Operator to make merry in Glasgow

SLTN Award-winner behind Dundee’s Draffens and Bird & Bear expands bars group

Phil Donaldson and AJ McMenemy
Phil Donaldson (left) and Macmerry operations director AJ McMenemy.

EXPANDING a business can be tough at the best of times, but in the midst of a pandemic it’s not for the faint hearted, as Phil Donaldson – the operator behind Dundee bars group Macmerry 300 – will attest.

Phil, who was named SLTN Entrepreneur of the Year for 2019 in association with Chivas, decided to fulfil a long-held ambition of expanding into Glasgow last year, taking on a number of leases, refurbishing the units and opening three new venues as restrictions began to be eased – with a further three, including an Abandon Ship Bar in the former So LA outlet on Mitchell Street, due to launch in the coming weeks.

It was a bold move. And, when SLTN caught up with him in one of the new outlets – The Bull in the former Munro’s venue on Great Western Road – one he described as stressful.

“I took the first lockdown quite badly,” said Phil, whose Macmerry 300 group includes Dundee venues Draffens, Bird & Bear and The King of Islington.

“We had spent a lot of money to open Nola [nightclub below Macmerry’s The King of Islington bar in Dundee] and it only traded for ten days before the lockdown.

“It was going in to the unknown and everything was outwith my control.

“And all the stuff we had been working on for such a long time wasn’t happening.”
That changed with the easing of restrictions last summer, and Phil began to lay the foundations of Macmerry 300’s Glasgow portfolio with a clutch of venues: The Luchador – an agave-focused bar with South American cuisine in Strathbungo on Glasgow’s south side; a speakeasy called Mr Lincoln below The Luchador; and The Bull on Great Western Road.

And there’s more to come in the shape of a cocktail bar called Fly South above The Drake on the corner of Lynedoch Street and Woodlands Road; and Still Not Dead – a bar majoring in cocktails and cheese on Dumbarton Road.

There’s also the soon-to-open Abandon Ship Bar in the former So LA outlet, which is set to feature a small retail space in the basement with two fitting rooms – one of which will lead to a ‘secret’ jazz bar.

The plan to open ten Abandon Ship Bars across the UK in the next three to five years remains on track with London next on the horizon, and cities like Leeds, Manchester, Brighton and Edinburgh all in the mix. Phil reckons there could also be scope to take the brand to Europe.

There’s also been some changes in Macmerry’s Dundee heartland, where former professional footballer Phil opened his first hospitality venture – Gracie’s cafe in Broughty Ferry – before laying the foundations of the group by leasing premises at the then undeveloped Dundee waterfront in 2015 and opening a restaurant and adjacent cocktail bar Jam Jar, which went on to assume their current identities: Bird & Bear and Abandon Ship Bar.

Last month saw the group launch Frank’s Italian pasta bar in the former Bubu cafe space on the ground floor of the building in which Macmerry operates Draffens in the basement and The Blue Room on the first floor. And the aforementioned launch of nightclub Nola.

Now, the main focus for Phil and the Macmerry 300 team, which includes operations director AJ McMenemy, Dundee area manager Turtle Higgins, and Glasgow area manager Dimi Savvaidis, is on getting the group’s outlets fully trading again as restrictions are eased, and launching the remainder of the new Glasgow outlets.

“We’ve got a great, talented team,” said Phil.

“It’s been a lot. I’ve put myself and the team through it.

“When I see an opportunity I can’t let it go.

“It’s been stressful but the opportunities came up and I knew now was the time to take them. Don’t waste a crisis – isn’t that the saying?

“It’s been a lot of hard work but I’m glad we’ve done it.”