Thoroughly Irish as it may be, St. Patrick’s Day has been widely — and wildly — embraced on these shores and has become a national institution. It’s also become a significant profit center for Irish-themed restaurants and bars across the land.
It’s not church bells you hear ringing on March 17 — it’s cash resisters going cha-ching.
“St. Patrick’s Day is annually the biggest day of the year,” said Shaun Clancy, whose family runs Foley’s NY Pub on West 33 Street in New York City, just off Fifth Avenue. “You have to make corned beef and cabbage. People expect it. We’ll go through 300 orders on St. Patrick’s Day.”
It’s the same story at Mike O’Shay’s Restaurant and Alehouse in Colorado’s Boulder County. The pub, which is celebrating its 30th St. Patrick’s Day, is expecting 1,000 guests and plans to serve 800 pounds of corned beef, 400 pounds of potatoes and 400 pounds of cabbage.
“It’s by far the busiest day of the year,” owner Mike Shea told BusinessNewsDaily. “It boosts our whole week.”
It’s a holiday that also loves to spread its wings. The Tally Ho Pub & Eatery in Erin, Wisc., a town about 40 minutes northwest of Milwaukee that was settled by Irish immigrants in 1846, covers its parking lot with a heated tent to accommodate the 2,000 guests it will serve on March 17. The Tally Ho has hosted St. Patrick’s Day celebrations since the mid-1870s.
“It’s huge for us,” said owner Chaz Hastings. “On that day I’ll do as much [business] as an entire month.”
The Fadó Irish Pub and Restaurant there doesn’t restrict St. Patrick’s Day to just one day — instead, it has planned a weeklong itinerary of events it’s calling the “Week of Savage Craic.” Craic (pronounced crack) is a common term in Ireland meaning fun, entertainment and good times with friends.
“It’s something we literally plan for from one year to the next,” owner Kieran McGill said. “The parade and day itself are worth two weeks of business.”
One of the hoariest clichés is that everyone wants to be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. But there’s no denying the holiday’s ability to tug on the heartstrings and loosen the purse strings. Curiously, the day resonates more in this country than it does in Ireland.
“I was absolutely gobsmacked at how Americans embraced St. Patrick’s Day,” said David Kelly, an Ireland native who, with fellow Dubliner and friend Ciaran Sheehan, opened the first of 12 Rí Rá Irish Pubs in this country in 1997. “It’s such a huge event in the U.S.”
Rí Rá pubs are constructed from materials from old pubs in Ireland that are salvaged and restored. Authenticity, said Kelly, is the core of each pub’s DNA. There are no reproductions or the bric-a-brac that brand many ersatz Irish chain operations.
“We’ve identified those items that are recognizably Irish and made them stellar,” Kelly said. “This is our acid test — if we were building a pub in Dublin, what would we do?”
That emphasis on the authentic includes playing down St. Patrick’s Day as a one-shot extravaganza.
“Instead of going out to maximize revenue on St. Patrick’s’ Day, we going to try to provide a good experience throughout the year,” Kelley said. “We want to create a local for the community. People come to Irish pubs for a certain type of experience. It’s mostly about comfort food.”
At Fadó, the menu also attempts to introduce American palates to Irish fare beyond the staple comfort foods of corned beef and cabbage, fish and chips and shepherd’s pie. One popular item is boxty, which is much like an Irish burrito with a potato pancake replacing the tortilla.
The increased emphasis on food has also edged out alcohol as the centerpiece of St. Patrick’s Day.
“People are a lot more responsible these days with the amount they drink,” said O’Shay’s Shea. “It’s not a drunken brawl. There’s more emphasis on food than ever.”
It’s still not a celebration, though, that the pro-temperance, hatchet-wielding Carrie Nation would welcome with open arms. Fadó’s McGill said they do see a spike in alcohol sales. But wetting the whistle is becoming more sophisticated as Irish whiskey claims more space at the bar.
“People suddenly are becoming more aware of the range and depth of Irish whiskies,” said McGill. “Irish whisky is one of the fastest growing categories in the U.S.”
The unwavering popularity of St. Patrick’s Day here may lay in its offering license for people to shed the stress of everyday life and kick back, relax and celebrate, McGill said.
St. Patrick’s Day is becoming more accessible to every culture,” he said. “It’s transcended from being a Irish-centric holiday to a holiday for everybody.”
Everybody, that is, except "Danny Boy" at Foley’s NY Pub. This morose ballad (penned, no less, by an Englishman) was banned there in 2008 to call attention to worthier songs in the Irish repertoire.