Matt MacNeil

With the opening of the Bard & Banker Pub last summer, Matt MacNeil had painted the last panel in his triptych of Victoria-area watering holes.

The opulent Bard alone is worthy of a raised eyebrow, but it’s the three pubs, the Bard & Banker, Irish Times, and Penny Farthing, that collectively form a MacNeil masterpiece. How he put the finishing brush stroke on his canvas is an old story now, but worthy of a re-telling.

Since the early ’90s, the Vancouver native had envisioned a pub in the 23,000-square-foot heritage building that was then a store selling Christmas ornaments. When the store shut down in 2006, he pounced but found the owners reluctant to sell, and he had no desire to pay a monthly rent of $35,000.

MacNeil had planned a European vacation that spring, but ended up using the opportunity to make a side-trip to Munich for a meeting with the German businessman who owned the building. MacNeil told him that he was prepared to pay more than market value (the offer remains a secret, but the building was assessed at more than $5 million). The owner said “nein,” but he smiled as he opened up a notebook and carefully wrote down the figure. “I got up to leave, then turned to him and upped it by another six figures,” says MacNeil. Again, there was a polite smile and more scribbling in the notebook. Three weeks later they had a deal, and MacNeil began a massive renovation project, including $750,000 alone on a seismic upgrade.

The Bard & Banker project might have been his biggest, but it wasn’t his first. Since the late 1980s, the publican has owned or been a partner in pubs across Western Canada, including six in Calgary, one in Banff, and now three in Victoria. He and his wife Wendy, both from the West Coast, lived in Calgary for a few years but settled in Victoria in 1997, a year before MacNeil opened the Dubh Linn Gate Pub in Whistler, which he sold in 2004. What followed were Oak Bay’s Penny Farthing in 2001, the Irish Times in 2003, and last summer’s Bard & Banker. Add a liquor store to that, and you’ve got a 270-employee empire with enough bar seats for 715 patrons, all operated under the umbrella of MacNeil’s Victoria Pub Company, which he runs with partners Gord McCormick and Ken Boyer.

A MacNeil establishment is as much about pub culture as it is about food and drink. It’s about preserving the tradition of the pub as a public house and meeting place. The Penny Farthing is known as “Oak Bay’s Living Room,” perhaps because MacNeil is such a welcoming host. He almost single-handedly revitalized that community’s centre by initiating the annual Oak Bay Village Light Up. The 48-year-old has given his time to civic task forces to end homelessness and to restore the Belleville Terminal. He’s a UVic business mentor, past chair of the Downtown Victoria Business Association (which he helped found), and was recently recognized as the Business Person of the Year by the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce. His generosity was on display again in December when he hosted a fundraising evening for local tenor Ken Lavigne whose dream is to play Carnegie Hall.

Are you going to open more pubs?

I’ve got other things that I want to do. I’ll never say never. But our business is seven days a week every day of the year except Christmas Day. It’s a lot of work.

Is the pub business recession proof?

No liquor primary outlet in B.C. that I know of has ever gone bankrupt. It’s not recession proof but a great value if operated properly.

What’s the major obstacle for anyone trying to do business downtown?

It isn’t tough doing business downtown. It’s difficult to overcome the perception that downtown is tough. The perception is not the reality. By the investment we’ve made, you can see I’m very bullish on this downtown.

You’ve been vocal about cleaning up downtown. How much of a priority is it?

We need to remember one thing. Albeit social issues are very, very important, they’ve become the overriding issue. [The mayor] needs to build relationships with senior government. I think that’s important. Let the Coalition [Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness] do its work and get on with the business of running the city.

As late as last summer, you publicly pondered running for mayor; why didn’t you?

I think the people of this city need a full-time commitment [for mayor]. In order for me to be mayor, I would have to get out of this business. Will I ever run? Yes, when the timing is right. I’m leaving the door open.

If you were mayor, would you consider shutting down Government Street to vehicles?

No. It’s the wrong call. I lived in Vancouver for 30 years and I watched what happened to the Granville Street mall. I would close Langley Street and Broad Street on either side of Government. Those are great pedestrian streets.

How tough is it to get a liquor licence here?

It’s not that difficult. In Victoria, I’ve applied for one and received one. I’ve purchased one and moved it to the Bard & Banker and I’ve got the only one in Oak Bay.

Are there too many licensed premises downtown already?

No. I’m hopeful that those who have these licences act responsibly with them. One irresponsible one is too many. Transportation out of the downtown zone after the bars close at night is something we need to address.

The Bard & Banker is in a heritage building. Is the heritage protection of our buildings being handled correctly by City Hall?

I think that we have to be careful between walking that line of preserving actual heritage and stifling economic opportunities.

Is running a pub as much about building community as it is filling empty glasses?

To be successful in any business, you need to be part of the fabric of any community. If you just open the doors and sell booze, you won’t be successful in the long term. You’re only ever measured by what you do, so it’s important that you do what you say.

What is “the perfect pint”?

The perfect pint was originally a byline that Guinness adopted. You’re talking about a product that has been kegged and moved here, sometimes from as far away as Ireland. The perfect pint is when these kegs are tagged accurately when we pick them up from the warehouse, and our lines are cleaned weekly, and the coolers are the right temperature, and our glass washer is functioning properly. To me, that’s a perfect pint. It’s about chilling it and serving it and presenting it the way it should be.