Oak Alley restaurant in Maynooth, Kildare is certainly a classy affair, taking its name from the actual plantation in New Orleans that featured in the film D’Jango Unchained. Providing customers with Southern American influenced food and a prohibition themed bar with over 60 different cocktails available, the premises first opened its doors in 2014. I spoke to the General Manager, and brother of Aniar chef JP McMahon, Martin McMahon, about how Oak Alley keeps its edge and what challenges it faces in the next few months.
Maynooth is a bustling area with over 50 eateries in the town. Located in close proximity to Dublin with reliable transport links to the capital, as well as vibrant and growing university culture and many suburban Dublin and Kildare towns close by, it is easy to see how it’s thriving.
“We rely on the education calendar,” Martin explained, saying that this was not limited to the college timetable as primary and secondary schools in the area are also bulging at the seams, as midterm breaks are often “Bananas” for the restaurant. With transport links to Dublin airport running every hour from the town, tourists have also been attracted to the area in recent years.
Despite the fact that Maynooth and Oak Alley are doing well and the area is expanding, there are some challenges facing any Maynooth business. Recent rises in Kildare County Council rates, which have on average increased by 90%, have given Martin reason for concern – “It’s a flat rate expense that we cannot control”.
Other concerns for the business includes the sourcing of staff. Martin says it is quite difficult to entice qualified staff from city centre bars and restaurants, although the incentive of finishing work at a reasonable hour and a more stable environment and an easy going atmosphere has worked to some extent.
Keeping costs down, in terms of labour and suppliers, is also another challenging area for Oak Alley and a key component of this, according to Martin, is Brexit.
I am actually quite fearful of Brexit because I see a lot of suppliers and they’re all subsidiaries of UK companies. Some of the suppliers have stopped supplying Ireland already.
Martin believes Brexit will push costs up across the board, particularly because many of their niche products are delivered from the UK. He believes this will lead to “Some casualties” in the Irish market. Martin says one way to ensure their costs are covered is to minimise their quiet periods by getting creative “With how to get customers in,” Monday to Thursday.
Oak Alley has definitely been creative in attracting customers, holding events such as Dining in the Dark where people can sample food without knowing what it is – such as squid tentacles and various pork products, craft beer tastings, whiskey and bourbon tastings and taking part in the Irish Gin & Tonic Festival.
The restaurant offers up to 25 different brands of gin at any one time in the cocktail bar, so the idea of starting a gin festival seemed an organic and logical progression for the business. The festival is a four day event from the 29th June until the 2nd July, of which Martin is a committee member, along with four local stakeholders – Oak Alley, The Avenue Café, O’Neills Steakhouse and Pub and the Glenroyal Hotel. Oak Alley will hold music events and tastings over the weekend.
Oak Alley also hosts food and wine pairing nights, where customers can score the wines made available to them with a prize of an all expenses trip for an overnight stay in a 16th century vineyard up for grabs.
In terms of keeping costs down Oak Alley is quite innovative. Currently they are supplied by Winelab, who offer wine by the barrel.
Four, five years ago everyone turned their noses up at it. Now you can get a wine a tier up for the cost of a wine below.
The excise duty on wine sold in this way is smaller, the product remains fresh for a month and it does not have to be refrigerated as it runs throughout its own cooling system. Wine stored in this way also requires less space and the kegs are easily compacted and recycled.
The menu changes three times a year and the team tries to source its products as seasonally as possible. The Sunday lunch menu, however, changes every week. Initially, when the restaurant opened, Martin states they attempted to go for “Full on authenticity” with Southern American style food, but found they had to soften the menu to suit a wider range of tastes, as they felt a niche menu like they initially offered did not translate as well in the suburbs as it would have in Dublin City Centre.
Oak Alley is most certainly creative in its approach to both attracting customers and innovative ways to keep costs down. In an ever-expanding geographical area, with a large population, it is clearly important to stand out and keep an eye on cost issues in the future and it seems that Martin and his team have maintained this outlook from the onset, clearly contributing to the business being the success that it is.
For more information on Oak Alley, visit www.oakalley.ie.