It’s early morning and I’m sitting in Coppi restaurant in St Anne’s Square with two of the three owners of Thornyhill Restaurant Group – Tony O’Neill and Sam Spain. The group, which is also owned by Michael O’Connor, includes three other restaurants – Il Pirata, the Barking Dog and Happy Angel. Whilst Spain and O’Connor had already opened the Barking Dog, when Il Pirata first opened its doors in December 2011, it was a bold move – everything about it went against the grain of new openings here.
There was a heavy focus on social media, there was no website, no phone number to call even for the first while and definitely no reservations (though this has now changed). It consisted of a small, non-descript sign out front of a building that used to house a KFC and whose food had a heavy focus on small plates.
It was a statement from O’Neill and Spain that their group had arrived and would shake up the status quo that had Belfast fast becoming another city of beige restaurants, the majority acting and serving the same way.
The restaurant we’re sitting in – Coppi – has a menu that includes a dozen Venetian style cichetti alongside staple Italian classics and it’s boosted by an atmosphere that’s modern, young, dark but most of all makes you feel at home.
We’re meeting to discuss the interview that helped launch Forked – with Michael Deane and Paul Rankin talking candidly about the struggles facing today’s restaurateurs. Spain and O’Neill believe it to have been an overly negative discussion and point to the up-and-coming restaurants like Ox and Bubbacue, as well as their own group of restaurants who are all – in their own ways – leading a new charge in the city.
“I read the interview with Deane and Rankin and as good and as honest as it was, I thought it was negative about our industry,” said Sam Spain.
“I think the one thing I’ve noticed in the last 18 months is that there’s a passing of the guard or whatever you want to call it.
“Paul Rankin set the benchmark, what he did here with Roscoff – it was about the food, it was about having a good time, he nailed it and I think if he did something tomorrow he’d nail it too. He had some of the best – the Samanthas, Pamelas, Belindas… he had this real strong front of house that were shit hot and slick.
“In the past ten years, Andy Rea has done more to make that step away from that white linen table cloth mentality – a great bit of fish and a garnish for £12. Mourne Seafood is a great restaurant. And the past few years before it closed I thought Cayenne was doing the best food in this town.
“Paul Rankin made a statement that seven or eight years ago that Belfast was one of the best places in Europe to eat, I think he revisited that in the interview he did with Forked, comparing it to Leeds, Manchester and Nottingham and quite true at the time. I think it’s better than it ever has been and I think that people like Andy Rea have helped to bring a choice to town.
“The likes of Bubbacue too, I think it’s a great concept and they’re quietly going about it. Who else has the balls to just close the restaurant when they run out of food?
“In a couple of years there’ll be guys coming up behind us making us look old hat and chatting with you guys at Forked. A few years ago I’d have just fucked off to New York or wherever but I want Belfast to be better.”
That ‘changing of the guard’ has also meant a sweeping change in the attitude of staff. Two years ago the pair had to “scratch around” to try and get chefs and front of house staff, now things have changed.
“The difference now is that people are coming to us looking for work,” said Sam.
“We have a lot of Deane’s staff coming to us for jobs but we get something different out of them. It’s like the football close season where it hasn’t worked out because ‘yer man’ didn’t get a starting position and they come here and they’re playing out of their skin and they’re enjoying it and they have a smile on their face. It’s just a difference of environment.”
It’s the pair’s belief that restaurants shouldn’t be intimidating, that whether you’re a “millionaire eating a Steak Florentine” [a £55 steak dinner for two on Coppi’s menu] or someone just having a glass of wine and a few cichetti for less than a tenner, you should be made to feel comfortable.
“Food is about enjoyment, people sit round and it’s very rare that there’s a family meal. It’s much more a European thing.”
Spain’s business partner, Tony O’Neill, agrees, believing that it’s different for their restaurants than some of the higher end establishments.
“When you get to that high-end level of cooking, because the room is stuffy and the service is stuffy and the food is quite complex, you find yourself dissecting everything a lot more. When you come to a place like Coppi you don’t feel like you have to dissect every single thing that’s put in front of you.
“We don’t want it to be class defining, we want whoever to come in here and enjoy whatever they want. We’ve had guys standing at the window eating a Florentine.”
Spain and O’Neill first worked together under Michael Deane’s Asian restaurant. The pair talked about going in to business together in the early noughties, O’Neill, however, decided to take a position with Bill Wolsey as Executive Chef for Beannchor.
“Myself and Sam talked about doing this before I started with Bill. The burger bar opened around that time but I think I made the right decision going to work for Bill because it took me out of thinking like a chef and being so blinkered.
“I was a chef and it was ‘this is the way it has to be’, but you couldn’t buy the experience I got with Bill. He taught me the whole picture of the hospitality industry. Sam already had it because he wasn’t a chef. That’s the thing, you can be a good chef but leave your ego behind. We’re only cooking food that people like and enjoy. Add in an ambience and good, friendly staff and you’ve got a recipe that works, rather than people running around with egos and bad mouthing other chefs.”
The Thornyhill Group has been designed as just the opposite. No egos, and certainly no restaurants with their names above the door. For O’Neill and Spain it’s impossible to not be linked with the Barking Dog or Il Pirata but they want the restaurants to have their own personalities and be businesses that don’t rely on any one person.
“It’s the staff who make our restaurants and we try our best to give them ownership and give them a platform to be proud of and listen to them. We set something up and give it the best legs to run and we let the guys run with it so you can see this place [Coppi] has hit that groove, it took Il Pirata six or seven weeks to do the same.
“Me personally, and Tony as well, we look at the social side of restaurants, it’s not about the food, it’s not about the service, it’s about a whole load of things. We could have put ten different types of food in here… when Il Pirata opened there were people who hated it so we thought we could do a restaurant that people who hated Il Pirata would like and not necessarily know the connection.
“What we’re trying to do is maximise everything we do and we hope that when people mention us they do so with a smile on their lips and not ‘I went there at the start’. The biggest thing for me was the ‘I went there when it was good’ mentality, we have to follow a positive with a negative here – it’s always ‘I liked it, but…’. It’s typical Northern Irish.”
The pair are also against the “plague of the industry”, where chefs stand growling at the pass and floor staff have to take a deep breath before going to ask a question.
“In my head if someone comes in and asks for the tagliatelle dish with prawns instead, it shouldn’t be a problem as long as there’s prawns in the kitchen, keeping the customer happy is vital,” says Tony.
“Whether you’re a kitchen porter or whatever, they’re here to do the same job and we’re one big family and we don’t tolerate any of that at all. It makes the floor staff happier because they’re not intimidated.
“I think the biggest comment we get about our restaurants is the staff. One of the biggest things is not putting them in a stiff uniform, let them wear something they’re comfortable in and that gives them a confidence.
“All our staff can be honest with us and that’s good. They’ll tell you straight up, they don’t feel intimidated when we walk in and that’s a very important thing for us. If we have to say something it’s said but I could never, ever walk in to any of the kitchens and bollock anyone. If I see something whenever I get a quiet minute with the head chef I’ll talk it through with them.”
And, he admits, it’s simply not good enough for restaurants to moan that there’s not enough decent staff out there.
“You have to invest in people. If you can’t find a good enough chef, you put enough systems in place in the kitchen to bring a pot washer on.
“We’re making 175 kilos of pasta every week between the two restaurants [Il Pirata and Coppi]. It’s not a chef who makes it, the chef only touches it when he’s doing something a little more refined.
“That’s a guy who used to wash the dishes. If you invest your time in people you’ll find them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we have a cupboard out the back full of staff, it is hard and it’s not easy but you keep working at it. It’s important to galvanise the team and make them feel part of it and one thing we do is the head chefs and managers.”
That focus on staff training also runs to a long-term plan for them, whether that’s with the Thornyhill Group or not. Like Wolsey’s empire, the pair sit down and openly show the income and expenditure on a weekly basis.
“I feel it’s important to show them how to run a business,” said Tony. “There’s no point being the best chef in the world and going off and all of a sudden you’re no good to yourself or an employer. So if they do want to go somewhere else or open up their own business then we’ve done as much as we can and we’ll help and support them in any way we can.”
Read part two of the interview where the pair discuss Ox, Michelin and the net curtain brigade among others.