Erik And Michelle Robson Of ELY Wine Bar On Their Journey

Erik and Michelle Robson speak to Robert McHugh about 25 years of ELY Wine Bar and what lies ahead.

ELY Wine Bar was opened by Erik and Michelle Robson in 1999. The establishment, at Ely Place, near St Stephen’s Green, recently celebrated the milestone by hosting a celebratory event called ‘Beyond the Bottle’, with special guest Mireia Pujol-Busquets Guillén, from Alta Alella winery, launching ELY’s new Summer Wine Series and seasonal menu.

ELY’s new Summer Wine Series promises special guests like Marco Ricasoli Firidolfi of Rocca di Montegrossi, from Chianti, and an array of themed events from May to August, including ‘Rosé All Day,’ ‘Outstanding Whites’ and ‘Volcanic Vineyards’.

Erik and Michelle recently spoke exclusively to Hospitality Ireland about how a trip to Seville inspired them to open their own wine bar, the struggles at the beginning, and how Irish people have changed their attitude to wine in the last 25 years.

How does it feel to reach this impressive milestone of 25 years?

 

Erik: It’s funny – it feels great. I don’t know if it snuck up on us, but we definitely don’t think of us ourselves as being in business for 25 years. As you know, even without all the curveballs, it’s always a dynamic business to be in. It’s definitely challenging, but, nine times out of ten, it’s rewarding. So, to be honest, it’s great.

I don’t know if I want to do another 25, but we’re not done yet! Put it that way. There is still an energy there.

Michelle: Liken it to marathon training – a lot of miles under our belt, some setbacks along the way, but the reward on completing the distance so far has been immense, and we can’t wait to do it again …!

What have been the highlights so far?

Michelle: The amazing people we have met, the stories told and heard, how ELY played its role in these experiences, and how they have enriched our lives. Sounds wishy-washy, but it’s true.

 

Erik: I could try and pinpoint a particular moment, but there have been too many so far. It’s the day-to-day stuff, knowing you’ve just done a great service and that you have exceeded a customer’s expectation – that they are leaving happy and coming back with friends, family or colleagues.

When you get it right, you really get it right. It could be one table of two who just landed in Dublin, or it could be a customer you have known for the last 25 years. We have an Australian customer who lives in the States, and he comes over here, consulting for the energy industry. When he flies in, he comes and says hello to us. He was with us three days last week, and we just chat, and we talk about friends and family and stuff.

So, those are the kind of highlights. It probably sounds a bit dull, but it’s knowing that you are doing good stuff on a daily basis.

What is the ethos of ELY Wine Bar?

Michelle: ELY is, and has always been, about the people. The word family almost encapsulates this: team, customers, suppliers, producers, investors, mentors.

 

I love the W. B. Yeats quote ‘There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven’t met yet.’ Pretty much sums up 25 years of ELY.

Erik: It has always been about quality and value. As soon as you find your feet, it’s about consistency – quality, value and consistency.

We have always had happy staff and happy customers, which probably doesn’t sound like the most commercial way of viewing things, but if your team are behind you, your customers become genuinely invested in you as well. We are always complimented about our staff. Our ethos is, happy staff equals happy customers. It’s continuous improvement from there.

Tell us about the Summer Wine Series.

Erik: We’ve always had some form of wine tastings, wine courses, wine clubs, so the summer series is a combination of Wine Wednesdays in Ely Place, Tipples in Maynooth, A Secret Pairing in Ely Place, and then we would have winemakers’ dinners scheduled as well, where we have visiting winemakers, hence the Alta Alella event a couple of weeks ago.

 

Simple things. It’s getting people to try different wines. We would have orange and natural wines coming up – there’s a rosé, there’s a garden party one. One of my favourites would be the cool reds, where we show people how they should really be drinking [reds], especially their lighter reds, that little bit cooler.

It’s a series of tastings and events of different forms. It’s really just about getting people to enjoy more wine.

Tell us about your background – where you grew up, studied, etc.

Michelle: I am from Clonee, Co. Meath. I studied computer and business studies in Rathmines.

I disliked computers, but loved the sales element of business studies.

Erik: I grew up in Bettystown [Co. Meath]. My parents had a restaurant in the seventies and eighties. It would have been game and season, Dublin Bay prawns, salmon from the River Boyne. They also had a genuinely good wine list.

I then studied hotel management in Cathal Brugha Street. I left Cathal Brugha and went straight into Mitchell’s in Kildare Street, where I worked for ten years, primarily with Peter Dunne.

Myself and Michelle met and we opened ELY. She had studied in Rathmines, and then went into Robert Roberts and Woodford Bourne, which was coffee and wine, and that’s how I met Michelle. With her experience in servicing the hospitality industry and my experience coming through the restaurant and Mitchell’s, we cooked up a plan to open a wine bar.

What or who inspired you to enter the industry?

Erik: Well, having grown up in the industry, I was told by my parents, “Don’t get involved!”

It was never my intention to go into the hospitality. It is well documented at this stage, but when we went on our first holiday together, to Seville, we saw the way that they were enjoying wine, and it was much more relaxed. When we came back, within the year we had figured out how and where we would open ELY. I am always cognisant of the fact that we sell alcohol, but it was the way we would do it, which was good wine available by the glass. You could have one, or you could have more than one, with light bites and easy food, and then we grew from that.

Michelle: I was naturally always drawn to sales roles. Both my parents were natural salespeople and had good people skills.

When I was working with Robert Roberts and Woodford Bourne, I was dealing directly with the hospitality sector across all areas.

It was a natural step, then, with Erik to do what we both loved: enjoying food and wine in good company in comfortable surroundings. Of course, blissful ignorance helps!

What were the biggest challenges around opening?

Michelle: Money! After that, building our custom and defining what type of offering/business ELY was. A ‘wine bar’ – not a restaurant or a pub – was relatively new in 1999.

[The goal was] making wine more accessible and understood in a relaxed setting. The biggest challenge to this day is to retain your customer and ensure they want to come back.

Erik: The idea of convincing somebody that you were going to open a wine bar in 1999 was a bit mad, so we had a shoestring budget, a little bit of investment. Michelle was double-jobbing. She was still working for Robert Roberts, and then would finish up and come in and help out in, literally, the DIY building of ELY. We spent 12 weeks on it, which was an extraordinary amount of time to fit out a place, but we were actually doing it ourselves.

I was technically unemployed. I’d given up my work in Mitchell’s. Michelle was keeping us off the breadline, so it was no budget, and then doing it ourselves. In reality, it was convincing people that wine by the glass – good wine by the glass – worked.

We opened in December 1999, and, in reality, it was probably Christmas 2000 before people really trusted what we were doing. We had good wines, so we weren’t competing with the pubs. Our wines were restaurant quality, and then some. Our peers, in terms of wine, would have been the top city centre restaurants, but you could get it with us by the glass. We had a hundred wines by the glass. The challenge was getting people to understand what we were offering, and then to make money out of it!

Do you think that Irish people have changed their attitude and consumption of wine in the past 25 years?

Michelle: Yes – drinking more at home, drinking less, but drinking better.

Erik: One hundred per cent. I don’t know what wine was always available here, but it was a very small cohort that would actually think about the wines that they were buying or drinking. They were usually doing it in fine-dining restaurants. Then we went through the Celtic Tiger, so consumption was pretty impressive.

I think, nowadays, it’s quality over quantity. If you take fifty-somethings – and I’m one of those – we drink less, we are more active, etc.

If you look at the 20- and 30-year-olds coming through, they definitely drink less, so it is quality over quantity, and people are genuinely interested in learning a little bit more. Some will go on to learn an awful lot more. They are engaged. They want to know the difference between skin contact, orange wines, natural wines. Most people are asking us for organic and biodynamic. I think the simplest way to put it is, quality over quantity.

Do you have a business motto?

Erik: Our motto is, ‘Drink Less, Drink Better.’ In fact, the actual motto is, ‘Drink Better, WINE FIRST.’

It reads two ways: one is, ‘Drink Better,’ and the other is, ‘Wine First.’ So, in ELY, we tend to think and talk about wine first – but it’s to drink it better.

Michelle: ‘Drink Better, WINE FIRST!’

What are the main challenges within the industry at the moment?

Michelle: Costs across the board and transience of staff. Reaching out to our audience/customers is challenging now, with so much conversation/information online. It’s not just about repeat business and personal relationships – we need to speak to and reach our current and new customers online in order to grow and be relevant.

Erik: Costs and the costs of doing business are phenomenal at the moment. Energy costs are particularly difficult, and that drives up the cost of the goods and services that we are buying in as well. Our customers have their own challenges, and cost of living is a factor.

I think staff stability would be another one. The industry was hit hard by Covid, and an awful lot of industry knowledge was lost. If we had anybody working with us from outside of the country, they went home, and an awful lot of them stayed at home. A lot of people got out of the industry and stayed out. The big challenge now is training the next generation and investing in them. Out of the proportion of people that we train, a lot of them won’t stay as long as they did previously, so sometimes you’ll get six to nine months instead of years.

We have always trained people, and an awful lot of graduates have gone on to open their own businesses, and, in reality, we have trained thousands over the years, through the venues, etc. We are better for it – the ones that are particularly good will always push you and challenge you. When they go on to do their own thing, even if it’s outside of the industry, they are more comfortable in their skin, more confident. Staff are the most rewarding element because happy staff equals happy customers. We are continuously complimented on the staff across the board.

Looking ahead, what do you see for the future for ELY Wine Bar?

Erik: We’ll consolidate at the moment with Ely Place, and we’re working hard to make sure that it is always at the forefront of wine bars, so that’s a genuine aspiration that we are always looking for: doing it the best we can.

Maynooth continues to grow. It’s a great catchment area, as you can imagine, and it’s to get that balance between wine bar and dining in, which we have managed.

Wine retail is another focus. We work directly with a number of vineyards. We source pretty well. My next job is to go up to Maynooth and send out a number of deliveries that will go down the country.

What do you like to do when you are not working?

Michelle: I am a member of Dunboyne AC Running Club. My running buddies are my ‘off switch’ and never fail but to keep me smiling.

Erik: I don’t think we have worked harder than we did during Covid and since Covid, so it is six, and sometimes seven, days a week.

Michelle loves to run and is a proper runner. She went out and did ten miles yesterday morning, just because she can! I cycle, and sometimes I take part in races.

It’s all relative. We enjoy cooking for our son – we are a Leaving Cert house – so I think you could sum it up with run, cycle, cook. We don’t get out terribly often. We try to, but not as often as we would like at the moment.

We are always on the go. Needless to say, after our run and our cycle, on a Sunday, we’ll share a nice bottle of wine.

Anything that you would like to add?

It has been 25 years, and it is not just myself and Michelle. There are people that have been with us almost 25 years. There are senior people that have been with us for a long time. We have mentors, and we have people on the sidelines and in the background. There’s an awful lot of people involved in getting us through 25 years, especially through the challenging stuff. We are not by ourselves doing this. There are people that have been with us all the way.

There are customers who will remember the early days. Some of them are consistent, some of them pop in here and there, and there’s customers that have been with us since the beginning. From a commercial point of view, it is very important that we are welcoming in the 20- and 30-year-olds, the thirty-somethings and stuff. It’s that mix. It’s the next generation coming through that are vitally important and vibrant.

It’s difficult to sum up 25 years. It’s been interesting, and we still enjoy it.

We use cookies in order to give you the best possible experience on our website. By continuing to use this site, you agree to our use of cookies.
Accept
Reject