This article appears in the July 2011 issue of LouisvilleMagazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com .
When Tom O’Shea was a 17-year-old cook at the old O’Shea’s, his family’s bar and grill on South Poplar Level Road, he commonly heard customers’ bitter rants about jobs they hated. When one said he logged overtime for extra money, but hated every minute of the work, the young O’Shea couldn’t resist asking, “Then why do you do it?”
The man and his friends dismissed the “kid cooking their burgers as somebody who really didn’t know anything about what real stress was like,” says O’Shea, reclining in a booth at his company’s newest pub, Patrick O’Shea’s. “And maybe I didn’t understand those things then, but I did make up my mind that I wouldn’t work just for money if that’s all it got me.”
Three decades later, that lesson remains a core principle in the life of the 48-year-old, whose youthful face belies his age and his accumulated wisdom. With the support of multiple business partners, O’Shea has turned a career of “figuring out most of it as we go” into a substantial restaurant and pub business that includes O’Shea’s Irish Pub, Flanagan’s Ale House, Brendan O’Shea’s and Patrick O’Shea’s. Asked to describe his formula for success, O’Shea is at first amused and then serious.
“It’s never been a conscious thought to make our company just about the business, just about profits,” he says. “Our job is to make people happy. We don’t decide to put something on the menu because we think we can make money on it. We ask, ‘What would our customers like?’”
The eldest of four children, O’Shea inherited responsibility for his family’s business as his father, Kevin O’Shea, slowly succumbed to diabetes. When he died in 1986, Tom, brothers Mike and Tim, and sister Kelly found themselves fully in charge. Dave Zimmerman, a high school friend who worked at the now-defunct Poplar Level Road bar, recalls Tom as a natural leader. “Whenever we’d have a pub scrub, he’d be the first to say he’d go do the bathrooms, do anything dirty,” says Zimmerman, who, along with Mike O’Shea, partnered with Tom in the business when it moved to the Highlands. “Tom was a servant leader before they had a name for it.”
O’Shea also was a fan of imported and craft beers, rarities when he was a Bellarmine College (now University) student in the early 1980s. He frequented Fat Cats, an import-beer pub nearby that drew “people who really appreciated beer. We wanted to have our own place that had that same culture.” In 1994 Tom and Mike O’Shea and Zimmerman bought some space at 956 Baxter Ave. and named it O’Shea’s Irish Pub. It was a hit from the start, drawing devotees of brown, red and amber brews, though the place still served some “light” varieties. But within a few years it had become a popular college hangout, pushing the group to create another “better beer” spot in 1999 by opening Flanagan’s. At 934 Baxter Ave., the new pub sat a few doors away from the Outlook Inn and just across the street from Molly Malone’s. And like O’Shea’s, Flanagan’s was an instant hit.
Michael Wickliffe, who has co-owned Wick’s Pizza Pub since 1993, wasn’t pleased when O’Shea’s opened near his place. Wick’s had established its own following and Wickliffe feared O’Shea’s might siphon off customers. “People kept telling me, ‘The more the merrier, Michael,’ but I didn’t believe it at the time,” Wickliffe says. “But it turned out O’Shea’s was one of the best things that ever happened to this street. Others started coming here and business exploded for all of us.”
In 2006, Joe and John Murphy joined the original partners in opening Brendan O’Shea’s in St. Matthews, followed by the creation of the company’s showplace in 2010: Patrick O’Shea’s, located on Main Street’s Whiskey Row. Two-and-a-half years were needed for the painstaking restoration and renovation of the 15,000-square-foot, 150-year-old former whiskey warehouse. Its ancient wood floors still bear the circular scars of barrels stored there, marks the partners insisted remain despite a contractor’s suggestion to sand them away.
“He couldn’t believe we wanted to leave them like that, but when it was all finished, he said, ‘I owe you an apology; these look fantastic,’” O’Shea says.
O’Shea declined to share the company’s annual revenues, but he admitted “we feel pretty blessed to do as well as we have.” Practitioners of conservative, cash-only business growth, the partners took out their first-ever bank loan to supplement a $4 million investment in Patrick’s. When they invited staffers to purchase ownership shares in the new bar, the 18 who bought in saw their contributions matched. “I’ve got partners who believe in what we do, guys who are long-term thinkers and don’t have to keep up with the Joneses financially,” O’Shea says.
During the conversation, the entrepreneur’s active mind leapfrogs a bit, returning to the question of his team’s success. “You know, it’s pretty basic: We listen a lot, and we react to what our customers tell us. There’s no science to that,” he says. “I also think we’re very humble in that we know we’re only as good as the last burger or beer we served. You can get those anywhere, so ours had better be the best we can make them.”
“One thing I really like about their businesses is they’re non-cookie-cutter, friendly neighborhood pubs,” says Cumberland Brews owner Mark Allgeier, who coached O’Shea’s son in football, and whose own son was coached by O’Shea in basketball. “They’re very community-minded, and when you run a business like that, you get a much stronger draw from the community it’s in.”
Wickliffe called O’Shea “a firecracker” who’s gone beyond what most business owners would do to make friends with and protect residents living near the Baxter Avenue restaurant corridor. When neighbors complained years ago about rowdy behavior outside area bars spilling over to residential streets, O’Shea formed an alliance with Wick’s and Molly Malone’s to hire security officers to patrol the streets along with Metro Police. And near the end of their shifts each night, O’Shea’s employees go outside and tidy up.
“Tommy has two extra cops he pays for himself, which I guarantee is not chump change, but he’s trying to keep everyone happy,” Wickliffe said. “He’s a good businessman who has a lot of pride in his neighborhood.”
Within the Highlands, O’Shea’s Irish Pub is nearly as well known for its charitable giving as for its food and drink. O’Shea says the charity work grew out of a demonstration of humility by former Vineyard Christian Church pastor Robert Pitman. In 2004 Pitman arrived at O’Shea’s and told Tom he wanted to clean the bar’s bathrooms as “a demonstration of God’s love,” recalls Pitman, now pastor at Sanctuary Church, just a few blocks from O’Shea’s. He says O’Shea initially declined the offer, “but I told him I really wanted to.” O’Shea relented, and Pitman began cleaning, even repeating the task later. O’Shea says Pitman’s gesture moved him, and the image of the sizable former UK football player doubled over and elbow deep in his johns still makes him smile.
Months later, O’Shea read a newspaper article about Pitman’s Love Louisville campaign, in which volunteers would perform spontaneous acts of kindness throughout the city. Eager to participate, the O’Shea’s partners gave several staff members cash to go to local stores, seek out potentially needy people and buy their groceries or clothes. Employees were so moved that O’Shea sought to do more.
His chance came in the summer of 2007, when a freak accident at the Kentucky Kingdom amusement park severed the feet of 13-year-old Kaitlyn Lassiter. Her mother, Monique Lassiter, was a former O’Shea’s employee, and the company wanted to help with the child’s medical bills. By holding a fund-raiser that would donate a single day’s profits to her family, O’Shea’s invited almost more business than it could manage that day. “People were waiting an hour and a half for food and not even caring,” O’Shea recalls with a grin. The event ultimately raised $42,000.
Nearly every Monday since, at least one O’Shea’s pub has held what’s called “Monday Fund Day,” a charitable effort that O’Shea downplays as “doing something good on the slowest day of the week anyway.” To date, Monday Fund Day donations have surpassed $353,000.
In May O’Shea’s closed all of its pubs for two days (except Patrick’s, which had previously booked a private function) to send most of its crew to work with Christian Appalachian Project (CAP) teams dispatched to Alabama to help with tornado relief efforts there. All O’Shea’s employees who went were paid their regular wages while gone. “The team was really moved by that,” O’Shea says. “I had girls talking to me, crying and saying they’d always wanted to do something like this, but didn’t know how to get started. We’d worked with CAP before, so we knew exactly how to connect with them so we could help.”
O’Shea says he loves bars and restaurants enough to work in them around the clock, but life outside of business provides other priorities. He and wife Tracie are parents of five children, he coaches youth basketball and sits on the board of directors at DeSales High School, his alma mater, and he’s active in Sanctuary. When he does relax, he cozies up with a Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA, and proving that beer remains foremost in the business portion of his mind, he says the company plans to start a brewing operation at Flanagan’s later this year.
“We figured it was about time we started doing our own,” O’Shea says with anticipation. “It’s something that keeps building on that culture we’ve always tried to create in our bars. It’s going to be cool.”
Photo courtesy of: John Nation