Harry's Shack: There's something magic about being on the beach
Today, Donal Doherty can be found running a highly successful restaurant right on the seafront at Portstewart. It’s a far cry from the turmoil of his life in the aftermath of 9/11, as he tells Ivan Little
The far-sighted Donegal businessman who has turned an anything-but-chic shack on Portstewart beach into what’s been rated as Ireland’s top restaurant, completed an even more difficult task in his last restructuring job in the wake of one of the world’s greatest tragedies, 9/11 in New York.
For ex-accountant Donal Doherty, whose Harry’s Shack eatery at the entrance to the magnificent Portstewart Strand has become an overnight food sensation, had to help oversee the shedding of 13,000 jobs by British Airways after the Twin Towers terrorist attacks 14 years ago.
With the aviation industry in turmoil and passenger numbers, especially across the Atlantic, drastically reduced, British Airways ordered urgent and decisive action. Taking a break from serving customers in his busy restaurant, Donal, who had been a profit analyst with the airline in London, tells me: “British Airways was in danger of bleeding a lot of cash. And I was part of a five-strong team who had to cut thousands of jobs”.
It wasn’t a task that sat easily with him. “I’m more of a people person. I’m more suited to hospitality and looking after people,” says Donal, who travelled around South America for six months after leaving BA. After he returned home, the original plan was to stay for a while to look after the accounts of Harry’s restaurant, his family business just across the border in Bridgend.
But he found himself more and more immersed in the restaurant and, while he’s still at the helm, he never imagined he’d be running another eatery named after his father Harry in Portstewart, or that the Shack — based in a former National Trust information centre — would shake up the hospitality sector here in such a short time. Even though it only opened last August, it has already received best restaurant accolades from the respected John and Sally McKenna Guides and the best newcomer award from Georgina Campbell's guide, both of which were a shock to the Shack's system.
And there's no sign of the tide turning, so to speak, as the 65-seater restaurant lures diners from all over Ireland to see if the rave reviews and the gongs are justified - though getting a table can be difficult, particularly at weekends.
"Saturday nights at 7.30 can be booked up three or four weeks in advance," says Donal, whose restaurant has made the north coast an even hotter destination for food lovers than it already was.
Just a few miles away, in Portrush, the hugely successful Ramore complex of restaurants, which don't take bookings, are so popular that people will patiently wait for hours for a table.
"The Ramore proved that the demand is there," says Donal. "I thought that if I could get five per cent of what they got, I would have a successful restaurant."
But the accountant underestimated his numbers. "We are running at about 150% above what we had forecast at the outset. We will have more than 30 people working here by the summer. And at Bridgend we have had to recruit five new staff to cope with the extra pressures the Shack has meant for our operations there."
Donal attributes the amazing success of the Shack to word of mouth and social media. "Early on the morning of the second Sunday we were open, I posted a picture of the clear blue sky on Facebook, saying the temperature was about 20 degrees.
"By one o'clock, we were literally overrun. It felt like somebody had lifted us and put us into the middle of the Glastonbury Festival. We had 50 people queuing to get fed. We tried to keep up, but it was the hardest day's work I have ever done."
Such was the scale of the early invasions that Donal decided to take bookings for the Shack, but the feedback about the food, coupled with the high profile awards, made even more mouths water.
"John McKenna walked in here the day after we opened and I said 'Oh no, not on our second day'," he recalls, "but he named us the best restaurant in Ireland in 2014."
The Observer's food critic, Jay Rayner, who is a TV regular, also went overboard about the seaside haunt in January, saying: "Coming to Northern Ireland right now and not going to Harry's Shack would be a stupid thing to do."
Meanwhile, the Belfast Telegraph restaurant critic Joris Minne described the Shack as "cool and compelling", with food that was "big and seductive".
Recently, another five influential food writers from England dropped in for dinner at the Shack, whose runaway success has left a number of banks in the red - red in the face, that is, because they turned down loan applications from Donal, who first saw the run-down shack on December 10, 2013, two days after laying eyes on an even more significant new arrival in his life - his first child.
"I couldn't get into the hospital to visit my wife and daughter in the morning, so I came to Portstewart," he says.
"The National Trust had asked me look at a property on the beach, but I wasn't sure if there was even a roof on it. But they had done me a favour with a project in Londonderry, so I said I would come and let them know what I thought about their ideas for an eating house."
Donal added a caveat, however. "I told them there was no way I was opening a restaurant. I thought it was just too far from home in Donegal."
But even though the wind was howling off the Atlantic and the rain was lashing down on the dismal and shuttered old National Trust information centre, it was love at first bite for Donal.
"I just stood there, trying to hide my excitement," he says. "But I wasn't sure it could work, so I came up on my own a couple of times to assess the number of visitors and to figure out the money that would be needed to complete the transition."
Donal's initial verdict was that a restaurant would only be viable in summer. "I reckoned it would definitely work in summer, especially on sunny days. But my fear was, would people come to a restaurant a wee bit out of the town in the dark winter nights?
"It was a big risk. And the words going round my head were, it's either mad or genius."
The National Trust had initially been suggesting that Donal might open a tearoom, serving nothing more adventurous than tea and toasties.
But Donal was thinking bigger - a fully operational restaurant, which needed a £100,000 refurb that saw the gutting of the interior of the building. Everything went and in came a state-of-the-art kitchen, a new natural gas supply and - every bit as important - massive windows to exploit the shack's biggest asset, its unrivalled vista over Portstewart Strand across to Co Donegal. But eating in the view wasn't enough. The other ingredients had to be right, too, and highly-acclaimed Donegal-born chef Derek Creagh joined the Harry's restaurant business, basing himself in Bridgend, but overseeing the Portstewart menus, too.
Derek, whose previous restaurants included the Salty Dog in Bangor and Michael Deane's in Belfast, has been described by Donal as one of the best chefs in Ireland, and he has the awards to prove it.
"Derek is a seriously good chef," says Donal. "He brought on board the cooking skill and work ethic that we needed and he is driving forward the food production, because between our two restaurants we do a huge amount of covers and cook everything ourselves."
One of the upsides of the Shack has also been a downside, though, as its location leaves it exposed to the wilder ravages of winter. Indeed, in December, as high winds battered Portstewart Strand, restaurant staff had to post an unusual plea in the hospitality world - urging their customers not to come, with a stark message: "It is simply not safe to come near us. Do not even attempt it."
But, as the storms subsided, the Shack reopened and it was business as usual. The lack of space inside the Shack means that the loos - apart from facilities for disabled people - are outside the main building in a pre-existing toilet block.
"It's unusual, I admit," says Donal. "But no other loos in Ireland have a view like it. And, besides, people seem to realise that this is essentially a shack before it is a restaurant and it's beachy, it's super-casual, stripped-back and there's sand coming in on the floors.
"We want to keep the beach experience and, while some plush restaurants may have plusher amenities, we don't. But there's still something magical about the beach."
The location is chalk and cheese compared to the Shack's bigger and older sibling, Harry's restaurant at Bridgend, which is slap-bang in the middle of a cluster of petrol stations, just off one of Ireland's busiest stretches of roads, linking Donegal to Derry.
The Shack is an altogether different experience though, says Donal.
"As soon as people see the sea here, I think it puts them in better form straight away, because most of us have great memories of visits to the beach."
Donal, who lives in Buncrana, clocks up hundreds of miles a week to keep the Shack on track. Every morning he drives from Donegal in a refrigerated van, laden with fish, meat and vegetables for the restaurant.
And sometimes he has to go back and stock up again for the evening session.
The journey takes around 75 minutes each way, which can mean up to five hours a day behind the wheel. But, he says, it's a small price to pay to ensure his chefs have the freshest produce, day and daily.
"We have a walled garden in Bridgend where we grow all our own vegetables," he explains.
"We buy the fish from Greencastle, but we are also establishing relationships with local fishermen and other suppliers nearer to Portstewart."
Parking around the shack can be a problem, too. There's only a tiny car park beside the restaurant and many visitors who don't walk from the town centre or don't park on main roads nearby leave their vehicles on the beach, which will incur a charge from Easter through to September
It's expected that the Shack will have a drinks licence by the summer, but its Bring Your Own policy will stay, because Donal is convinced it has played a major role in the success of the eatery.
The summer will also see Harry's Shack extending its opening hours and serving food outside, plus it's planned to plonk a mobile outlet a half mile further up the Strand, serving coffees and lighter meals. Shack snacks, you might say.
The Shack itself has room for expansion, but Donal is wary. "We are quite happy with the size of the place. There's a unique intimacy here," he insists.
But what about a Shack Two, or another restaurant project in the area?
Donal says: "I have to say we have fallen in love with the north coast and the people have been fantastic. So I wouldn't be surprised to see us somewhere else along the coast, maybe by next year."
Harry's Shack is located at 118 Strand Road, Portstewart. For details, visit www.facebook.com/HarrysShack or at www.twitter.com/Harrys_Shack, or tel: 028 7083 1783
What the critics are saying...
- ”None of the dishes sound extraordinary. It’s straightforward stuff that doesn’t so much speak to an appetite nurtured by striding along the beach, as hector it. There’s a tottering burger, served with a steak knife through the top to keep the ingredients in place. There’s a brunch menu of pancakes with bacon and suchlike. And then the main plates arrive and you quickly realise that underpinning it all is serious knowledge. It is a menu of simple pleasures done about as well as they could be.” - Jay Rayner, The Guardian
- “Harry’s Shack is shifting the centre of gravity on the North Coast and Portstewart now finds itself with a destination restaurant. If you’re tired of queuing at the Ramore in Portrush, try joining the line here instead.” - Joris Minne, Belfast Telegraph
- “Harry’s Shack has changed the rulebook. It’s so unlikely, there is no model for it, they are in a shack on a beach in the far north west, yet Donal and Derek are at the cutting edge of contemporary Irish cooking and they had an audience from week one.” - Food writer John McKenn
- “Under Derek Creagh ... the cooking is simply brilliant, memorable for its freshness, flavour and colour. You’d travel a long way to find food as good as this, and hardworking staff make sure you get the service to match.” - Georgina Campbell’s Ireland