The man behind Whelan’s pubs…and a few more besides
Behind the bar since 14, he had it all in his 20s and lost it. Now he’s making up for that.
Publican Austin Whelan has been in the pubs business for 25 years or more. In his 20s he made his fortune and was riding high but lost it all. Now he’s back, running a dozen or so pubs in and around London. Not bad when you consider he’s not yet 40.
“I started off as a lounge boy and went behind the bar full-time from the age of 14. I have only ever wanted to work in the pubs and bar trade,” says Austin who is actually known, to many in the trade, as ‘John’ and who hails from Doolin in Co Clare.
“I came to England when I was 16, I got the boat, my mother was here and she had a few pubs and I worked for her. One of them was The Swan on Caledonian Road, so I worked there for two or three years until she sold it.
“Then I worked at The Steam Ship in East India Dock, I got my first tenancy, and from that went to a Young’s Pub in Thornton Heath when I was 21,” he recalls.
He went from strength to strength, increasing the turnover and the barrels at every stage along the way. He had it made.
“And then I lost everything, all my own fault, down to drinking and gambling and just too much messing. I went crazy.
“I took a couple of years out, went to Ireland, I was helped by my parents who were very good. I needed time to sort out what I was going to do and how I was going to do it.”
“I f***ed up, made wrong decisions, wrong judgements, I didn’t have any respect for myself so I didn’t have any for other people either. “Then one New Year’s Eve I had a moment of clarity at 3.00 am, realised the position I was in, that I had put myself there and no-one else and that it had to change so I rang my dad and asked him to collect me.
“Four months after that I got a little hole in Stockwell, The Clarence, full of drugs and people you didn’t want and turned it around and took its business up from £1,000 a week to £6,000 a week. The boss of the company that owned it took a chance on me,” says Austin.
That led to a phone call about taking on the Bedford Tavern in Croydon. It would have needed £35,000 spent on it straight away and he didn’t have any money but he thought he’d have another look.
“My now wife was behind the bar and I thought ‘F**k it’, if the pub doesn’t work then I might get something else out of it. And here we are four kids later and married. That was when I turned my life around, when I met her, Gemma, my wife, my best friend and my business partner.”
Gemma and their children stay in Doolin – “for a better way of life” and where he also has a pub – and Austin joins them at weekends. In his spare time he breeds champion greyhounds which he races professionally in big stakes competitions in Australia.
In the twelve and a half years since he “took another look at” the Bedford he acquired the Six Bells in West Drayton, the Black Bull in Ruislip, the Purley Arms on Brighton Road, The Elm Tree in Beckenham, Foundry in Chichester, Whelan’s in Cricklewood and Whelan’s in Uxbridge.
Even as we go to press he has other pubs opening, or re-launching, with more planned for the New Year in Central London, Manchester, and the Home Counties. This week, as it happens, it’s a pub, with no Irish identity, per se, in Leatherhead on which he has just spent £600,000 ahead of its re-launch a gastro-pub with the emphasis on fine food.
“The problem with food though is the chefs. Every chef seems to have an issue, alcohol or smoking or whatever and chefs are the business, my one problem is getting chefs. There isn’t the pipeline of kitchen talent that there used to be, a lot of the best from Ireland have gone to Canada, but we’ll pull it off.”
And then there’ll be Whelan’s in Kingston from early next year. And possibly something in Dubai…and/or maybe Manchester, “But aside from all those other pubs I really want to roll out Whelan’s as a brand, especially with music,” he says.
“I’ve always admired The Claddagh Ring in Hendon, that is poetry in motion, and that’s the road I’d like to go down,” he says.
“I’m very conscious of having thrown everything away when I was younger and having been given a second chance and turned my life around- and I am dead serious about wanting to make a success of this, something a cut above the rest and that has mine, or our, stamp on it. It’s hard work but I’m a lucky man.”
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