Joe Macken is the man behind some of the edgiest restaurants in Dublin including Jo’Burger, Skinflint, Crackbird and Bear. He’s always managed to nail serving high-quality food with unusual flavour combinations at prices that definitely don't break the bank. His restaurants are known for their unique vibe, buzzing atmosphere and great tunes every night. We wanted to learn more about how the man behind the restaurants, the secret to their success and his Dublin hot spots.
So, did your food empire all begin with Jo'Burger? Where did you get the idea for it?
It all started with Orange Square, a sandwich bar on Baggot St - myself and my Dad started it 10 years ago. Jo'Burger Rathmines grew out of that in 2007
Since then you've had a number of restaurant successes- JoBurger, Crackbird, Bear, Skinflint... Is there a secret to a successful restaurant?
Restaurants are successful for different reasons; ours is because we know what we are and who our customer is. We also serve unreal food.
We know you've had a few challenges on the road to success, have they helped shape the JoBurger brand today?
Like everything, it's the swings and roundabouts that make this interesting, and what you learn from them. Examinership brought new people into Jo'Burger, John my biz partner for one, but it also made us think about how to grow after a tumble - Crackbird 1 on Crane Lane was the most obvious result.
If you were to pick a favourite restaurant out of all your businesses, what would it be? Or is that like asking someone to pick a favourite child?
It is, but I have a soft spot for Crane Lane. skinflint is there at the moment. I know Niall panned it but I think he's wrong, it's a great space serving great pizzas and like all our places we have a solid FOH team there
Well, I love Skinflint, I'm obsessed with the chorizo "Suzie" pizza. What makes your restaurants unique?
What dish do we need to try immediately from one of your places?
The chestnut mushrooms, miso butter & avo on toasted sour dough with rocket from BEAR's brunch/weekender menu [check out the spuntino egg, total recipe rob but its the bomb; a toasted crouton with emmenthal cheese, serrano ham, duck egg yolk, truffle oil all baked together]
Okay, I think I now know where I’ll be this Saturday morning! Dublin's food scene is getting better and better, your restaurants are proof that a great meal out doesn't need to cost a fortune. Is it hard to stay competitive while keeping the quality high?
Yes, but you have to work it. We normally fix the SP and the menu idea then work it out from there with the help of suppliers. We just worked on a weekend menu for BEAR trying to get everything in under a tenner; we're not trying to be cheap in any way it's just what's affordable to everyone. If our staff can't afford it it's too expensive.
Your restaurants are known for their great music and you even have DJs at the weekends. How important is music to a dining experience and why?
Ask any member of staff what happens when I walk in - lights down tunes up before I make it to the pass. Atmosphere is key - there's nothing worse than a super bright quiet resto that's like a lab. Some people might not like the loud music at the weekends but it makes our places tick and they're normally damn fine tunes too.
Favourite song at the moment?
Is it sad if I say Conchita? But Ella Eyre 'If I Go' on my cycle to work playlist is a winner.
Well “If I Go” is certainly a great track! Your restaurants all have really amazing design and atmosphere. How do you come up with restaurant concepts?
Wine & chats mostly.
I’m sure there’s some great brainstorming that comes out of that strategy! We heard you opened Crackbird with €15k on a credit card, tell me more about that?
We had just exited examinership, we had very little/no cash in the company, banks weren't lending, I was skint. I had crackbird running around my head beating a drum to get out. Kev, my dad, found the location and we just made it happen on John’s 15k credit card limit. It was held together with sellotape and at the end of each shift we would have to work a minor miracle on it - but the crew helped build the bird so that wasn't a huge challenge, we just got stuck in.
The restaurant scene is fast paced, surely you're knackered?! Do you get time to unwind and if so, what do you like doing to relax?
I’ve been a lazy mare the last few months making up for holidays lost but thats going to pass with JB3 opening in smithfield in the next few weeks
We’ll have to make a trip over to try it out. Dublin has a really thriving food scene, what do you think makes it unique?
We do. Irish people, it's the same the world over. We're sort of deadly.
Agreed, we are deadly. Is there anyone who inspires your work?
There are a few people in Dublin but chefs/owners/managers don't need any more ego boosters
Fair enough. You're clearly really passionate about what you do.. Does your job feel like you're living your passion or is work just work at the end of the day?
This is my life, it's not work, it never was. If it turns into a job I'll be over it.
What's the craziest customer experience or thing that has happened in one of your restaurants?
Too many weird things happen a regular basis - hunger is a catalyst for shit storms
We have seen some celebrities like Professor Green tweeting pictures of their nights in Crackbird. Any crazy celebrity experiences along the way?
I love that HBO film lots here, Tudors & Penny Dreadfuls had some very loose characters on their cast lists. Jonathan Rhys Meyers & Josh Hartnett on the bottle are wild men
Give me a call next time they drop in! What's the one thing you could never take off the menu?
Million dollar fries
Good to hear, I love them. What's your favourite meal from any of your restaurants?
Harissa chicken zondi in a tortilla from Jo’Burger always has been from the get go. Rarely have a different burger. It's got thai green curry mayo, fresh chili & coriander on top
Do you have any spots in Dublin that we should know about?
The great south wall for a walk, la cave for a late drink, Mother for dancing
What's next for JoBurger? Can we expect any more openings in the future?
JB3 or Jo'Burger Smithfield is opening soon but we are ready to grow more, we just need to find the right locations.
Tell me your favourite way to spend a day in Dublin?
Howth head with Fennel [dog] & Totes [fella]
And your favourite way to spend a night in Dublin?
Generally carousing around South William St area
What's your favourite bar in Dublin and why?
Can't single one out for fear of offending another, but I normally drink in restos, not really into bars/pubs
Any hangover cures you swear by?
A small beer
Pizza... What do you top yours with?
Porchetta, rocket, lemon & chili
Tell me your favourite (non JoBurger) restaurant in Dublin, and when you're there, what do you order?
M&L - dumplings, Cumin Beef, Mala pork ribs, Steamed Sea Bass and loads of vegetables
Sounds amazing. What's your guilty pleasure?
RuPaul's Drag Race with tayto crisps
What a show! If you could add one thing to Dublin that we don't currently have, what would it be?
A meeting place where we all know where to gravitate to when we're celebrating/fighting or whatever. It should be College Green if all the railings trees and traffic were removed
Interesting thought. What one thing would you never change about Dublin?
The toasted special
Describe Dublin in 3 words.
Changing, home, easy
Describe yourself in 3 words.
No thank you
Best piece of advice you've ever received and from whom?
My Dad - don't shit on your own door step
Great advice. Last but not least, anything happening in Dublin this summer that you're excited about?
I take life as it comes without to much planning. I never look up gig guides or events but I'm sweatin' for Garth.
Thanks a million Joe, we now have Saturday’s brunch spot sorted and know where to run to when the apocalypse is nigh.