Mixing Business with Family – Brothers Marc & Conor Bereen of Coppinger Row
Located between two of Dublin city’s main arteries, Grafton Street and South William Street, the shady, cobbled street of Coppinger Row has all the fixings to take the crown of the city’s coolest street. Located in the vibrant creative quarter, in a short few paces you cross the facades of shabby chic clothing store All Saints, the buzzy Pygmalion, and the laneway’s most recognisable constituent, a restaurant of the same name, Coppinger Row.
Once inside the door Coppinger Row’s hipster status is confirmed. At 12 noon mid week the edgy, young front of house staff are energetically putting the final touches on special blackboards, adjusting the volume of the upbeat music, and taking phone calls for bookings, and the playful banter in the open kitchen can be seen and heard.
Coppinger Row has built and maintained a reputation since opening in 2005 as a hotspot for the cool kids, but yet as I wait at the bar to meet the owners, brothers Marc and Conor Bereen, the very first customers through the door for lunch service that day are an elderly couple visiting from abroad. “You’re back!” a waitress says, greeting them as if they were regulars, “Yes, for the mussels,” the man chirps.
The Bereen brothers arrive a few minutes apart, their attention often torn different directions with a nearby business South William Bar and new restaurant on the Grand Canal docks Charlotte Quay. Both ooze charm and confidence but it’s clear to see the divide in personalities.
Bearded, broad, and dressed smartly in a dark doubled breasted jacket, Marc naturally adopts the more vocal elder brother role. While clean-shaven Conor, dressed in jeans, black tee and a hoody, plays the creative, slightly mischievous, younger brother with ease.
Speaking with Conor before Marc arrives he openly, and adoringly, tells me about his four year old son Leon. Whilst Conor is no longer in a relationship with Leon’s mum, they are both delighted to have such a wonderful little person in both their lives. “We feel like I won the kiddie lottery.”
After Leon and his mother moved to Brazil, where she is from, three years ago Conor has travelled backwards and forwards to see Leon, and committed last to year to spending 7 months in Brazil. Leon and his mother’s move back to Ireland this January was the ultimate Christmas gift.
On how he managed to run three businesses Conor says with a cheeky smile: “I have a very, very, very forgiving brother.”
At that very moment Marc himself comes to join us at the cosy corner table, and catching the end of our conversation goes on to explain how the roles they each play in the business allows for such diversions: “Conor would be more into the design and that sort of thing, and I would be involved in front of house, and the general operations, the ‘boring stuff’, staffing. I do the day to day. That’s the divide.”
Conor’s design pedigree comes after studying a fine art degree in London. Marc on the other hand, unsure of what career to follow, took inspiration from their actress mother, Helen, and studied acting.
Although he had little interest in threading the boards following his graduation, he soon found a stage he was comfortable with when like many struggling actors he took up a job as a waiter. “I kind of knew at that stage that I was on my stage as such, because in a restaurant you are very much performing. You have to put a smile on because you are here to entertain the customers.”
“The minute I started to work in a restaurant I knew I wanted to open my own restaurant,” Marc admits. “It was always a romantic idea of my dad’s and my grandfather’s, my dad was a psychiatrist, to open a restaurant someday.”
“It was always in our blood to entertain people – we were running around making Gin & Tonics for our parents and their friends from the age of five, dolled up in the same coloured shirts doing the bar at parties.”
He involved his younger brother in his ambitions, and Conor brought with him his experience of London’s trendsetting bar scene: “I knew that that bar market was changing in London, it was very much Shoreditch, Hoxton, the beatnik bars, the mismatched, the shabby chic, the very start of that industrial design vibe, and we said if it’s happening in London it’s going to happen in Dublin too.”
They kicked off their entrepreneurial spree in 2005 opening The South William Bar, on the street of the same name, which Marc says “was the first of those beatnik, mismatched sort of bars in Dublin. Before the hipster trend really blossomed.”
Though owning a bar was never the end goal, with a love for food instilled in them by their mother the brothers snapped up the opportunity to take on Coppinger Row when it was offered to them by the same landlord as the bar they operated had around the corner.
Despite the street acting as nothing more than a shortcut at the time, because of the shape, capacity, and the proximity of the building to their other business the pair had high hopes for the underdeveloped plot.
That the had a good reputation with the landlord too was an essential factor. They repeatedly reference just how difficult it is to get in a foot in the door as an independent restaurateur.
“Normally in this situation the property will be offered before it hits the market to one of the main publicans. They get the wink, and the nudge, and if they want the property they get it. If they don’t it’s thrown out to the masses.”
“It’s hard for us,” says Marc, “but for the new, new people it is impossible to get into this area.”
“It was also slap bang in the middle of the recession so that’s why none of the big boys were really taking on more, so we had the opportunity to do it. Whereas now this property wouldn’t even be offered to someone like us,” he explains.
“That’s why we expanded in the market down in Charlotte Quay, we love the area too, but it would be next to impossible to find something around here that size, unless we partnered up with someone else.”
At Coppinger Row, Conor worked with worked with a Dublin based French Moroccan Architect Maxiam Laroussi of MML architects to design a space inspired by their travels in London and Paris, “with a hint of New York”. “I think essentially our goal was that it has to be timeless, it has to feel like a place that doesn’t age,” says Conor.
“One of our biggest compliments when we first opened was ‘god, it feels like it’s been here forever. Not that it feels tatty, but it fits its skin,” Marc adds.
Conor says when designing Charlotte Quay he strove to define and capture the essence of Coppinger Row, “the familial comforting, timelessness” that evidently makes it as popular with ‘hipsters’ as it does elderly couples.
At Charlotte Quay, instead of replicating Coppinger Row’s winning forumla in every respect Marc says they have created something “slightly slicker”.
“We kind of wanted to evolve, especially with the flavours, if you look at the fashion of food the more North African Middle Eastern flavours have become very popular in London and New York. It’s food that we really love.”
Head chef at Charlotte Quay Killian Durkin grabbed the brief and ran with, creating menu that the boys say they are very proud of.
“I do feel the menu is evolving, I think we need to mix in a bit of what we have here at Coppinger Row,” Marc says on how they are still adapting to find that sweet spot. “You have to respond and change to what the market wants,” Conor emphasises.
Marc explains the team sat down over Christmas to “chat about what has been good and what hasn’t.”
“We’ve been really going for the business end down there, but perhaps we haven’t been entertaining the locals quite as much; the neighbours who just want a quick bite to eat on a Tuesday, it doesn’t have to be an occasion.”
“The beauty of Coppinger Row is people come down, they dress up one night, they don’t dress up the next night. They come for lunch three times a week, and dinner twice a week. It’s really an extension of their house. This is what I would like Charlotte Quay to evolve into, but these things take time.”
Despite being on the “wrong side of the water”, in its first couple of months Charlotte Quay has disproved the people and media that said that this location was “doomed” after several other restaurants failed in the long term in the same spot.“People say Ocean Bar was a failure, but it was actually hugely successful, it did work it was here for 12 years!” Conor says. The business faltered only, Marc intervenes, when a change of management didn’t invest in the premises, neglecting a changing food scene.
For the next holders of the premises, Mourne Seafood, part of an already successful chain of restaurants, Marc says the downfall was that they were too far away from the hub of the business in Northern Ireland and struggled to manage it from afar – something owners Bob and Andy openly admitted when they went to them for advice.
The Bereen’s considered plans for huge development on this side of the water when deciding to take on the property, and invested in the long-term potential.
“We had to invest now, we couldn’t wait for six months’ time. It may not be as busy in the next twelve months, but there is a future here.”
Marc notes successful restaurants in Dublin like Chapter One, Bastible, and Forest Avenue that too are a bit off the beaten track. “We are not the same as we were ten years ago when we won’t travel around the corner.”
For 2017, while their entrepreneurial antennae will remain tuned in Marc says they will work on putting a good marketing plan together for Charlotte Quay for the summer to build on the restaurants initial success.
On his personal ambitions, Conor says opening the restaurant made 2016 a tough slog, so he hopes 2017 will offer him some time to work on his paintings. “For me it’s hard to get that life work balance,” he says. “You haven’t worked in two months!” elder brother Marc quips, only half joking. “He doesn’t consider painting work you see,” Conor rebuts.
Of course, Conor’s son Leon will factor hugely in his plans for 2017 too, and he is audibly excited for one about the prospect of buying him his first ever school uniform.
Happily loved up with a “beautiful girlfriend”, Marc says these businesses are his babies for now, and I expect that we will see some new brothers and sisters being welcomed into this growing restaurant family the not too distant future.
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after completing a law degree, she went on to do a Masters in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.