From left: Feargal O'Donnell of The Fatted Calf in Athlone and Peter Scully of Peadar's Bar in Moate and Gertie Browne's in Athlone.

Air of cautious optimism in local hospitality sector

A local restaurant owner has predicted that it will take “at least another year” before the hospitality sector returns to normal after the lifting of most Covid restrictions last weekend.

Feargal O’Donnell, who owns the award-winning Athlone restaurant ‘The Fatted Calf’, said while he is obviously delighted to be able to return to full opening hours he is not getting “too excited” about the impact that the lifting of restrictions will have on his business.

“I think the great leveller for a lot of hospitality businesses will be how warehouse debt is dealt with, and what approach is going to be taken by the banks, by landlords, by revenue, and to be honest it is very hard to see how many businesses will survive,” he said.

Feargal acknowledges that staffing is “a huge issue” and a lot of highly-skilled people have left the hospitality sector, so he counts himself lucky to have been able to retain all but two of his own staff throughout all the Covid lockdowns.

Describing himself as being “quite pragmatic” he feels it will be “at least another year” before the full impact of Covid on the hospitality sector becomes apparent and before things return to normal.

“I didn’t see any huge outpouring of people flocking back to pubs and restaurants locally over the weekend,” he said, adding that he thinks a lot of people are still being “quite cautious” and will take time to re-adjust to socialising again.

While there has been “a definite uptake in bookings” at his restaurant for the next couple of weekends, Feargal O’Donnell expressed the hope that the pandemic will give people “a greater appreciation” of the many hidden costs associated with running a restaurant.

“There is a long road ahead for everyone working in the hospitality sector,“ he said, “and I would be cautiously optimistic.”

Meanwhile, Peter Scully from Peadar’s Bar in Moate said it was “simply wonderful” to see so many regular customers return to his licensed premises over the weekend.

“We had some older customers here on Saturday night who haven’t been out in two years and there was a great buzz around,” he said, adding that it was great to see "both older and younger customers out and about enjoying themselves.”

Peter admitted that it was “mayhem” trying to get everything organised for a full re-opening schedule with just 24-hours notice. “I honestly thought we wouldn’t go back to full-reopening until January 31, so a lot of my staff had the weekend booked off in anticipation of going back to full-time working, and it was chaotic trying to get staff and supplies and everything else ready,” he said.

Having also taken over the operation of Gertie Brownes in Athlone recently, Peter Scully said it it “almost impossible” to get staff at the moment, given that so many people left the hospitality sector during Covid.

“There was no job security so we couldn’t hold onto staff who had mortgages and bills to pay, and staffing is now a huge issue.”

He said it is now “full steam ahead” for Peadar’s Bar in Moate and Gertie Brownes in Athlone, and he is looking forward to the tourist season kicking off over the coming months.

“There will be challenges ahead, but we are just delighted to be able to fully re-open again after such a prolonged lockdown,” said Peter Scully.