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A slow and steady rise

January 25th, 2017 | by LCN Editor
A slow and steady rise
Venue Spotlight
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Patrick Magee had little experience of the hospitality trade when he opened Havana in Belfast city centre in 2013. Last year, however, he and business partner, Patrick Magowan, enjoyed their most successful trading period to date and opened the doors on a brand new extension to the business…

Patrick Magee concedes that Havana – the restaurant he co-owns near Bank Square in Belfast – has been something of a “slow-burner” since he and business partner, Patrick Magowan, opened its doors in 2013.

Nonetheless, trade has been steadily increasing at the venue and when it secured a top 10 local slot on Trip Advisor at the start of 2016, Patrick says business just “went through the roof”.

He ascribes much of that success to the efforts of head chef, Aidan Law, who made a series of innovative adjustments to the approach when he arrived in the business in November, 2015.

Now, the menu incorporates a broad range of local dishes with a healthy dash of Asian fusion. A balanced lunch menu gives way to a more extensive offering in the evenings, and although it isn’t fine dining, says Patrick, “it’s on a par with some of the best in town”.

The building used to be home to a café called Jennifer’s, but when its new owners took it on three years ago, they invested around £80,000 to transform the interior and upgrade facilities in the kitchen.

Despite the name, however, the restaurant has no Cuban connections:

“We had to come up with a quirky name when we took the place on”, recalls Patrick. “I had travelled to Havana in the past and we just thought that in this busy, central area of Belfast, it would add something different, so we ran with the image.”

Patrick owns another business – PM Lighting in Belfast – and Patrick Magowan is the founder of creative agency, Off The Wall. Despite their experience, however, Patrick Magee admits that they struggled a little when the doors were first opened:

“We threw ourselves in at the deep end, we didn’t realise what was required to run a fully licensed restaurant and it was a steep learning curve for us at the start,” he says. “We found out quickly that this isn’t as easy as it looks.

“That said, we quickly got the hang of it. It took about a year, I think, to get settled and so forth, so that took us into 2014. We just continued to work at the offering after that and we reaped the benefits in 2016.”

Part of the problem for the partners was the restaurant’s location at the rear of Bank Square. During the day, they benefit from passing trade, but in the evenings, it becomes very much a destination dining venue. So reputation is critical and much effort has been expended ensuring that the correct staff are recruited and retained at Havana.

“We’re very blessed in that we’ve been able to bring in some of the best front-of-house staff that I’ve come across anywhere in Belfast,” says Patrick. “You only have to look at our Trip Advisor reviews to see what people are saying about them and our food. We’ve been in a top 10 position throughout all of 2016.

“Our manager, Michelle McCool, took over front-of-house operations three months ago. She previously worked for the Diamond pub chain for many years, so she brings that additional experience and professionalism to our company.”

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A signal of the success that Havana is enjoying came at the start of December when the doors opened on a new offering next door.

The Sagart is a wine and cocktail bar that also serves tapas food. During the day, it offers tea, coffees and scones but in the evenings, it becomes a much more edgy, destination venue with a developing reputation for good gin and cocktails, under the practised eye of resident mixologist, Stuart Lockhart, formerly of the Hastings hotel group.

“It’s very much an extension to what we have with Havana. It’s not a big venue, we could squeeze in about 30 people, but it’s very quirky and tastefully decorated” explains Patrick. “We really just felt that the area could benefit from a venue like this, somewhere for people to go and enjoy a couple of cocktails, a glass of wine or a light lunch.

“And it works well for Havana too. People who enjoy a meal in here are able to go next door and enjoy a couple of cocktails, or they can go in there and relax while they wait for their table to be ready in here. It’s been great for us.”

The venue is located next door to St. Mary’s Church and the name, Sagart, is Irish for ‘priest’.

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Going forward, Patrick says that they are focused on maintaining their exemplary performance on Trip Advisor:

“It’s not all about that, but Trip Advisor is a great indicator of how we’re doing as a business,” says Patrick. “We want to create more awareness about ourselves and spread the word about our venue to a wider audience. We’re very busy, lots of local people know we’re here now, but lots of other don’t.

“Also, Belfast is becoming a great city for conferences and that’s something we want to tap into and build our business in the slacker Monday to Wednesday period.”

Patrick says that repeating the success that the restaurant enjoyed in 2016 will be a priority during this new year and in the longer term, he is focused on staying among the city’s most popular venues:

“We want to be well established, but we know that we still have to drive the business. This is a destination restaurant so we just can’t take the foot off the pedal at all,” he adds.

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Patrick (centre) is pictured in Havana with Stuart Lockhart (left) and head chef, Aidan Law.

 

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One Comment

  1. Pubman says:

    Love this place so much. Robert, front of house, is a legend.

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