A man believed to be Ballymena’s longest-serving landlord has said his punters are what he will miss most after deciding to launch his bar.
Ugene Kelly, who owns Slemish Bar on William Street, has been interviewed by the Belfast Telegraph several times during the pandemic about the pressure of the lockdown.
And although he now says earnings have improved since before the pandemic, at 64 he’s ready to go.
His departure will close the curtain on a profession he has loved since he was 14 and started working in his father’s pub.
“I think it’s just time to go. It will probably take a few years to sell it as things are at the moment, and launching it now is really getting the ball rolling.
“I’m 64 now and have been in the cash trade for 48 years, so I think maybe that’s almost enough.”
Despite discussing the impact of rising energy costs on businesses, Eugene remains positive. “I’m optimistic. Our earnings are the same if not a bit higher than before the pandemic.
“I know the overheads have gone up a bit, but we are very, very careful with our electricity use and I have no complaints. This bar here has a lot of potential.”
He took it over in 1987 at the age of 29. “It was busier back then than it is now, to be honest. Since then, things have changed in the bar trade.
“More bars were open around us and everyone was doing good business, but it has changed. But I still keep my own and I’m lucky enough.
“I’ll be sad to leave here, to be honest, but I have to go one day.”
He doesn’t name a single definitive change in the industry, but says drinking habits have changed. “There’s probably more drinking at home and the pandemic has definitely exacerbated that.”
There are far fewer bars today than there were in the 1980s, when William Street was the hub of the city’s social life. “Years ago we were surrounded by a lot of bars here on William Street.
“Some have been closed for 10 years and I don’t think they will open again. There used to be The Inn, O’Hanlon’s, The Coronation, The Tudor, The Green Glens – all on this one street.
“When I started bar trading when I was 16, there were 10 or 11 bars around here. They were all busy and well received, but now everything has changed.”
One significant change has been home drinking since the UK’s major supermarkets brought a wider range of alcohol at lower prices in the 1990s.
“Of course, once the problems were over, we were glad to be over it. Then the supermarkets moved in and bought up a lot of the licenses from the bars as people retired and wanted out.”
The sports bar has been on the market for two weeks through sales agent Osborne King and there have been some inquiries, says Eugene. No purchase price is given.
The sale was not an easy decision. “It was a big decision for me and it took me a long time to think about it.”
He now helps his wife babysit – the couple have seven grandchildren, including triplets aged five.
But even if he’s working at full capacity, he’ll miss out on a lot. “I’ll probably just miss the fun with the boys and go to work every day. I work six days a week so I’ll miss that. I may start playing golf again as I haven’t played it in a while. I have to do something.”
His decision to sell surprised some of his customers.
“I think a lot of them were shocked to be honest. They’re used to drinking here and we have the same people all the time, the same regular customers. They are good customers.
“I feel a little sorry for them as they’re probably a little worried about how the bar might change. But maybe that will change for the better, who knows.”
Many of the players have been with us for years. “I’m concerned about how the bar itself might change, I’m saddened that it might not suit them, but what can I do.
“I know I’m going to miss it, there’s absolutely no doubt about that. We have a lot of really good clients who are decent people and I’ll miss them, I have to admit.”
It will be the end of an era in Ballymena. ‘I’m probably the oldest innkeeper in Ballymena now. I’ve been in retail for almost 50 years. My father owned The Inn in Ballymena and I worked at it, and The Countryman for various spells, then the Slemish.
“When I was about 14, I was at the bar with my dad and I just liked it and decided that’s what I wanted to do.”
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/i-have-to-leave-some-day-ballymenas-longest-serving-pub-owner-on-selling-up-after-35-years-42220844.html ‘I have to go someday’: Ballymena’s senior pub owner on sale after 35 years