The Donnelly Group: the pub-owners some locals love to hate

"I can't speak to anybody's opinion," says the group's head marketer, who invites his critics out to a pint.

The Vancouver company owns many popular pubs — so why aren't more happy they purchased the Railway Club space?

The Donnelly Group's website shows the many pubs the company operates throughout Vancouver. (Donnelly Group)

A successful local, independent company has purchased the site of a beloved bar in Vancouver.

The new owner promises the venue will keep serving drinks and honour the heritage of the site.

It sounds like an announcement that would be celebrated by all.

But because it's the Donnelly Group taking over the Railway Club's former location, the response is decidedly mixed.

In certain circles, liking a Donnelly Group pub is akin to liking Nickelback, Nicholas Cage, Molson Canadian or the Olive Garden: a cultural faux-pas that shows one's lack of sophistication.

Which means, of course, Donnelly pubs are also tremendously popular.

"They do a really good job," said retail consultant David Ian Gray.

"They keep every property different, but there's a lot of commonality in terms of economies of scale for food ordering and technology ... the bar business is hard, but when you have a good formula, you can make a nice business out of that."

Cookie-cutter?

The Donnelly Group began in 1999 when Jeff Donnelly bought Bimini Public House, and since then it has steadily grown its presence throughout Vancouver. 

The company owns or is a partner venue with 16 different pubs, cocktail clubs and nightlife locations in Vancouver, including Lamplighter Public House, Library Square Public House, and Bar None, along with a number of restaurants and barbershops. 

And yet, search Reddit, and the first post about the company that pops up is "Donnelly Group: Why the hate?"

"They're noisy. They're homogenous," said CBC Music host and broadcaster Grant Lawrence.

The neon sign at Vancouver's Railway Club. (Paul Joseph/Flickr) (Paul Joseph/Flickr)

"They tend to play to the kind of lowest common denominator. They paint themselves as 'oooh, every location is unique!' The location might be unique, but nothing else is."

Lawrence said that the Railway Club was an important hub of Vancouver's music scene, and that Donnelly Group becoming the new owners of the space will be a letdown. 

"It's where we saw k.d. lang first, and Los Lobos first, and the Tragically Hip in an intimate setting. All these types of bands, and a staggering amount of local bands. Making it a Donnelly pub, you might as well slap on the Starbucks logo on it."

Craft beer aficionados, meanwhile, often praise the company's commitment to offering local drink options, but aren't as effusive about the overall experience.

"This is synonymous with the boom in ownership groups across the city, where barring a few exceptions, the overall experience of the consumer is painfully similar," said David Perry, president of the craft beer advocacy group CAMRA Vancouver, who added he was hopeful they would continue to work with craft beer enthusiasts.

A poster for Grant Lawrence's band The Smugglers for a show at the Railway Club in 1994. (Grant Lawrence)

'They know their audience'

Damon Holowchak, Donnelly Group's director of marketing, says the criticisms tend to confuse him. 

"Living in the marketing side, it's weird for me to hear, because all I do is spend my time and energy making sure our places are as true to the neighbourhoods as can be," he said. 

"Opinions are opinions, and everyone's got to have one, but if you want to hang out and have a pint, and talk about what our brand is, and what we want to do, we're more than happy to do it."

However, Holowchak said what people have come to expect from the Donnelly Group might not be what they find in their new location — though when they open it in the Spring of 2017, it won't be named the Railway Club.

Regardless, Gray believes much of the criticism Donnelly receives is the same any large corporation will get when it becomes ubiquitous in a market.

"They can't get away from that ... but if you compare Lamplight to Republic to Bimini's, they're all quite different," he said.

"They know their audience, and they know how to package up what they're offering into a value proposition that works."