Frank Haughton - pub pioneer building bridges between Czechs and Irish
Rob Cameron's guest in this week's One on One is Frank Haughton, who set up a number of Irish bars in Prague over the last decade. Originally from Wicklow in Ireland, Frank left his job as a stockbroker to come to Prague. Today he owns just one bar - Caffrey's, on the Old Town Square - and it was there that Rob caught up with him to talk about starting out in the early 90s, the stag party invasion, and the Czech thirst for Irish culture.
"Well at the time I was looking at the development of the Irish pub business in Germany, which was developing very aggressively. Then a friend of mine was getting into the radio business here in Prague, and he suggested I come and have a look here, rather than in Germany. So in '92 I came here and thought 'whoa! - this is the place to be!' There was no sign of any Irish pub. There were millions and millions of tourists. There was a huge beer culture. And I thought of the huge number of tourists that were here, I would capture as many Germans here as I would in Germany. So I decided I would give Prague a go."
So it had all the right ingredients for setting up an Irish bar.
"Yeah, it had all the right ingredients. It had people on holiday. It had the German market, which was becoming aware of Irish pubs anyway. It had the Czech interest in beer. It had an attraction to younger people, Irish bars are associated generally with a younger type of crowd. So I thought this could work here."
That was ten years ago. What's the story now? How many bars do you have?
"Well, things are changing are now. At one point I had seven bars. Now I'm down actually to only one. Even James Joyce is gone. James Joyce was the first bar that I opened here, and the lease on the premises expired in January of this year, and the landlord didn't want to renew, so I simply had to close it down. So my primary focus now is on Caffrey's, which is on the Old Town Square, obviously catching the main throng of tourists that are here. Basically I've decided that after 12 years, it's time to sort of wind back a little bit and focus on one baby."
Was it a tough start though? You hear various things about setting up business here, especially bars. Extortion, that sort of thing.
"Well it was particularly tough the way I did it! I actually met the landlord in September 1993, and agreed to rent the space from him. And he told me the space had permission had to be a bar. So that was enough for me. I went back to Ireland, and gathered together my wood and the various ingredients needed to put together a bar, came over, fitted it out, and six weeks later on the 5th of November 1993 opened my bar. I didn't talk to any authorities. Didn't talk to hygiene, fire, any government department at all! The guy told me I had permission to open a bar, so I just opened a bar!"
Did that prove to be a mistake?
"Yeah, very soon I found it wasn't that easy. And I started having the various departments knocking on my door. And it took about nine months to sort it out. To be honest I think they were quite understanding. They probably believed I was genuine, and didn't realise all of this had to be done. So in fairness to them they didn't close me down. They gave me a bloody tough time. Every Friday for about six months I had a visit from somebody telling me I should close down, but not actually officially writing to me saying do it."
You just ignored them for nine months.
"I pretty much ignored them. I think I closed for about two days in the middle of it all after one particularly hot meeting. But a Friday came at the end of that six month period and I thought - well, I'm away, no visit. And about 4 o'clock in the afternoon a registered letter came through the door and this pursued for a few months. By about July of the following year I was in the clear and had met all the regulations."
Prague has become rather notorious of late for the huge number of stag parties, mainly from the UK. Obviously that's great business for you, as a place dealing mainly with tourists, but not everyone likes seeing groups of drunk English lads staggering around Prague. What's your view of it?
"I think it needs to be controlled. But where does this begin? Whether it begins with people before they come here realising that they're coming into a different culture where people think rather differently and they can't behave the way they might do back in England. I think it's sad because ninety percent of these people are perfectly well behaved. We have - now - so little trouble. Possibly because we've learnt how to deal with them."
How do you deal with them?
"Well are base technique is that first of all, if we see some group arriving at the door that we really decide are undesirable, we refuse them in the first place. But this is happening less and less. Usually our manager would just suss the group out a little bit, try to get to know who's the leader, become au fait with him, try and make friends with him, and have a liaison officer! So if something begins to go wrong, you know who to go to and say 'listen guys, cool this or we'll have to ask you to leave.' So we try and start at the beginning and have some relationship with these groups if we think there might be some trouble."
Do you get any complaints from Czechs, either local people or the authorities, or is the fuss about stag parties just something invented by the media?
"I hear very little from Czechs actually. Most of the people I hear complaining are the other foreigners who are here, who are maybe slightly embarrassed about the behaviour of these guys. I think the Czech people probably just look at them in a rather bemused way, and wonder what the hell is going on in their heads. Or is there anything in their heads?! So they're probably quite astounded by the whole thing and don't know quite how to deal with it. I think it's people like ourselves who live here who are more embarrassed than the Czechs are."
"On occasion. There are obviously groups here whose behavior is embarrassing. But as an Irishman, I feel more let down if an Irish group misbehaves. I can't account for the English or how they behave. In all types of life, like how we support our football team viz-a-viz how England support their football team, there's a total difference. So we're not that surprised by the behaviour of these guys. And maybe in some nasty Irish way we kind of relish it!"
I hear you're also quite active in the Irish community - you organise regular events on St Patrick's Day, tell me a bit more about that.
"Yeah well you know, Irish pubs around the world, and Irishness around the world for such a small nation, is very strong and very well-known. So it seemed appropriate as the owner of the first Irish pub here. It started off in a small way in 1994, and as I got more involved in the community and more involved in business, it seemed right to expand it and involve Czechs in it and so on and so forth. It grew over the years into something that I think now even Czech people look forward to each year."
Czechs often claim to have Celtic blood. It's nonsense though isn't it?