15 August by Laura Irwin
Welcome to our new feature called ‘Time Out’. ‘Time Out’ lets you get to know the personalities behind the tourism businesses which contribute so much to our visitors’ experiences. Here with our first in the series is Claire, the restaurant manager in Digby’s Bar and Restaurant in Killylea, County Armagh.
One pub which truly demonstrates the resilience of the country pub is Digby’s Bar & Restaurant in the rural village of Killylea, Co Armagh. Claire was peeling spuds and vegetables from the age of 10. Now she manages this popular, award winning gastro pub.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m Claire and I’m the restaurant manager in Digby’s Bar & Restaurant and have been working here from the ripe old age of 10. I started peeling vegetables and potatoes on a Sunday morning. I continued working part-time throughout my school and university years and finally came full-time to the restaurant in October 2008.
Digby’s is a family business. Did you ever imagine yourself running the pub and restaurant?
I graduated with a BA Hons in International Business studies and went on to complete a Masters in Communication, Advertising and PR. I worked for a few years in a newspaper group in Belfast in the events and marketing department which I loved. I also squeezed in a trip around the world in 2006 (although I know daddy feared I had the travel bug and would never return) but, at the back of my mind, I knew I would always give running the restaurant a go.
What are the big challenges you face working in the food and drink sector?
There seems to be a shortage of chefs coming into the industry perhaps due to the greater number of restaurants in Northern Ireland at the minute. Competition has also got a lot stiffer this past few years with new restaurants opening in the county on a yearly or even monthly basis. Good chefs are hard to come by but we have a great reputation for our food offering.
How important is it for you to maintain the reputation of the traditional rural pub as a vital lifeline for local communities?
It’s very important. A pub is not only a place to get a drink. It is a place for friends to meet and have a chance to talk about their problems or share some news. It can be a quiet haven away from family life or simply a place to go for some company. An old customer of ours summed it up nicely – ‘it is the university of life’.
Digby’s has survived rough trading times. How have you survived the decline of the rural pub?
We are very lucky that our bar serves food and so we don’t rely solely on the bar trade. This has kept us busy especially during the economic downturn where people didn’t have as much disposable income.
We see Digby’s at many outdoor food fairs and events. What has been the favourite to date?
Our favourite is definitely the annual Georgian Day in Armagh. I love the whole atmosphere. It’s very authentic and everyone partakes by dressing in traditional clothing. On October 1, 2016 I was on the organising committee of the one-off Caledon Village Georgian Festival which was outstanding. Over 3,000 people came to the village and the Earl of Caledon was our special guest. Everyone had an amazing time.
Have you any upcoming events that we can spot Digby’s at this summer?
No events to date for the summer, we generally attend winter/ Christmas events. Our traditional Christmas pudding is always a big hit. We have just been awarded a One Star Rating in the 2017 Great Taste Awards for our Digby’s Traditional Christmas Pudding. We advertise all events we are attending on our Facebook page so keep an eye out. We are going to be at this year’s Richhill Apple Harvest Fayre this year which takes place on October 28. This will be our first year there with our Christmas Puddings.
We know Digby’s is a firm favourite among local people. Do you get many tourists coming in?
We do indeed. Tourists love coming to rural Armagh and rural Tyrone. We get a lot of American and Canadian tourists throughout the summer months. We have a good relationship with a few of the local B&Bs who recommend our restaurant to their guests. Through Live It Experience It we are working with Holiday Homes NI and also College Hall Farmhouse as well as the local tearoom – Allens of Caledon & Armagh. Clustering together like this is a fantastic opportunity.
What’s the biggest day of the year for Digby’s Bar and Restaurant?
It’s hard to pinpoint one to be honest. We have a dinner dance on New Year’s Eve which always goes on into the wee hours. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are always extremely busy days and Boxing Day is a great day for the local hunt. Hundreds of people gather to watch the display of horses and hounds on the Main Street.
County Armagh is known as the Food Heartlands of Northern Ireland. How proud are you that Digby’s remains so popular in the area?
We are so proud of our restaurant. We have been serving food since 1973 and drinks since 1910 so we have definitely stood the test of time. We are very grateful to all our customers new and old. We understand they have a choice, but, week in week out, we are welcoming the same people through the doors.
What words sum up County Armagh?
Bramley Apples, cider, orchard county, the Mall, Marcari’s, ecclesiastical capital of Ireland, St Patrick, heritage, culture and home.
What’s your favourite dish on the menu at the moment?
It has to be the pan fried Lemon sole on a bed of seafood risotto with asparagus. I’m a big fish eater.
Are you a starters or a dessert fan?
I always have both. I can’t resist!
You recently invested in an interior refurbishment. How has business been since?
We have been so busy since we reopened at the start of May. We are seeing a lot of new customers who love the new decor. I believe our business survives because we continue to invest and people recognise that.
As a Live It Experience It member, how important is it to tell your story?
It very important to us as a family business to get our story out there and Live It Experience It is helping us in a way which is unique through collaboration and storytelling. We are proud of our story like many other businesses. But without the story being told no-one will hear it. Digby’s is now in its fourth generation of the family although the name Digby has not survived as my mother came from a family of five girls. We are very attached to the history and the sentimentality and love to share our story with customers.
Digby’s Bar and Restaurant is a Live It Experience It member.
Live It Experience It’ is a group of tourism businesses working together to promote our region through water, air and land based activities, food and drink and great places to stay. If you would like to become a member business in of ‘Live It Experience It’ please submit your information through our online form – Sign Up Here. Pitch your business and meet like minded tourism businesses who you could cluster with. #liveitexperienceit