Monday, March 21, 2011

Pioneers of Beers Interview Series: David Kelly, co-founder of Rí Rá Irish Pubs & Restaurants

Ale kicks it with Big Dave prior to the launch of the new Rí Rá in Vegas!
Photos by Kat Goduco and Rí Rá

One of the great success stories in the beer world, Rí Rá Irish Pubs & Restaurants co-founder David Kelly, did it in extravagant fashion when he hosted the grand opening of his 12th location, Rí Rá Las Vegas in The Shoppes at Mandalay Bay on St. Patrick’s Day. It included the unveiling of an 8-foot-tall, 500-pound statue of St. Patrick dating back to 1850, live music and a long roster of other attractions. 
While dabbing my tears, I heard it was nuts! It really sucks that I have yet to storm the bustling streets of Sin City aka Las Vegas, but at least I was there in spirit for it thanks to a great conversation I had with David prior to the event.
Undoubtedly, when it comes to authentic Irish pubs, you don’t come any more legit than Kelly and his partner, Ciaran Sheehan, who are both originally from Dublin, Ireland. When they decided to head to the U.S., Kelly initially did marketing for Guinness and Sheehan pursued a career in design, but then they developed the idea of establishing a pub and restaurant business that embodies the atmosphere of the classic Irish pubs dating back to the 19th century. 

Well they took the idea and made it a reality, opening their first Rí Rá in Charlotte, NC in 1997, complete with hundreds of pounds of materials including the wood for the bars, artwork, nostalgia and fixtures shipped directly from their native land. Since then, Rí Rá  has been saving those beer lovers longing to sip a Guinness in Ireland a few thousand bucks by making the next closest thing in now 12 American locations, including Atlantic City, Louisville, Portland, Providence, Atlanta and, now, a 7,000 square-foot pub in Vegas!
500-lb St. Patrick

Well, during Kelly’s visit to his Rí Rá in Midtown Atlanta before heading to Nevada, we had one…or two…or three pints of Guinness from the tap (of course) and he graciously fielded my questions, which he said thankfully made him think and reflect. I told him the pleasure was all mine! Plus, he was just a down-to-earth, cool dude.
Let’s relive the experience. Feel free to grab a pint at Rí Rá and join us. Enjoy!

Ale Sharpton: First of all, congrats on all of your success, David. Could you talk about the major things that standout about Rí Rá compared to other bars?
David Kelly: I think the greatest ‘tangible’ point of difference between Rí Rá and other pubs in the U.S. is the authentic pub salvage. We literally have a master carpenter in Ireland creating each Rí Rá from real old pubs that we source; often, the process creates debate internally about what are the best available pieces and pubs, and it always takes a lot of time. There are limited old pubs to be found so we can only build Rí Rá one at a time. Despite all that, I hope that our customers remember the staff interaction and the fun of Rí Rá more than the actual physical pub.

Going back to your home, how would you compare the Irish pub experience to America’s?
This is a funny one for me because my experience runs counter to perception. I love different beers, I love to try them and in my experience, the U.S. has a much more dynamic and vibrant beer market than Ireland. The range and quality of micros and crafts by region is breathtaking. So America is a better beer experience overall. Having said that, I love Guinness and to enjoy it in an Irish Pub is one of the ultimate beer experiences.

Ha! You covered all the bases with that one. With so many locations, please discuss how difficult it is to honor the varying beer laws—ABV limits, distribution, etc.?
You have no idea how surprised I was when I moved to America from Ireland with Guinness. In Ireland, we have one set of laws to govern alcohol, serving and consumption, and one code of advertising regulation.
I have relatives in America and I spent a few summers there as a kid, but it was only when I moved there to work that I really started to understand the scale of America and the different cultures and customs, not to mention laws by region and state. I used to explain it to friends at home by saying that Dublin and Milan had more in common than New York and Miami. I don’t know if this is true, but it helps people in Ireland to understand that America is not a single small county like Ireland—which has a population similar to Philadelphia—but a vast continental market. This is one of the things that make America so exciting.
I’m off the point, though. I have found U.S. laws, even though they differ by state, for the most part to be easy. They are clear and black and white. In addition to which, as a parent, I strongly support the no nonsense nature of the way U.S. law expects those licensed to serve alcohol to do so responsibly. I don’t like the gray area in Ireland where I believe alcohol laws are not enforced. Bottom line, none of the U.S. state laws governing alcohol are difficult because they are clear.

Of course, the beers and whiskeys flow, but the food presented in an “Irish Bistro” approach, is also authentic and a hit at Rí Rá as well. What is your favorite dish that you serve and what is the best beer to pair with it?
My favorite Rí Rá dish: Oysters paired with Guinness that is ideally from a bottle and not too cold. The most popular dish, though, is our Fish & Chips. It’s first-rate, but we only use fresh cod or haddock. If there’s no fresh cod or haddock available, we don’t serve Fish & Chips!

Switching gears, you worked with Guinness, which is one of the top advertisers in the world of beer. Talk about that experience along with their best and worst campaign you were a part of.
Guinness has a unique history of advertising. It is an advertiser’s dream and no wonder when you consider the depth of the brand and the iconic status it deservedly holds. The best and worst ad? I have to say my favorite add is of course, ‘Anticipation.’ I was on the Guinness brand marketing team when the ad was made. To date, it was one of my best experiences. I will never forget the first internal screening when we showed it to the rest of the Guinness marketing group; it was obvious before it went on air that we had stumbled onto something powerful for the brand. I don’t know if you are familiar with the commercial as it never screened in the U.S. due to legal reasons, but it went around the world and it had a dramatic impact on the brand.
The worst commercial ever? I was on the brand team when we created ‘The Missing Link.’ It was terrible; I doubt you’ll find it on any Guinness website. Thankfully, ‘Anticipation’ aired on time to save our jobs; it really was that bad!

Speaking of travel, let’s go global. You worked with a lot of breweries particularly with Europe prior to Rí Rá. What were your favorite European locations for indulging in ales and lagers, including the brewery and country?
Wow! The best country for a brewery, Ireland with a Guinness is no doubt for me. The next best country for a brewery? Pilsner Urquell at Pilsen (Plzeň) in the Czech Republic. I worked as brand manager on the Pilsner and used to love to visit the brewery, experiencing draught Pilsner Urquell in Pilsen. It is up there with Draught Guinness in Dublin; I can still taste it. I used to visit the brewery when Czechoslovakia was still one country; I could never understand how Slovakia would want independence considering the town of Pilsen and its unbelievable brewery would end up in the Czech Republic.
Another favorite location is Germany. The first brand I worked on was Furstenberg from Donaueschingen, Germany; in the Black Forest; what a beautiful place to visit. On my first ever business trip overseas, Guinness sent me to Germany to visit the Furstenberg brewery: the day I was there the Berlin Wall came down. We sank a few Furstenbergs that day. Man, talk about timing!

Do you have a favorite Rí Rá location? I know it's like asking who your favorite kid is, but take a shot at it!
The dynamic and local nature of the beer category is very exciting. Our goal is to offer a range of the highest quality beers, both import and true craft or micro where possible, supporting the local brewers. As such, both our draught and bottle lineup are dynamic. It is a fun aspect of the job to stay current in beer in such a changing market.
Now my favorite location? That’s very hard. Following your analogy, Charlotte will always be special as it was our first pub, but don’t tell my kids or the eldest will misinterpret and take advantage! Seriously, Rí Rá is in such cool locations, I genuinely love to visit all of the pubs. I work from home in Ireland and I still feel a sense of excitement when I prepare for my periodic trip to the US, wherever I am visiting.

Okay, David. It’s time to chill. Thanks for the time, my friend. Hopefully we will kick it in Vegas soon.
No! Thank you, Ale. I love the name, by the way! And yes, Vegas!

For more information, visit the Rí Rá website at




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