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The year of the goat

January 29th, 2018 | by LCN Editor
The year of the goat
Venue Spotlight

The Cathedral Quarter’s latest arrival adds a little more to the fun-loving, off-the-wall aura that pervades the area. But for the Downey group of bars and clubs, tourism is still a serious business…

Michele Downey sighs with frustration as she struggles to straighten a mangled ball of Christmas lights at her family’s latest acquisition, The Thirsty Goat, in Belfast’s trendy Cathedral Quarter. She persists until every knot is undone and only then does she sit down to chat.

It’s a tiny example of the air of restless energy that sits around Michele; she is confident, she has a singular focus on the task at hand and it’s easy to imagine that when she’s around, things get done.

A former lecturer in art and design at the Northern Regional College, Michele accepted voluntary redundancy in 2015 in order to dedicate more of her time to her emerging role as PR and marketing director for the family-owned Downey group of bars and clubs.

When The Thirsty Goat opened its doors in late October, it became the fourth venue in the group’s burgeoning Belfast portfolio. In 2013, brothers Seamus, John and Michele’s husband, Henry had acquired three iconic city properties from the former Botanic Inns – The Apartment, McHugh’s and the Kitchen Bar.

The Thirsty Goat represents the latest phase in the development of a business that finds its roots in the mid-90s’ acquisition by the brothers of a small pub in Maghera, followed by another in Magherafelt which they re-branded as Downey’s Bar. They still trade in the mid-Ulster village but these days, they also have a dominant presence in Derry-Londonderry where they own Sugar Nightclub and Downey’s Bar on Shipquay Street; Café Roc and Earth on the Strand Road and the city centre’s iconic Metro Bar.

The opening of The Thirsty Goat marks the Downeys’ first foray into Belfast’s bustling Cathedral Quarter and Michele concedes that acquiring property in the region isn’t easy:

“This was an opportunity that fell into our hands in quite an impromptu way and we were quick to take it,” she told LCN just before Christmas.

Downstairs in the building on Hill Street used to be home to 21Social restaurant. The new owners immediately spent £750,000 to completely re-purpose the ground floor, but the nightclub end of 21Social’s business has been retained on the upper storey and the Downeys have plans to develop that offering significantly.

“The idea for the Thirsty Goat name came after a lot of discussion,” says Michele. “I think that we were really looking for longevity. Themed bars are harder to do and their lifespans seem to be shorter, whereas bars that are more traditional, such as The Thirsty Goat, have more longstanding appeal. The name itself is just something that we felt would resonate with people, it’s catchy and the thirst element obviously fits its purpose well.”

The goat motif is evident throughout the premises, particularly in the purpose-built beer garden at the rear which, says Michele, will come into its own once the warmer weather arrives:

“Our priorities for the bar are built around premium products, good interactions and strong live entertainment,” she says. “We are using all local talent and we are pitching ourselves very strongly at the tourist market with great traditional music nights, flights of whiskey and an all-day pub food menu that’s been designed to appeal to everyone.”

The bar even has its own Thirsty Goat IPA, created for it by Tennents. It’s described as an easy-drinking golden brew at 4.2 per cent, offering spicy flavours and aromas of citrus fruit and bubblegum.

“If the bar keeps performing as it has in the weeks since opening, then we’re going to be very happy,” adds Michele.

Among the factors contributing to Michele’s confidence is the imminent arrival of around 14,000 students in the Cathedral Quarter area when the Ulster University opens its new building there in 2019.

It’s a couple of years since Michele stepped away from her career teaching art and design to concentrate on developing the family hospitality business.

That move coincided with the launch of a £750,000 refurbishment programme at The Apartment bar and restaurant in Belfast city centre and Michele revealed that later this year, a further facelift will be undertaken at the venue:

“It’s like a lot of things, you have to keep re-inventing to maintain the momentum,” she says. “Things need to be tweaked in order to keep them fresh.”

Within the Belfast element of the Downey group of venues, innovation is very much driven by a need to appeal to the growing tourist trade. Michele says that McHugh’s in Queen’s Square, which dates back to 1711, is a particular favourite with visitors:

“”The tourist trade has really catapulted Belfast forward,” remarks Michele. “We have a growing number of cruise ships coming in and we have the new facilities at the Waterfront which are going to bring in thousands of visitors this year. All of them are going to want to go to interesting places like McHugh’s. I don’t think they are really looking for modern bars, they’re looking for quirky places or places that reflect the culture and history of the place and where they can get the sort of welcome that Northern Ireland people are famous for.”

Michele is full of enthusiasm for the future of the group and is particularly excited by the prospects for its venues in Belfast where, she says, she is “constantly amazed” at the number of ongoing developments:

“Belfast just seems to keep growing,” she adds. “People are coming here all the time, they are bringing young families with them and it feels like there is a future here…I think that Belfast has never been more vibrant and energised. It’s the place to be and we are very excited about the city and the people that are coming here. Peace has been fantastic for the country, for everyone in it and for the trade and now we are able to look forward to the future.”




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