A pub with a difference: John Hewitt

A pub with a difference

The John Hewitt is one of the most well-known bars in Belfast but is also a successful centre for helping the unemployed. Emma Blee finds out more.

Belfast’s John Hewitt is what many would call a “proper” bar. There is no music – except live entertainment − and no television, just good old-fashioned talking. It is also very unique in that it is the only bar in Ireland to be owned by a charitable organisation and also tackles unemployment.

In 1995, founder and chair of the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre (BURC), Brendan Mackin, returned from a trip to Liverpool where he had visited ‘The Flying Picket’ – a bar owned by a charity group.

He was immediately drawn in by the idea and thought that “the polarised city of Belfast” could do with a new and innovative bar that thought “outside the box”. BURC had previously relied on grants to fund its work, which meant it had certain duties to fulfil in return, so the idea that it could generate some of their own funds, and seize some free reign by going into business, seemed appealing.

“The centre is a charitable organisation so we are governed by charitable law and that means the money we are allocated by funding is ring-fenced to do certain things,” explains Mackin.

“This money can only be used for certain projects such as training courses, and not for supporting issues the centre believes to be important such as environmental issues or campaigning against certain government policy.”

After extensive research and armed with a loan − which was split between Guinness and the bank − he set to work on finding a location for the bar. He soon decided that the old News Letter printing offices, located in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, would fit the bill.

In the mid-nineties, the Cathedral Quarter was full of derelict buildings and would have been the most unknown part of the city but the introduction of the John Hewitt was about to change that.

Unique features

Named after the late poet, socialist and freeman of Belfast, the pub first opened its doors in December 1999. It was a momentous occasion, especially as Hewitt had formally opened the resource centre in 1985.

From the very inception, the main focus of the pub was tradition, local produce and local people as well as supporting the issues and campaigns that BURC stands for. “We thought Belfast needed a good pub with good food and no distractions. We wanted there to be a focus on supporting local live music, food, literature and art,” says Mackin.

However, because a loan was taken out to purchase the bar certain conditions had to be adhered to, such as the stocking of particular products. But seven very successful years later, the loan was paid off and the John Hewitt became “a free house”, which meant it could sell what it wanted and support what it believed in with the proceeds.

Ten years on and the ethos of the pub remains as strong. It employs 18 staff at present and most of the full-time staff have worked there since the doors first opened. BURC provides education, training and advice to the unemployed and the John Hewitt provides opportunities for those trained in the hospitality industry.

The bar, which has become one of the most successful in Belfast, stocks beer from all four of Northern Ireland’s breweries and insists on fresh, local produce in its restaurant. It is also the only bar in the province to stock 14 different types of beer on draft.

One of the most unique features of the bar is its art gallery, which displays the extensive work of local artists. While many of the bigger art galleries in Belfast enforce a commission charge, the John Hewitt sells work at no cost to the artists.

The gallery was built into the whole concept of the bar from the beginning. “The idea behind this is that it gives new artists a chance to break into the industry but because of the vast and varied footfall in the bar, it also attracts an audience they might otherwise miss,” Mackin comments.

The John Hewitt also helps existing artists to launch their work and managers of the bar have been known to purchase pieces for the ‘John Hewitt’ art collection, which boasts around 50 individual works. Oliver Jeffers and Lorcan Falloday are just two of the many well-known artists who have launched their work at the bar.

Local festivals

Bar manager Gerry White says that promoting the local art scene is also one of his top priorities: “We have a very close relationship to the local festivals. Many of the festivals are actually launched at the bar and we sponsor quite a few by making donations.

“This year we are involved in the Open House Festival, Belfast Bred, Belfast City Blues 2010, The Great Belfast Art Hunt and many other smaller projects. It is something we really prioritise. We want to help the local arts as much as we can.”

While BURC isn’t actually involved with the day-to-day running of the bar, staff at the centre are always available to add support and to ensure the ethics of BURC are adhered to.

“The benefits of having BURC as owners is that it gives a better feeling for the staff. They know that they are not just coming to work to pull pints. They are part of something more than commercial enterprise. It gives us a lot more pride in our work because we are involved with so many of the events that BURC run,” says White.

However, the benefits are not one-sided. The bar has proved to be successful and managers at BURC and The John Hewitt are looking towards expansion. Mackin comments: “We are looking at developing the concept and looking at other areas in Northern Ireland that we could expand to so that we can carry on our work at a greater level.”

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