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New era beckons at iconic Ballymena venues

March 29th, 2017 | by LCN Editor
New era beckons at iconic Ballymena venues
Venue Spotlight

Russell Campbell has been talking to Eugene and Carole McKenna about their ambitious plans for re-development at two of Ballymena’s most recognisable venues…

The Grouse in Ballymena recently re-opened the doors following the first phase of a multi-million pound expansion and refurbishment scheme that will see the iconic bar – and its sister venue, The Countryman – entirely transformed over the next two to three years.

Both venues are bar/restaurants and they’ve long been established as institutions in the mid-Antrim market town with each serving the needs of a distinctly separate clientele.

The Countryman, which sits in a predominately residential location on the periphery of the town, appeals to a slightly older and more family-orientated demographic in the restaurant, although younger customers do use the venue’s sports bar and nightclub.

The Grouse, which is located on a busy junction between Ballymena’s two shopping centres, caters to the needs of an edgier and more contemporary crowd.

Those dynamics aren’t set to change as a result of the current investment – worth around £2.6m in total. Instead, owners Eugene and Carole McKenna are aiming to enhance the existing profile at each of the locations.

“When we were redesigning The Grouse, we were aiming to appeal to as wide an audience as possible,” Eugene told LCN this month. “Because of the modern approach that we’ve adopted here in recent years, we’ve seen a significant increase in younger customers and we wanted to cater for their needs. But we also wanted to attract back our own generation who were regulars at The Grouse back in the day.”

“We’ve been able to do that and many people have thanked us personally for it,” added Carole.

Certainly, the visual impact of the interior and exterior renovations at The Grouse is immediate:

“We wanted to retain the traditional, warm feel that The Grouse has always been known for, so Eugene and I agreed that a  predominantly Edwardian style would suit best as we believe that it never really goes out of fashion,” explained Carole. “We wanted to ensure that no matter where you sit when you’re here, you’ll see something different and interesting.”

Many previously inaccessible areas within the premises have been opened up and a new seven-metre hardwood bar has been added in the middle of what had been the main restaurant area.

Space at the top end of the premises – which was known as The Wee Grouse in the 80’s – was being used as storage. That has now been incorporated into the wider venue and considerable amounts of reclaimed wood have been used to create a comfortable, lived-in ambience throughout.

The Grouse has been a popular choice for food and live entertainment in Ballymena for many years. Originally opened by the late John and Nellie McKenna as a barber’s shop and hairdressers, the premises included an off-licence from 1960 onwards.

The couple’s son, Eugene, subsequently opened The Wee Grouse in 1982 and then extended the building to create the modern Grouse Inn in 1986.

Eugene has become a familiar face to many in the licensed trade around Northern Ireland over the years. In 1995, he bought The Countryman on the Grove Road and for a time in the 90s, he was licensee of a number of other bars including O’Connell’s in Portglenone and The Tourist Inn, Carrickfergus.

His venues in Ballymena have been the subject of a number of renovations and refurbishments over the years, but the current programme of investment is the most ambitious by far.

Phase two of the scheme, which should get underway before the end of this year, will see further enhancements to The Grouse. The nightclub and function area upstairs is to be extended – doubling capacity there to 500 – and a rooftop-style bar and beer garden linked to the nightclub is to be created at the back of the premises which will further increase capacity by around 100.

The third phase of the redevelopment involves The Countryman. It currently sits on a very open and accessible site on the town’s northern outskirts and that will suit Eugene and Carole’s plans for a complete redevelopment of the venue next year.

Among the new innovations recently introduced at The Grouse is a specialist gin service. General manager, Mark McIlrath, who devised the new menu earlier this year, says that it’s really taken off:

“We used to stock a total of three gins but currently we have 85 different varieties available,” said Mark. “They look amazing and customers have really warmed to the idea. We decided to create a gin bar during the renovations as gin is so versatile and I knew there was a lot we could do with it.”

Mark is also working on a new whiskey menu, initially offering around 50 different varieties to customers.

Food has long been a major element of the offering at The Grouse and Bobby Cahoon, who started working in the venue at the age of 15, arrived back as head chef there in September. Bobby has since revamped the menus in a bid to drive custom:

“We still do some items on the menus which people recognise, but our focus is on ensuring deeper flavours, better attention to detail with more elements incorporated in each dish as well as an interesting presentation,” said Bobby. “The menus have a modern European, Asian and French influence and have gone down extremely well with the customers.”

And he added: “It’s been incredible since the renovation. Before, we were averaging around 100 main courses for lunch on a Saturday or Sunday, but since we changed things, we’re now serving a minimum of 100 mains for lunch on week days and as many as 400 lunch and evening mains every Friday, Saturday and Sunday.”

In fact, Mark McIlrath estimated that since the renovations at The Grouse, custom generally has increased ten-fold.




Veteran publican has ambition to grow

Eugene McKenna wants to lure back to Ballymena those customers that are currently venturing out of the town in search of a good experience.

And speaking to LCN this month, the veteran publican said that when it came to expansion, he still had “lots of ambition”:

“We want to expand and improve because we feel we can be the best at what we do in the area,” he added. “We have a strong team with an ambitious and dedicated general manager who knows what the younger generation want”.

“Since the renovation, we’ve already increased our workforce at The Grouse by 30 per cent and this will have risen significantly by the time current renovations at this venue and The Countryman have been completed.

“My experience is that you have to continually invest,” he added. “If you don’t invest, then you don’t attract people. Look at William Street in Ballymena. There used to be 15 or 20 bars on that street, but today, 90 per cent of them are closed, mainly due to a lack of investment. The hotels in Ballymena on the other hand have been investing and, I think, to some extent it has had an impact on the bar trade within the town centre.

“The message has to be, an attractive and comfortable venue with attentive staff and a strong customer focus.”

Eugene also paid tribute to his wife, Carole, who, he said, had been responsible for designing and overseeing the current redevelopment programme for their venues: “She’s been the driving force behind everything,” he said.

He also thanks architect, Murry Bell and contractor, Damien Mullan from Velton Ltd.

“We are proud of what has been achieved at The Grouse so far, but it would not have been possible without our architect, Murray Bell, and contractor, Damien Mullan and his team from Velton Ltd.


Pictured here is licensee, Eugene McKenna (right) and his wife Carole with Damian Mullan, whose firm, Velton Ltd., has the contract for the refurbishment programme at The Grouse and The Countryman.


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