Bill Wolsey has agreed to let me follow him around for the day.
At the appointed hour we meet and he gives me a run-down of the meetings on today’s schedule, including one with the Shankill Road Mission, part of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland. The meeting was arranged to discuss the planned opening of a hotel on the Shankill Road – part of a revitalisation of the area. Bill offers a quick synopsis of the project, on which he is acting as advisor, then announces, “I’ll introduce you as my mistress.”
And we’re off in Bill Wolsey World.
It’s a fun place to be. When it comes to speaking his mind, – opinions, jokes and double entrendres, it’s all out there, for the taking. His openness is striking. In the land of ‘whatever you say, say nothing’, the Wolsey candour is a breath of fresh air.
This seems to be the Bill Wolsey way. Informal, impromptu, disarmingly open.
Bill Wolsey stands in front of the plaque honouring his mother Irene, outside The Dirty Onion, one of his pubs in the Cathedral Quarter. Photo by Jenny Holland
But make no mistake: for all the jokes and off-the-cuff remarks, Bill Wolsey is a man of shrewd conviction. His ability to forge his own path, to go against the conventional wisdom has played a large part in his success.
Successful he is, but he fits no mould. A successful businessman with working-class socialist roots, he built a multi-million pound, award-winning hospitality empire in a city that was – at the time – primarily known for getting blown up by its own residents.
Somehow, it worked.The Merchantnow stands not just as the best hotel in Belfast, with a worldwide reputation for service and above all, cocktails, it has also become something of a symbol for the new, post-Troubles Belfast – a town that knows how to party.
But before Wolsey and his team made it reality, the idea of a luxury hotel in the what is now referred to as the Cathedral Quarter, which had lain unused for decades, was not obvious.
The Merchant, said Francis Schott, American restauranteur and Belfast fan, was “a game-changer for the city.”
The grand interior of The Merchant Hotel, a former bank built in the 1850's. Photo by Jenny Holland
Before the Merchant, Schott, who owns two successful restaurants in New Jersey and is co-host of radio chat show Restaurant Guys, said his visits to Belfast revolved mostly around, “pub food and an early night of it.”
Then a friend took him to The Merchant.
“I said to my mate, "What is this place and what the heck is it doing in Belfast?"
“I remember thinking, "Somebody has taken a big chance on this city." I didn't meet him till years later, but that somebody was Bill Wolsey. Big brass cocktail shakers on him."
Local observers on the Belfast restaurant scene thought the hotel was destined for failure. The idea “really threw people,” said Tony O’Neill, who was executive chef for the Beannchor Group for seven years, and is now chef and partner of Thornyhill Restaurant Group, which owns three of the most highly regarded restaurants in the north.
“There was a lot of negativity, people said it would never work,” O’Neill said. “Fair play to him, he stuck to his guns. He put the Cathedral Quarter on the map.”
It is makes sense that a risk-taking, irreverent person such as Mr. Wolsey did not start off with a methodical plan. “When I opened my first pub, that was my dream,” he said over lunch in the Cloth Ear. “To be self-employed.”
Bill Wolsey and architect John Busteed go over plans for Bullitt, the newest Beannchor property. Photo by Jenny Holland
He’s come a long way from that modest aspiration. Now he sits at the head of Beannchor Group, with about 50 properties – including Bullitt, a new 4 million pound hotel, expected to open in 2016, and 900 employees.
The new property, named after the Steve McQueen thriller, is planned as a stylish modern outfit in a modernist building that used to house the Department of Justice on Victoria and Ann Streets in Belfast city centre. Where The Merchant exudes old-world opulence, Bullitt will feature a pared-back, ultra-cool modernist aesthetic. And he is involved in every detail – from the layout of the guest bathrooms to what will be sold in the hotel shop to what music will go on the playlists. The day I met with them, Wolsey poured over floor plans with architect John Busteed Architecture and Design, debating the layout of the bedrooms.
(Future guests of Bullitt take note: Bill Wolsey has put a lot of thought into your hotel room bathroom.)
Photo by Jenny Holland
For all his success and the cool factor he is able to generate in his properties, when he talks about the arc of his career, he seems almost surprised by his success in life and is more than willing to share the credit with others.
Especially his parents. He says it was Eddie and Irene Wolsey who gave him the tools to build a successful business, more than any Dragon’s Den mogul-types.
“I get asked a lot who influenced me, and maybe I should say Richard Branson,” he says. “But the more I go on I think it’s my mother. I was mischievous at school, and she saved my bacon.”
The mischievous quality has stayed with him through the years, and perhaps that’s partly due to his parents’ willingness to go against the orthodoxies of the day.
Though he grew up a working-class Protestant – his mother was from the Shankill Road – his family did not adhere to the tenets of loyalism.
His father – a maintenance fitter originally from Dungannon – was a socialist.
“I asked my father why they flew flags and he said it lets the rest of the public know where the lunatics live,” he recollected with a chuckle. Bill remembers them as people who always had the broader picture in mind.
It’s not for nothing that his two brothers grew up to be fluent Irish speakers, both married to Catholics, and Bill chose as the name of his company Beannchor, the Irish name for Bangor.
“My mother used to warn me of the dangers of flag waving – she hated nationalism in general, she thought it was the cheapest form of politics. She would remind us about health, education, housing. Any form of bigotry was stamped out in our house.”
His childhood was characterised by frequent moves – 17 in all, from around Belfast and its environs to across the water in England. But in other ways it was a typical childhood, and Bill enjoyed the same pursuits as his peers. He describes his life as a boy as being about “good friends, football, snooker clubs, little crappy discos, wrangler jeans, happy times.”
Bill has installed two plaques in honour of Eddie and Irene, outside the Dirty Onion, a bar-restaurant in an 18th century warehouse just a few metres from the Merchant.
In memoriam, Irene Wolsey. Photo by Jenny Holland
Of Irene, the plaque reads:
“She preferred listening to talking but had a wealth of stories and sayings, a history of Belfast her in head. She taught us that faith was more important than religion and people more important than politics. She saw beauty in small things and opened our eyes to it. She set a good example. ”
Photo by Jenny Holland
And of Eddie:
“He taught us to shun bigots, beware of Tories and not take ourselves too seriously.
Eddie didn’t like a fuss and he probably wouldn’t have approved of this citation. But that’s families for you. He set a good example.”
Wolsey has followed his father’s advice, at the very least when it comes to politicians. He has little good to say about our current crop of leaders, from Westminster on down. The man who took on loyalist paramilitaries back when he bought his first pub and barred UVF men for swearing, has no inclination to mince his words.
On both sides of NI’s political spectrum, he says, the die-hards are deluded. “They are definitely stuck firmly in the past. There’s no understanding on both sides that people have moved on.”
In the meantime, however, the establishment “keeps having to appease a rump. The threat always is that some horrible paramilitary hairy-arsed group will fill the gap.”
Belfast’s spirit – heavily influenced by its working-class, industrial history – has survived despite the trauma inflicted upon it. For Wolsey, that spirit transcends class and labels in general, and has been overlooked in the melee’ that has been the north’s political story for the last 30 years.
“What’s not understood is there’s a big liberal segment here,” he said. “It’s easy to be a liberal in Islington, quaffing wine and eating croissants, but I know people here who’ve been tested, physically tested, and still held on to their liberal principles.”
Though he’s now most famous for running a swanky hotel with world-class cocktails, Wolsey’s working-class roots translate to more than just slagging off posh Tories like Prime Minister David Cameron, whom he called, in typical Bill Wolsey fashion, a “puffy-faced fuckwit.”
He is also an ambassador for Start360, a charity for at-risk youth, speaking at their programme for young offenders twice a year. And just last week he spoke out about the Syrian refugee crisis, telling journalists he and Petra would open their home to those fleeing war.
He’s a big believer in the hospitality industry as a route out of poverty and a viable way to broaden one’s horizons for young people of all backgrounds. He regularly speaks to school kids and encourages them to consider hospitality as a long-term job prospect.
“I’m in an industry that needs well-educated, well-motivated people, but we can also bring in people like myself, not well educated but motivated,” he said. “Kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, you get them and give them the support they need, they are going to be the most loyal employees you can find.”
Building good relationships with those who work for him is a subject that matters to Wolsey, and he’s clearly proud of his ability to keep staff in an industry not known for being good to employees.
One of his early hires is now his wife and Beannchor Group marketing director, Petra Wolsey. She’s been with the company since starting out as a waitress in the Tatu Bar and Grill in 2000, not long after completing a degree in fine and applied art. She recalls it as an exciting time, when it felt like Belfast was on the cusp of a good vibes revolution.
The city, and the company, have come a long way.
“People expect great things from us now,” she said. “I think our calibre of bars, clubs and restaurants is second to none. For the size of the city we really punch above our weight.”
Like Bill, Petra has her own unusual background (her mother was a yoga teacher long before it was a common activity), and much like her husband, she isn’t afraid to speak her mind.
The Merchant made headlines recently for offering customers a ‘water list’ – selling bottles of high-end water with the kin of descriptions more often seen on wine lists. The company came in for criticism on social media for the prices they were charging, but Petra says she has absolutely no qualms about the offering.
She attributed the “extreme reaction” to a misunderstanding of what the hotel was selling. “People saw the headline and assumed we were charging £26 pounds for regular water,” she said. “Clearly that is not the case.”
The water in question comes from the Canadian Arctic ice shelf, and is thought to be the purest in the world as it is thousands of years old.
The staff chose the different types of water carefully, Petra said, in keeping with their mission “to provide interesting and intriguing luxury items – and people are interested to know what the world’s purest water tastes like.”
For non-drinkers, “it’s nice to be able to offer something a little more special.”
Catering to the customer is clearly at the centre of what Bill and Petra Wolsey do. But they both take issue with certain idiosyncrasies amongst our local politicians and civil servants.
For Petra, Northern Ireland’s infamously restrictive licensing laws are “archaic at best.” She attributes them to “political Luddites.”
She dismissed “the idea that alcohol is bad and the more people have access to it, the worse the behaviour.”
“The opposite is true. I don’t know how much of the community is actually represented by those beliefs.”
And it has an impact on how Belfast caters to its visitors, many of whom are used to more open cities. “We are totally shackling ourselves to old behaviour that does not reflect how tourists behave,” she said. “The tourism industry is bourgeoning and we are not supporting it.”
In spite of that, I ask her, has Belfast arrived?
“I think it has,” she replied. “The rate of growth is phenomenal, and its only getting better and better.”
Even Bill seems surprised at that growth.
“These streets have livened up more than I could have ever dreamt. “I like to stand in the beer garden of The National at nighttime and I really feel like I belong to a vibrant city. I like that.”
Bill shares his wife’s dim view of tourism strategies promulgated by bureaucrats.
“It’s shambolic,” he says of the government’s approach to bringing in visitors.
“Look,” he said, pointing across the street from the swanky side entrance to The Merchant, to a lugubrious slab of a building. “Look what our customers are facing – a barbed wire fence that East Berlin would be proud of. This shows the muddled thinking there is towards tourism.”
Creating a welcoming, pedestrian-friendly district is an important part of the puzzle, and more should be done to plan this out, he said. “If they got rid of a lot of the ground floor businesses, the offices and the government buildings, and opened them up to retail, that would reinvigorate the city.”
He does however acknowledge the crucial role government has played in the recent history of Belfast.
“We’ve had so many years of the troubles, and the government filled the void, both in employment and occupying buildings. But now grants are being withdrawn, we’re expected to become a mature place and stand on our own two feet – we need to be much more entrepreneurial.”
Are we ready?
“I just think the generations that are coming through are better than the old duffers like me. We have genuinely talented people who will move the city on again.”
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