The redemptive quality of rags to riches tales never fails to fascinate and inspire. In the case of Austin “John” Whelan, though, his story goes around a full circle again – from rags to riches to rags, and then back to riches – as he admits that after working hard through his 20s to “have it all”, he “fucked up, made wrong decisions wrong judgements, I didn’t have any respect for myself so I didn’t have any for other people either”.
Only a rare moment of clarity – at 3am on a New Year’s morning, as it happens – helped Whelan realise what he needed to do to turn things around.
This week, Whelan announced ambitious plans to spend £400,000 on the disused South Croydon pub The Baskerville, and transform it into the fourth Irish bar to carry his name: there’s a Whelans recently opened in Kingston, one in Cricklewood and another in Uxbridge, which has had visits from its local MP.
The South Croydon Whelans will be one of rapidly growing group of around a dozen pubs and bars Whelan owns or manages. These also include the Purley Arms, on the Brighton Road, and the Bedford Tavern, in central Croydon, where he met Gemma, his future wife and business partner and the person he credits with helping him turn round his life.
Whelan was brought up in Doolin, on the west coast of Ireland, travelling to London at the age of 16 to follow his mother into the pub trade.
“I got the boat, my mother was here and she had a few pubs and I worked for her. One of them was The Swan on Caledonian Road, so I worked there for two or three years until she sold it,” he said in an interview in the Irish press last year.
“I have only ever wanted to work in the pubs and bar trade.”
Whelan got his first tenancy – running a pub day-to-day as your own business, usually renting from a brewery – by the time he was 21, taking on a Young’s pub in Thornton Heath. He proved to be a natural in the business, generating more sales, ordering more barrels of ale each week, increasing profits all the time.
“And then I lost everything, all my own fault, down to drinking and gambling and just too much messing. I went crazy,” he said.
“I took a couple of years out, went to Ireland, I was helped by my parents who were very good. I needed time to sort out what I was going to do and how I was going to do it.
“I fucked up, made wrong decisions, wrong judgements, I didn’t have any respect for myself so I didn’t have any for other people either.
“Then one New Year’s Eve I had a moment of clarity at 3am, realised the position I was in, that I had put myself there and no one else and that it had to change. So I rang my dad and asked him to collect me.
“Four months after that I got a little hole in Stockwell, The Clarence, full of drugs and people you didn’t want and turned it around and took its business up from £1,000 a week to £6,000 a week. The boss of the company that owned it took a chance on me.”
It was in 2005 when Whelan was called up and asked if he wanted to take on a pub in central Croydon, on Sydenham Road. It was the Bedford, and it needed the sort of expenditure on it – tens of thousands of pounds – that Whelan just didn’t have.
Whelan visited the pub, and it was there he first met Gemma. “I thought ‘Fuck it, if the pub doesn’t work then I might get something else out of it’. And here we are, four kids later and married. That was when I turned my life around, when I met her, Gemma, my wife, my best friend and my business partner.”
One of Whelan’s chain of pubs is in Doolin, where he and Gemma have established their family home, and which he visits at weekends. He has also set up a lucrative sideline in breeding racing greyhounds.
While much of the pub trade has been reporting tough times, Whelan’s business is undergoing rapid expansion, based on a formula – whether the bars are Irish-themed or not – which provides live music and good food.
But this is not without its challenges for Whelan and his pub managers. “The problem with food though is the chefs,” he told Irish World.
“Every chef seems to have an issue, alcohol or smoking or whatever… The chefs are the business. My one problem is getting chefs.
“There isn’t the pipeline of kitchen talent that there used to be, a lot of the best from Ireland have gone to Canada, but we’ll pull it off.
“I really want to roll out Whelans as a brand, especially with music.
“I’m very conscious of having thrown everything away when I was younger and having been given a second chance and turned my life around – and I am dead serious about wanting to make a success of this, something a cut above the rest and that has mine, or our, stamp on it.
“It’s hard work but I’m a lucky man.”
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