It may be located in one of Belfast’s most historic buildings, but The National is a hospitality venue that is definitely looking to the future.
The popular cafe and bar in the old National Bank building on High Street reopened last night following completion of a £425,000 renovation project.
The work included installation of a fully retractable roof and more energy efficient natural gas heating system in the garden area, and a £40,000 projector system which will provide lighting and visual art displays inside the bar.
The interior has been completely refurbished to make it warmer and more comfortable. And upstairs, nightclub Sixty6 has also been given a facelift and rebranded as ‘Upstairs at The National’.
But according to owner Conall Wolsey, a 35-year-old father of two young children, one of the main changes customers will notice is the business’s new push towards sustainability.
The venue, which first opened in 2013, has done away with plastic straws, and its food menu now only uses local ingredients sourced within 40 miles of Belfast.
In bid to reduce the amount of glass used, it will no longer sell bottled water, instead filtering and carbonating its own tap water, which will be free to customers.
It has also implemented a “closed-loop system” in terms of cocktails, meaning all parts of fruit will be used and there will be no waste. And they are exploring the possibility of growing their own tomatoes for use in Bloody Mary cocktails.
Even spent coffee grounds from the daytime trade will be reused to produce the bar’s new draft espresso martini – a first anywhere in Ireland.
Stressing that being more eco-friendly, sustainable and having a low carbon footprint are “key aims of the business”, Mr Wolsey also revealed that the bar will no longer use limes or mint in its drinks and will only sell northern hemisphere wines – all steps designed to cut down on air miles.
“We want to stand for something and have an ethos and that ethos is sustainability,” he explained.
“We are gearing towards the future of the bar industry and what we see coming.
“This is something we think bars will have to evolve to in five or 10 years and we want to be ahead of the curve and get all the trials and tribulations out of the way. We want to be ahead of the game rather than behind it.”
In a bid to “reduce food waste to zero” The National has teamed up with an organisation that collects surplus food and distributes it to various charities.
And as part of that partnership, for every breakfast sold in the cafe the business will donate one to children in impoverished areas through schools or foodbanks.
“We are not doing this because we want to be cool, trendy, or we are some kind of tree huggers. We are doing it because we want to actually try to make a difference and we want our customers to understand that and come along on the journey with us,” Mr Wolsey continued.
“We aren’t trying to be pretentious or anything, it’s just the way we feel things have to go.”
Mr Wolsey is a director of the Beannchor Group, which owns around 30 hospitality venues across Northern Ireland, including Belfast city centre hotels Bullitt and The Merchant.
They company, founded by his father Bill Wolsey, is currently “at the planning stage” as it seeks to open an 80-room Bullitt hotel in Dublin.
Mr Wolsey says the new business model at The National will cost more money due to increased investment and additional man hours, but believes efficiencies will be found in the coming months.
Asked if it is something he plans to roll out at his other businesses, he said: “We need to find what works, what doesn’t, what can be maintained. When we find a level and improve that again then we will think about rolling it out.”
Hopeful that Belfast’s nighttime economy “will keep booming”, Mr Wolsey added: “There are a lot of bars here that are institutions and there are a lot more that will become institutions and I hope The National will become one of those institutions.”
• ‘NI’s licensing laws should be relaxed’
Conall Wolsey believes the hospitality trade in Northern Ireland has been held back by “tragic” licensing laws which, if relaxed, would give it a welcome “shot in the arm.”
“The licensing laws are awful. We don’t sit on a level playing field with the rest of the UK let alone Europe, which is miles ahead of the UK. There is this problem that they think extending licensing laws is going to lead to alcoholism, misuse of alcohol and anti-social behaviour and that is a myth. It is not the case in Europe or the UK,” he said.
Mr Wolsey insists Northern Ireland has “a good licensing system” involving councils and the courts, but says the law needs to be “relaxed and liberalised.”
“We (the hospitality sector) are just asking them to address [opening hours at] Easter. That is all we have asked for at the minute. I think that would be huge,” he said, adding that a 3am licence for venues would also be a major step forward.