A familiar face in an ever-growing crowd builds a restaurant empire
by Amber Nimocks
photographs by Lissa Gotwals
Beneath the din of a bustling Thursday evening crowd, the phone is ringing at The Hibernian Pub’s hostess stand. Niall Hanley is the only one who can hear it.
Spirited chatter at the bar and mellow, adult-contemporary background music mute the house phone’s electronic bell to all but the owner, whose ears perk up like a pointer’s picking up the inaudible squeal of a dog whistle. From his seat in the dark wood booth a dozen steps inside the front door, Hanley calls to the busy bartender. Too late: The ringing stops. When it begins again a few moments later, Hanley halts mid-sentence and cranes his neck for a look at the hostess stand.
“Where is she?” he asks testily. The rest of his table strains to hear what he hears. Seconds later, the hostess jogs over to catch the call. With the flash of anxiety over, Hanley returns to the state of relative ease he seems to typically enjoy when he’s at his Hibernian Pub in Glenwood South. He resumes a conversation about the arc of his success, and a wry smile begins to play on his face.
Hanley dreamed up the concepts for each of his seven successful local venues. He drew up the floor plans. He sweated – and continues to sweat – the details for every one of them. Raised them like they were his children, as attuned to their wants and needs as any mother hen to her chicks. So, when a phone goes unanswered, you can bet Hanley’s going to hear it.
That’s no surprise to his marketing director, Frank Bloom. Bloom listens with a cocked ear as his boss tells his life story, lays out his plans for expansion of his small and growing restaurant empire, and explains why hand-held mobile devices might spell the end of personal social interaction as we know it. Hanley’s Irish accent is lilting, worn smooth by a couple of decades in the U.S., but the lively pace of his conversation recalls the banter at the pub his father ran in County Mayo.
A broad guy in his 40s who stands well over six-feet tall, Hanley has the strong arms of a man born to give bear hugs and hearty claps on the back. He has a wavy mane of graying brown hair and turns a phrase as easily as he pulls a pint. He looks you dead in the eye when he makes a point.
Bloom describes Hanley as succinct. “You know what you get when you’re working for him,” he says. “There’s no agenda.”
Also, Bloom adds, he’s kind, sincere, and decent.
Hanley squirms. “Sometimes on the weekend, I have a halo over my head,” he jokes.
A gift for banter, obsessive attention to detail, a drive to create, and an Irishman’s practical desire to own – never rent – the roof overhead all combine to fuel Hanley’s thriving restaurant enterprise, which is now earning him attention not just in North
Carolina’s capital city, but around the world.
Last November, Hanley’s latest venture, Raleigh Beer Garden, won two Guinness World Records – for the most varieties of draft beer on tap (369, according to the Guinness web site), and the most beer brands – or breweries – on tap in one place (203). The records beckoned the international press, including Forbes, CNN, Travel + Leisure, and The Irish Times.
The Beer Garden opening capped a 15-year period of expansion and creativity in which Hanley ignited the transformation of two separate faltering commercial areas into some of the most popular streets in Raleigh. With the Hibernian in 2000, Hanley helped spur Glenwood South’s emergence as an entertainment destination; when he added big-city glamour with his four-story nightclub Solas, and brought in upscale funk with Dos Taquitos Xoco, he sealed it. Then in 2013, he gave the Person Street district a life-affirming boost with the opening of The Station restaurant. There’s also a North Raleigh version of The Hibernian, and a Cary Hibernian, which closed last year after Hanley sold the space. Bloom says he’s looking to reopen it as soon as he finds the right piece of real estate. And in the meantime, he’s working on what might become his biggest project yet: a 15,000 square-foot food hall he aims to open next year on W. Morgan Street.
Hanley found his way from Ireland to Boston and then the Triangle by way of Durham’s James Joyce pub, where he came to work with a friend. It wasn’t long before he wanted someplace to call his own, so he scouted around and wound up on Glenwood South. Back then, the stretch was known more for building supplies than bars, but there were signs of emerging hospitality life. Sullivan’s had opened, presenting fine dining in an unexpected spot. Hanley read the signs and decided to take a chance.
“If they come for dinner, maybe they’ll come for a drink before or after,” he reasoned.
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Hanley and Raleigh.
“If you were to ask me 21, 22 years ago, would I be in North Carolina, living in America, I’d say you’re out of your mind,” he says.
After all, it’s a long way away from Claremorris, the village of about 3,000 people in County Mayo, Ireland, where he grew up. Hanley’s dad was a pub keeper, and the family also farmed. But he says his adopted hometown is not so different from his birthplace as it might seem. The friendliness of Raleigh’s people and our proximity to the country reminded him of his West Ireland home. “I could drive a mile and see some cows.”
In many ways, Raleigh seemed like a reassuringly small town. Even now, a person can live in downtown Raleigh and seldom need to go further than a mile or two from home. It’s a closeness that breeds familiarity, and Hanley says he likes seeing folks he knows on the street and in the shops. As Raleigh has changed, Hanley’s fortunes have come along, too.
Asked to describe Raleigh today, Hanley says the city reminds him of a beautiful child experiencing growing pains as she blossoms into a woman and faces a world full of new possibilities and tricky technology – like dating apps.
“A girl who has had a very reserved childhood and has just discovered Tinder,” he says. “She’s discovering who she is and with that, all the complications and issues that come along.”
He leans back in the booth and laughs at himself a little for being so very Irish. But he and Bloom agree that it’s an apt comparison. The city’s growth spurt is wondrous, they say, but it’s not without its difficulties. For those who have been here long enough to remember a Glenwood South without Uber, the Hibernian feels like a familiar face in an ever-growing crowd. It’s Hanley’s favorite, his eldest child.
“It’s the first. It’s a pub. It’s Irish. It’s home,” he said. “I just like it. It’s just a good spot.”
As he holds forth with a group of regulars at the bar, it’s easy to wonder why Hanley’s so eager to expand. Wouldn’t it be nice to spend a little time soaking all this in?
No, he’s got plans for at least two more downtown Raleigh ventures, and his eyes are also on the Charlotte market, where he’d like to put another beer garden.
“I want to call it the Raleigh Beer Garden and open it in Charlotte,” he says. “I’m just not sure if I’ll get a shovel to the back of the head.”
Not that he sits still long enough for anyone to take aim. Inactivity is not his strong suit. Thinking up big new ideas is. And improving what he’s already got.
Solas, for instance, is due for a remake, he says. He’d like to make better use of its fourth floor with a two-story deck. And the beer garden has drawn visitors from abroad, including a convention of German travel agents, so Hanley sees it as a cornerstone for making Raleigh an international beer destination. There’s always something.
While he’s confident that he can keep building his empire, Hanley worries about the long-term future of the hospitality industry. He wonders about a generation that keeps its eyes glued to phones rather than to friends around the table. And the growing trend of everything being home-delivered, from groceries to fish and chips to growlers of ale, isn’t something those who make their living on delivering food to tables should take lightly.
“What are these millennials going to dictate to us?” he muses.
The idea of social interactions and personal commerce being conducted solely via digital apps – and eventually through virtual reality – is unnerving. Is there room for serendipity, for casual interaction, for a surprising conversation over a pint in the world of tomorrow?
“That’s what I find scary,” he says.
On the rare occasion when he needs refuge, Hanley heads for the couch in his house in Cameron Park, where he cuddles up under a couple of small dogs, both rescued from the pound. His Chihuahua is named Tom and his miniature dachshund is Mehaul, which is Irish for “Michael.”
“I named him after my brother just to annoy him,” he says.
Another respite is golf. This year, he has vowed to improve his game. He says he’s gotten better over the years, but not good enough to remember – or in any event to share – his score.
“I’m not that good,” he says. “I just want to hear the ping.”
But most of the time, Hanley is to be found knee-deep in the running of his restaurants, where he can hear the ring of the phone and of the register, and keep ahead of all the young upstarts in town.
“There’s an advantage to being the old guy,” he says. “We were one of the few. Now we’re one of the many.”