“Usually they’re skeptical,” added David Sullivan. “But they’re delighted to meet us.”
The 8,000-plus-square-foot restaurant is furnished with a vintage bar and assorted knick-knacks from Ireland and 100-year-old flooring created at the Belfast shipyard where the Titanic was built. Native staffers complete the Irish vibe, said owner David Kelly, who says he’s been researching the matter for years, having likely been to every pub in Ireland during a long career with Guinness. He and partner Ciaran Sheehan hatched the idea of shipping in Irish talent after spending time in European pubs of what they found was varying in quality.
“We thought, what if we took the pub in its entirety and beamed it over to America?” he recalled.
Their company has locations in 10 other cities. The recently opened Atlanta store is its first foray into a major market, he said.
“It’s a cultural exchange program,” Kelly said of the Irish workers. “They’re living in a city that has more people in it than all of Ireland.”
Many of the newcomers are still getting used to Atlanta’s heat and traffic.
“I love the sun,” said Paula McKenna. “I was definitely born in the wrong country.”
She walks 25 minutes to work, then takes a taxi home. “It’s a bit of a dodgy area,” she said of her neighborhood.
Ri Ra operations manager Angela Grogan travels home to Ireland a couple of times a year to recruit. She’s looking for people with hospitality training, but selection is largely based on personality.
“If they make me laugh in the interview, that’s good,” she said. Once she’s made her picks, she rides herd over three months of paperwork. The process includes an interview for each worker at the U.S. Embassy in Dublin, after which they are issued J-1 Exchange Visitor Visas, the document an au pair or visiting faculty member at a university would use. The visas allow the restaurant’s temporary Irish fleet to stay for a year.
“It would be great to stay on,” Susan Hillen said. “We’ll see what happens.”
Restaurant management helps the new workers iron out logistics like lodging. Many of them live in apartments nearby and look forward to exploring the city once they’re settled.
“Everyone’s so welcoming and friendly,” said Hillen, who said she and her roommate may save up to buy a shared car for excursions in their off-time.
For now, work is the visitors’ main activity, but “it doesn’t feel like work,” Hillen said. “It’s so much fun.”
Irish and American staffers are learning from each other. In Ireland, diners don’t tip, but don’t expect snappy service, Grogan said. Then again, Irish customers expect lively conversation from servers, and won’t be happy with someone who merely rattles off the daily specials. While the newcomers learn technical precision and high standards, American staffers embrace elements of the Irish work ethic.
“They like to have fun with everything they do,” observed Atlanta native Sean Means, who’s among the 30 local staffers working at Ri Ra.
Indeed, the place is usually a jolly riot, as the Irish staffers banter constantly with any set of ears they can find. Even the menu, featuring traditional pub grub like fish and chips, shepherd’s pie and corned beef and cabbage, has a sense of humor. (Paddy melt, anyone?)
Robyn Elliott, owner of Bicycle Tours of Atlanta, stopped in the other day. As soon as Hillen showed up, Elliott responded like lots of customers do: “Where are you from?”
Have you eaten at Ri Ra? Tell us your experience.