Interview with Ruairi Curtin of the Bua Bar Group, New York City

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From just a solo bar with only 5 employees to today’s Bua Bar Group, employing over 100 employees, Ruairi Curtin appears overly humble about his success in the ultra competitive New York City bar scene.

When I first met Ruairi Curtin, he had just opened his first bar Bua with a few college buddies. None of them are locals, or even Americans – they are a group of young guys from Ireland who moved to New York after graduating from college. Ruairi was working at an Irish trade organization that supported his work visa while managing Bua, which turned out to be a huge success. Bua is one of those low-key, rustic and unpretentious bars that attracted not only a cool downtown crowd but also chefs and people in the food and beverage industry.

Every time when I asked Ruairi about his secret to success, one of the things he always mentioned was that he is lucky to have such a great staff. But I think luck is only a portion of it because in order to have great staff, you must know how to manage people well. So obviously Ruairi and his partners are doing something right.

In 2012, The Bua Bar Group continues its expansion and opened its 5th gastropub, The Penrose in the Upper East Side. It is said that The Penrose has revitalized the Upper East Side bar scene. To learn more about it, I finally caught up with Ruairi from his busy schedule to talk about The Penrose, his career and his dreams:
EE: New York City is a competitive place for the food and beverage industry with an average failure rate of 60% within the first 3 years. The Penrose is the 5th bar/restaurant you and your partners opened, I am very curious to know, what is the secret to your success?

RUAIRI CURTIN: We have been lucky with our success here in New York. There are many factors that have helped us on our journey. The truth is that every single detail is critical in making our businesses successful. It’s like baking a cake… if you forget one ingredient the cake falls flat. It’s the same with bars and restaurants. The staff, the food, the drinks, the atmosphere, the music, the design… everything matters. If one element is not up to standard – the rest of the details don’t matter. That said – I think the most critical of the details is staff. We have been fortunate to have found some incredible people… from managers to pot washers. Each one of them have imperative roles in keeping the wheels turning. Without any one of them – we wouldn’t be in business.

EE: What has been the biggest challenge in your career so far?

RUAIRI CURTIN: Every day is a challenge in the bar and restaurant business, but by far the most challenging aspect for us so far is managing growth. When we opened our first location in the East Village we had four or five employees. Today we have over a hundred. As we open new locations we become more ambitious and take on more risk. It also means becoming more responsible for more people. It can be a little scary at times, like we are in too deep… but being terrified of the unknown, and figuring things out and implementing new systems that work is very rewarding. We’ve also been lucky enough to hire some very smart and talented people along the way that have helped enormously with our transition. They help us keep learning. Every day we learn something new. Every day is a struggle…but without the struggle the rewards would never taste as sweet.

The original space of The Penrose

The original space of The Penrose

EE: Why name it The Penrose? What is the concept behind The Penrose?

RUAIRI CURTIN: Outside our door is a construction project of epic proportions – the construction of the Second Avenue Subway line. The Penrose is named after “Penrose Wharf” – the location where the train station was built in the late 1800’s in my hometown of Cork in Ireland. We figured that instead of ignoring the white elephant outside our door we would acknowledge it, pay it some homage, and hope it would bring us some good fortune. The concept behind the bar was quite simple – to create a great watering hole in the Upper East Side, somewhere for locals to hang their hat and feel at home. Good beers and cocktails, excellent bar food, and a warm welcoming environment. The design of the space drew lots of inspiration from old railway stations, and pioneering railroad developers of times gone by.

The Penrose

The Penrose

EE: Some says the Penrose has revitalized the Upper East Side bar scene, what do you think of that statement

RUAIRI CURTIN: The Upper East Side is a great neighborhood. We choose the location because we felt that the area was in need of something fresh. There are plenty of great bars and restaurants in the area, but we wanted to give the neighborhood a bar that they would expect to find in Nolita or the West Village. So far – we’ve been well received by our customers and the press. There are plenty of other businesses in the area that are helping to revitalize the area (Jones Wood Foundry and Pony Bar are two of them), but we love to hear from our customers when they feel that we are also playing a role in its revitalization.

The Penrose

The Penrose

EE: What is your favorite item on the food menu?

RUAIRI CURTIN: Where do I start? There are many. We worked with two incredible chefs to develop our menu’s. David Mawhinney (ex Per Se) and PJ Calapa (Head Chef at Ai Fiori and Costata). The beer battered spicy pickles with smokey sauce are epic. The spiced beef sandwich, a classic dish from my home town of Cork is delicious, and the burger is rumored to be the best in the Upper East Side. Our food is relatively simple, but we work with the best ingredients we can find to keep the customers coming back.

EE: Do you have any expansion plans in the pipeline? Will you and your partners look for investors for future projects?

RUAIRI CURTIN: We are always on the look out for great opportunities, but nothing is officially in the pipeline for the moment. We do not take on any external investors.

EE: Who is your favorite musician?

RUAIRI CURTIN: My favorite musician is Jonsi – the lead singer of Sigur Ros. To me – he’s is one of the most creative and forward thinking musicians of our time. I always admire people that break away from the norm and create something new. He was born and raised in Iceland – a beautiful country to which he attributes most of his creativity. His music is refreshing, distinct and uniquely beautiful. I can’t get enough of him. One day I would love to meet him.

EE: If you were a kitchen utensil what would you be? And why?

RUAIRI CURTIN: A bottle-opener. It’s the only kitchen utensil I know how to use. I’m embarrassed to admit that despite my career – I am relatively inept in a kitchen. One day I’ll learn to cook… until then I’ll keep up my bad habit of eating out three times a day in New York. I can’t think of a better bad habit so it probably won’t change for a while.

EE: If you could be doing anything else in the world, what would it be?

RUAIRI CURTIN: I’d be carrying Anthony Bourdain’s bags on his weekly trips around the world. I like to travel and I like to eat – so he’s living my dream life. One day when this crazy journey ends – I will travel, and eat everywhere just like him…and I guess just like you!

Ruairi checking out the interior construction of The Penrose in 2011

Ruairi checking out the interior construction of The Penrose in 2011

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  1. Looks like I have a reason to go to the upper east side now. Thanks!