks back to those early days ‘down under’ – Buba is a term often used in Australia to refer to a baby – and that’s exactly the light in which Tony and Andrea view their new Belfast project.

For Tony, it’s also something of a fresh start. In 2015, he parted ways with long-term business partner, Sam Spain. The split was amicable but Sam took two venues with him from the partnership – Il Pirata, a casual Italian eatery that’s well established in the Ballyhackamore area of the city and Piccolo, a café version of Coppi, the pair’s acclaimed Italian restaurant also situated in St. Anne’s Square.

Tony has retained Coppi and in 2014, he opened the doors on a new project – Bartali – in the north coast seaside resort of Portballintrae. Unfortunately, his new charge was a short-lived phenomenon, closing its doors barely 18 months later.

“Bartali was short and sweet,” admitted Tony when he spoke to LCN just before Christmas. “It was a very seasonal business, the summer was fantastic, but the winter was just too long. You have a window of opportunity that’s basically three months long and with Portrush doing so well, it’s hard to compete…It’s a lovely part of the world, but it just wasn’t to be.”

The new project has cost Tony and Andrea around £150,000. It will specialise in spicy Mediterranean food and unlike many of the city’s eateries, it will open late through the week until 11pm and longer at the weekend:

“We are finding that we get a lot of tourist trade into Coppi and many of them come here expecting restaurants to serve food late, the way they do in Europe,” says Andrea. “But Coppi is one of the few restaurants that would be open until 11pm during the week and we get a lot of return from that.”

As for what diners can expect to find in Buba, Tony says that it will appeal to anyone who already likes the offering at Coppi:

“We want everything to be very relaxed,” he says. “We’ll be taking our inspiration from countries such as Turkey, Greece, the Middle East and north Africa and we’re going to have a lot of fun with that. Rather than the conventional idea of sitting down to a big meal, we’ll be serving food on lots of small plates.”

Tony and Andrea.

 

Tony and Andrea say that 2017 was their best year to date but they admit that there are a number of issues that could de-rail their profitability going forward, not least Brexit, VAT inequality with the Republic and the dire shortage of skilled labour that’s currently a blight on the local hospitality trade.

“If you take hospitality as a collective, then we’re one of the biggest employers in Northern Ireland,” says Tony. “But we have no Minister that looks after us, we never have, but something like that would go a long way towards helping us, if we knew that someone had our back and was giving us a voice.”

Like many in hospitality, they’re worrying about Brexit- Coppi has staff from all over Europe, including France, Turkey and the Czech Republic and Tony and Andrea know that if that Northern Ireland becomes a less attractive proposition for workers from the EU then that ready flow of talented labour might no longer be available.

That fear is also hampering the couple’s plans for further development in the business:

“Staff are a big problem,” concedes Tony. “We have lots of ideas and things that we would love to do, but we have a lot of things put on hold because we don’t know what the outcome of the Brexit situation will be.

“Here in Northern Ireland, we’ve always been famous for our local hospitality, which is fantastic, but if we have trouble with staffing, for example, then we risk becoming mediocre because we won’t be able to keep standards up.”

With this in mind, the couple are being proactive, they’ve already spoken to the South-Eastern Regional College about launching a hospitality apprenticeship scheme of their own, and in Tony’s opinion, schools have a significant role to play in helping establish a more reliable supply of skilled labour:

“Not everybody is academic,” he points out. “Many young people would like to be out learning a trade and hospitality is a good trade, but they feel compelled to stay on and do their A-levels. Schools need to be tackling this.”

Tony O’Neill with Coppi executive chef, Johnny Phillips.

 

Going forward, Tony says that ensuring consistency across the constituent elements of the business will be a key focus:

“It’s about doing what we do and doing it well,” he adds. “We want to stay ahead of the trends. We want to keep Coppi where it’s at and obviously, we have Buba. We want to make that into a vibrant restaurant. And we’re keen to see what other opportunities come our way. We have other concepts and plans, but it’s got to be one thing at a time. Let’s see what other opportunities come along.”

Tony refuses to rule out another new eatery, but he does say that it would have to be something entirely removed from the present offering:

“In two or three years’ tie, I can see what we have here extending. We’ve never been happy to just sit on our laurels, we want to grow and to keep looking for the next thing.

“We tried a thing in Portballintrae and it didn’t work out for us, but that doesn’t put me off the idea of going outside Belfast. I would certainly consider extending the Coppi brand outside the city if the right opportunity came up.”

Tony’s contemporary Italian eatery, Coppi, at St. Anne’s Square, Belfast.

 

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