Raising the Bar

Brenda O'Reilly heads a national advocacy group and owns two downtown hot spots, and she's just getting started

James McLeod jmcleod@thetelegram.com
Published on December 24, 2009
Brenda O'Reilly stands behind the bar at O'Reilly's on George Street. She is the owner of both O'Reilly's and the YellowBelly Brewery, and also sits as the chairwoman of the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association. - Photo by James McLeod/The Telegram

Halfway through the interview, someone walks into the bar. It's about 1:30 p.m. on a Saturday, and O'Reilly's on George Street is closed - chairs on tables, most of the lights off - but apparently the guy found an unlocked door.

Brenda O'Reilly politely says she'll be back in a minute and walks behind the bar to see what the patron wants.

Halfway through the interview, someone walks into the bar. It's about 1:30 p.m. on a Saturday, and O'Reilly's on George Street is closed - chairs on tables, most of the lights off - but apparently the guy found an unlocked door.

Brenda O'Reilly politely says she'll be back in a minute and walks behind the bar to see what the patron wants.

Most of the time, O'Reilly is the founder/owner of O'Reilly's, the owner of the YellowBelly Brewery and chairwoman of the board of the Canadian Restaurant and Food-services Association (CRFA).

But without missing a beat, she morphs into full-on customer-service mode, and she looks comfortable behind the bar.

Half an hour earlier when The Telegram arrived, she leaned casually against the taps and pulled a couple of samples of the YellowBelly beer that O'Reilly's has on tap.

O'Reilly and her husband and business partner Craig Flynn are in a fairly commanding place when it comes to the St. John's food service scene.

She describes O'Reilly's as "one of the most iconic brands in New-foundland" - a brand they hope, one day, will extend across Canada.

YellowBelly has been called a jewel on the corner of George.

But there's still a constant fear of failure, she says, and the drive to prove herself.

"Absolutely, that's what keeps you going. The fear of failure keeps you focused on your business," she says. "Success is pride; why I work in the industry is passion."

It's the same attitude that fired her work when she owned and ran the Stonehouse, a fine-dining restaurant on Kenna's Hill in St. John's that ultimately lost money and had to close after a dispute with the landlord.

"She has incredible stamina," says Rebecca Quinton, owner of Quintanas in Churchill Square.

Quinton hired O'Reilly out of school to manage Casa Grande on Duckworth Street, her restaurant at the time.

"It was a learning process, of course, for her where she hadn't actually worked as a general manager before."

Now there's a plan to franchise O'Reilly's across Canada.

Closer to home, O'Reilly and Flynn have bought the Black Dog Pub adjoining O'Reilly's and are renovating to connect the two.

They're also test-growing hops on a plot of land outside the city, and hope to mass-produce YellowBelly beer.

The couple is working on all of those projects together.

It was Flynn who oversaw the restoration of the YellowBelly premises, guided by O'Reilly's vision.

"She's a very loving person, and very focused on the future; on what she wants O'Reilly's to be and what she wants YellowBelly to be," he said of his wife.

Back in the bar, O'Reilly's concerns are more immediate.

Quick study

The unexpected patron wants to buy a gift card for Christmas and pay by debit card - and O'Reilly doesn't know how the gadget works.

But instead of letting the sale get away from her, O'Reilly picks up the phone and gets a quick tutorial from someone who knows.

The new gift cards are downstairs, and she has to go get one of them, and the debit machine is a different tutorial altogether.

With the phone crooked into her shoulder, O'Reilly reaches down into a fridge and cracks the top off a Coors and hands it to the guy. The whole episode lasts about 10 minutes.

In the end she loads up the gift card and he settles up.

She walks back over to the table where we've been doing the interview with a smile on her face.

"I just learned two new things: how to program a gift card and how to work a debit machine," she says, taking a sip of her YellowBelly stout.

Then she effortlessly launches back into a lament about the sins of the provincial and federal governments when it comes to the restaurant industry - the same spiel she's given to multiple premiers and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

At its core, her argument is that the restaurant and food service industry is overlooked. Unlike the auto industry or the fishery, the government has no overall food service strategy, despite the fact that it's a major employer and a contributor to the tax base and the economy.

"All levels of government, I think, have taken our industry for granted," she says. "When they develop public policy they need to consider our industry, because it's a very volatile industry when times are tough."

It's a convincing pitch; she recently managed to get Premier Danny Williams into a chef's coat to promote her cause.

"She's not a lobbyist - and that's the beauty, why she does such a good job representing the industry - because she's got skin in the game," says Luc Erjavec, Atlantic vice-president of the CRFA.

"She has been a pleasure to work with; she is a tenacious and a true entrepreneur."

When it's pointed out to O'Reilly that she has managed to switch back and forth from local entrepreneur to national spokeswoman - seamlessly - during an interview, she explains it's because the two are one and the same.

jmcleod@thetelegram.com