We meet with iconic Irish brand Newbridge Silverware, a first-class example of how innovation and creative thinking can ensure a business that not only survives but thrives.
Newbridge Silverware is both an iconic Irish institution and one of those rare brands that manages to be traditional and beloved and contemporary and innovative all at once. Hotel & Restaurant Times was delighted to chat with Newbridge Silverware CEO William Doyle and Food & Beverage Manager Ronan Mackey to talk about its fascinating journey and evolution, and the exciting expansion of the Newbridge Silverware Visitor Centre’s restaurant from 100 to 250 seats.
The business has a rich history, one that acutely reflects a changing Ireland from the 1920s right through to today, and its inception came about through meeting economic need with creativity and innovation. It all started with the cavalry barracks in Newbridge: at its height it housed 3,000 British troops, and metal linishing skills – the smoothing or flattening metal objects – were developed on-site. In 1922, the barracks became vacant, leaving an economic vacuum in the area.
Aware of the economic difficulties in Ireland, particularly in regional areas, the new Free State Government encouraged the setting up of manufacturing businesses, and in the early 1930s local Newbridge schoolteacher Senator Cummins had a eureka moment: the vacated barracks buildings and left-behind forging and linishing equipment could be used to set up The Newbridge Cutlery Company.
“The company was born from finding opportunity in a bleak time,” says William. “It initially made stainless steel implements like butcher and chef knives, but that was discontinued, and the focus went on making fine silver-plated tableware for hotels and domestic gifting. By the late 1940s the business employed 600 people and the products were revered – for many years, the gift of a Newbridge cutlery set was a must for a couples getting married.”
While profits did grow, the business had to weather many storms to survive, and it did so with an ingenuity that seems embedded in its DNA – for example, in wartime 1940s stainless steel was impossible to acquire, so the business recycled old tram lines from Dublin! To open itself to a wider market, the company also chose to diversify and began producing a wider range of homewares, like tea and coffee sets, pots, and kettles. Over the years the company endeavoured to grow and adapt, but the next big challenge came in the form of Ireland joining the EEC. Prior to that, the company was insulated, protected by tariffs and quotas from imports from the U.K. This is where the Doyle family’s involvement began.
William explains: “The 1970s were good in terms of sales, but the business was inefficient, and that was exposed when it joined the common market. It needed to be downscaled and we pulled back from 600 staff to 50. It was on the verge of closing at that point. My dad was a shareholder, so he bought out the other shareholders and decided to make a go of it.” William’s first job was working at the company when he was 15, and he tells us he didn’t necessarily have a real interest in the business at the time or any idea where it would lead him. “It’s been a long temporary job!” he laughs. “I finished college in 1980 and was heading for the States when I was asked to do one more summer. My father wasn’t well and there was a need for me to stay around longer than planned, so I did, and I’ve been here since.”
The 1980s saw a period of boom, as the in-thing was to give a piece of Newbridge silverware as a wedding gift. In the 1990s however, changes in Irish society and attitudes threatened to close the company once again. “Gifting silverware was suddenly outdated and too formal,” William tells us. “Life had become more casual, and people were dining with earthenware rather than ceramics, glass instead of crystal, stainless steel rather than silver plated, so it was another bumpy road.” Rather than accept defeat, once again the company’s fighting spirit rose to the fore. William says: “Usually when you’re in desperation some inspiration comes, so we cottoned on that we could make jewellery with the same technology and knowledge we had from crafting. We renamed the business Newbridge Silverware and struggled for two years to make the jewellery a success. One day a notable individual who worked for a style and fashion programme in RTÉ came in and learned about what we were doing. She did an entire show on our story, and within a day of it airing, the jewellery took off.”
This set the company up for another period of growth all through the 90s and 00s, and it expanded to the point for the most part the younger generation didn’t know it for tableware. Innovating once more, the company honoured its history while recognising an opportunity to bring business on-site, and Newbridge Silverware was savvily developed into a tourist destination. A Visitor Centre was created, housing a retail outlet, Domo’s Emporium restaurant and the Museum of Style Icons, and visitors could now tour the factory to see first-hand how Newbridge Silverware jewellery was made. In tandem with establishing the Visitor Centre, the business also ingeniously used the power of marketing and endorsement to strengthen the brand and position it as a big player. For example, Naomi Campbell was the face of Newbridge Silverware in 2015 and the company has had a long-standing partnership with Irish actor and author Amy Huberman.
It’s now 2023 and the company is as ambitious as ever. It continues to work hard to showcase the Visitor Centre as a world-class tourism destination with an eye to welcome a rise in tour buses and domestic visitors, as well as offer the space as a unique event venue. Ronan Mackey, Newbridge Silverware’s F&B Manager, tells us about Domo’s Emporium’s €250,000 expansion, slated for completion in May, and what it will mean for the business.
“What we offer here is so unique, in Ireland and beyond,” he says. “We’ve created an experience that suits a variety of budgets: the museum is free to visit, the tour cost is nominal, then we have the retail outlet and restaurant, so people can spend what suits them. Expanding our restaurant from 100 seats to 250 will make a huge difference, as it’ll easier for us to accept more visitors and tour buses and put on larger-scale events.Events can be held in any of the facilities, andwe’ve already had some exciting ones – we’ve hosted different corporate groups, for example Network Ireland, held gala style cabaret shows at Christmas, and hosted an event for the Chinese Embassy.”
Growing the Asian market is also a priority, and prior to COVID it had begun to take off, William tells us. A lot of work was put in to attract the market, including workshops in Beijing and Shanghai. He says: “The market will definitely come back, not this year but maybe next.”
William tells us while they have reason to be optimistic overall, particularly given the strong pre-COVID domestic and international visitor numbers, challenges remain, the most pressing being the lack of accommodation. “There’s a good feeling, a good buzz and we’ve been busy,” he says. “We’ve put in 10 years of hard graft engaging with bus operators through Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland and building relationships, and we’ve bounced back quickly. However, it won’t go back to the pre-COVID days this year. There is a major lack of hotel capacity, and I can see that being a big problem for everyone. Due to the Ukrainian crisis, many beds have been lost and we won’t see them back this summer, and in Kildare, there has been a big bedroom shortage in general for many years. More hotels have closed than opened. There’s a golden opportunity here, and we’ve brought this up with Fáilte Ireland.”
Ronan adds: “Tour operators are bypassing Ireland due to the lack of accommodation. One tour operator offered to put us on a tour series, but due to the lack of beds they decided not to come, and that business will be hard to get back.” We ask William if he’d be interested in setting up a hotel himself. “No,” he says laughing. “I’ll stick to what I know best.”
Hospitality is still a part of Newbridge Silverware’s business, and William tells us while they have regular customers for silver-plated tableware, they’ve never chased the market. This is set to change: “We’re now going to go after that business,” says William. “Particularly abroad, as we’re one of the only firms left who can produce this type of product – so much so, the home of cutlery, Sheffield, now sources components from us. Sheffield primarily produces for the hospitality industry now, which is very buoyant in the U.K. and worldwide, so we’ve joined with a partner to see if we can make a go of it.”
Going backwards to move forwards is innovative in and of itself – and like all Newbridge Silverware’s endeavours, we have no doubt it’ll be a roaring success.
To learn more about Newbridge Silverware’s unique Visitor Centre and product offering, go to www.visitnewbridgesilverware.com or Instagram @newbridgesilverware.