Niall Hanley does not want to talk about a silly award.
Late on a Thursday afternoon, six hours into a workday that is scheduled to last for 14, the downtown Raleigh pub-and-restaurant kingpin is hunched over a crowded desk, shuffling through and signing stacks of papers. This is a rare moment at rest: Already today, Hanley has examined an old warehouse he would like to buy, argued over its cost and potential uses, bought and planted two-dozen bushes at his massive new Raleigh Beer Garden, purchased produce and herbs from the state farmers market and given innumerable orders and ideas to any number of his 600 employees, from what beers should be on tap on a rooftop patio scheduled to open tonight to exactly where a new storage shelf should hang.
And when the paperwork is finished, he'll see two more pieces of property, visit an architect, offer an office manager beer advice, take a tour of downtown Cary with two real estate agents and cook his own lunch in the Hibernian, the restaurant he's owned for 15 years. All of that by 4 p.m.
"There's so much to always do," he'd told me earlier, while holding a tray of garlic chive and bronze fennel plants at the farmers market. "I would go nuts if there were ever a normal day, but that's the beauty of the restaurant business."
Frank Bloom, Hanley's marketing and events director, takes advantage of the pause to tout the empire's accomplishments. He flits through the cluttered and chaotic office, with its sweeping view of the city across Boylan Avenue, and explains the architectural honors the company has taken during the last year. He hands over publications in which their various restaurants have appeared. On the Road Again, a travel guide issued by Southern Living, includes photos of and recipes for the roasted-beet sandwich and the Sloppy Joe at The Station, a former gas stop Hanley opened as a neighborhood bar in November 2013 alongside Raleigh's resurgent Person Street. And this June, its Southern spin on the traditional Vietnamese banh mi earned "Best Sandwiches in America" honors from the trade magazine Restaurant Hospitality.
When Hanley hears that, he looks up over his glasses.
"Yeah, OK," he says, glancing at Bloom. "But who gave it to us again?"
Bloom answers. Hanley snorts.
"Oh, yeah, Restaurant Hospitality Foundation," he says. "It wasn't the James Beard Foundation really, then, was it?"
Everyone in the room—Bloom, Hanley, his director of operations, Steve Naticchione, and his director of finance, Doug Bruce—laugh at the retort, but he isn't entirely joking. The Hibernian is a place where you go to get a perfectly good cheap cheeseburger with creamy macaroni and cheese, but neither side nor entrée is destined for the pages of Saveur. And while The Station is lined with backlit jars of pickles and other marinating concoctions, you're probably not going to ask for any of them on your Sloppy Joe sandwich. Hanley talks wistfully of extravagant charcuterie plates and heaps praise on places like Babylon and Stanbury, which have earned the sort of consistent culinary attention that he has not.
Indeed, despite having built a kingdom of relative mediocrity during the last 15 years, rarely is anything good enough for the perpetually restless Hanley. Now more than ever, when Forbes and The New York Times and The Irish Times are starting to write about his restaurants, he knows he has to be better than his reputation as a hard-partying beer slinger suggests.
"It stresses my employees out, and I am probably pretty difficult to work for," Hanley admits later. "I want to do it all, and I have no pause. I'm either full on or full off."
Since 2000, when Hanley opened the Hibernian Pub on a then-barren Glenwood Avenue, he has become a local magnate of food and drink. He owns three Hibernians—though the one in Cary will soon close so that Hanley can rent the space—and The Station has become an anchor for two of Raleigh's historic neighborhoods, Oakwood and Mordecai. On Glenwood Avenue itself, Hanley—a 47-year-old single Irishman who migrated from the family farm two decades ago—has built a de facto Epcot Center of eateries and experiences. His upscale Mexican restaurant, Dos Taquitos Xoco, sits across from the homeland pub and up the street from the Miami-ready club Solas, which he also owns. And with the Raleigh Beer Garden's indoor trees, enormous outdoor expanse and Guinness World Record-contesting 366 taps, Hanley has done his best to fabricate Bavaria at the top of the city's primary party thoroughfare.
In the last two years alone, he's reopened the Hibernian after a devastating Christmas-season fire and launched The Station and Raleigh Beer Garden. Naticchione, his director of operations, aims to open two or three establishments each year, indefinitely.
For Hanley, even that's not enough: Though Raleigh Beer Garden has been open for just three weeks, and though he's still not satisfied with its menu or landscaping, Hanley's list of pending projects includes possible ventures in Wake Forest and downtown Cary, a permanent open-air market and small-business incubator in downtown Raleigh, a distillery and long-term franchise opportunities for the Hibernian. He's working to lease the space between Raleigh Beer Garden's main building and the railway behind it, in an effort to add 40 more kegs and more food in shipping containers converted into ad hoc kitchens and bars.
Likewise, when Hanley drives by a piece of available real estate, he almost invariably enthuses about what it could or should be—a boutique hotel, a skyscraper, a grocery store—and bemoans the fact that he doesn't have the money to do it himself.
"Fuckin' megabucks!" he yelps whenever he sees someone taking a risk like that.
Though Hanley's financial success has been mostly unmitigated, with a string of restaurants that have remained in the black, he also wants to be recognized as more than a guy who makes money on cold pints and lukewarm sandwiches. When he first arrived in Raleigh, dining options were so slim his standards didn't have to be high to succeed. The Hibernian was a hit simply because it existed.
That's not the case now. He owns more restaurants than Greg Hatem or Ashley Christensen, for instance, but his profile in the press and in the food community at large has been, at worst, anonymous and, at best, average. No, Hanley's not expecting a James Beard like Christensen's, but he does know that he has to match quantity with commensurate quality if he is to remain one of the Triangle's hospitality heavyweights.
He's already dismissed one head chef at Raleigh Beer Garden and gets excited about the prospect of new talent, someone able to dream up more than beer-battered pretzels and cheese fries. He realizes that 366 options is overwhelming for people, as is the iPhone app, TapHunter, that doubles as the bar's beer list. But he doesn't want his restaurants to remain boring forever.
"I don't want to become a fine-dining restaurant, right? We serve comfort food," he says while eating a traditional Irish breakfast of blood sausage and the like for a late lunch at the Hibernian. "But I'd like to have a more creative approach, to take it somewhere different."
Downstairs, the action is dizzying.
In less than 30 minutes, the Raleigh Beer Garden will open for only its second Thursday afternoon lunch service. For the last two hours, as few as six and as many as two-dozen employees have hurried to prepare for the day's opening. Rows of servers polish silverware one more time. A cook in the kitchen methodically slices red bell peppers, turning each quickly in his hand to make one diagonal cut after another. A few teams muscle kegs up and down several sets of stairs and into waiting coolers, while a computer specialist sets up another cash register.
In less than a month, the place has gone through more than 600 kegs of beer and often sported lines that stretched down the block. It feels like it's perennially preparing for the next big rush.
But after reminding the kitchen staff to clean as they cook, and after coordinating with a manager about light and sound levels in a dining room, Hanley has disappeared. On the roof, he holds a long gray water hose and moseys back and forth along a long row of wooden planters, loaded with verdant herbs and spindly tomato plants. In a playful falsetto, the former Irish farmboy croons an old Dwight Yoakam song—"It won't hurt when I fall down from this bar stool," it goes—to no one at all.
When he sees he has company, he stops and, in his time-tempered brogue, says, "It's one of the only two songs I know."
Broad-shouldered and tall, with arms that swing wide beneath the day's wardrobe of workout shorts and a sheer black shirt, Hanley frequently teases himself about his own weight. His self-deprecating tendencies are one of his many charms, along with his mordant wit, sour tongue and near-confessional honesty. When I ask him, for instance, if he's ever considered a run at City Council, he doesn't hesitate: "Fuck no. Fuck. Are you kidding me? I speak in a monologue, no filter. But maybe if they paid better."
He delivers one of his big, toothy smiles and slaps my shoulder hard.
Hanley designed Raleigh Beer Garden, or at least envisioned it, from the skeleton of an old office building that his company used until about two years ago. More than any of Hanley's earlier establishments, Raleigh Beer Garden seems like a simulacrum of his personality and past.
Reaching high above its neighbors, it, like Hanley, is confident to the point of seeming cocky. The outdoor tables all include a placard that reads "PLEASE SLIDE IN AND MAKE ROOM FOR NEW FRIENDS," reflective of an owner who cheerfully calls most everyone "lad," "friend" or "doctor," even if they're complete strangers. And with its army of beers (kept on site, one keg at a time), an elevator and an indoor oak tree cut down in Creedmoor and reassembled with rebar and spikes near the bar's front door, the $1.7 million, three-level project is nothing if not ambitious.
"He's not inhibited," says Naticchione. "He sees an idea and says, 'I can do it.'"
After Naticchione came to work for Hanley two years ago, he essentially built the management structure that allowed for the company's fast growth. He consolidated buying power and streamlined contracts, and his experience with franchises should enable the Hibernian to pursue that path, too. But he admits his job is mostly about harnessing Hanley's enthusiasm, not directing it.
"He has the vision. He lays the store out in his mind and knows what he wants, and then he oversees the construction," says Naticchione. "He doesn't stop until he gets it perfect."
For instance, in the last several months, Hanley has spent more than $40,000 on plants for Raleigh Beer Garden, from towering shrubs and rotund hydrangeas to near-neon potato vines and manicured evergreens. He and a small team planted nearly all of them, building an ostentatious horticultural array both inside and outside of the restaurant. Earlier in the day, he spent several hundred dollars more to replace some specimens he suspected were dying of a fungal infection and, otherwise, simply to fill whatever space he could find.
As Hanley moves among the various pots and planters, placing the new purchases where he wants them and uprooting the dead by hand, he occasionally touches a strand of Confederate jasmine or chocolate vine snaking along the walls and beams. "Pretty soon," he offers, "they're going to cover this whole place. It's going to be beautiful."
"He's put $40,000 in plants at the Beer Garden, and that's conservative. He just keeps on adding them," Naticchione says. "When I ran restaurants, I put two pots of flowers outside of the store."
But Hanley wants more than that; for him, his restaurants represent a sense of home. The youngest of five children, Hanley grew up on a farm and in a pub in County Mayo, Ireland. They all worked the land together. His mother mostly managed the home and tended the vegetable garden while his father, who died when Hanley was 14, ran a general store and a connected pub called, simply, Hanley's. The pub was the family's social epicenter.
Hanley eventually shipped off to college near Dublin and started a landscaping business. He loved the work, despite digging in the dirt beneath the near-constant drizzle, but the flagging Irish economy tanked his first attempt at his own company. He applied for the American immigration lottery in the early '90s without any substantive plans to move; when he was selected, however, he couldn't think of a reason not to leave.
Hanley planned to learn to fly helicopters in the States and return to Ireland to start a new business doing just that. But after he arrived in 1994, he got swept into Boston's bar scene, working as a bouncer in a series of pubs. He understood the culture. When he heard of an opportunity to help an upstart Irish bar called the James Joyce in Durham, he took it, moving south and buying a ranch house near Duke Forest for $166,000 in 1998. A year later, he used the equity in that home to begin building a bar of his own in Raleigh—a town he remembers then as "burgeoning," though plenty of people might have pronounced it dead. He commuted to the Hibernian for the first year and, in 2001, bought the modest house a block from N.C. State that he still calls home. The Hibernian, which he terms "the baby," has become the root of his world in America.
"There are a lot of life lessons I learned from Niall, and one of them is to find an emerging market and ride it up," says Cliff Bleszinski, a video-game developer and close friend who partnered with Hanley for The Station and Raleigh Beer Garden. "He put that pub on that street, Glenwood, when nothing else was on it. And now, that whole thing is continuing to push upward."
When Hanley drives through Raleigh now, he gloats as though he owns everything, as if each of the city's successes has made him richer, too. Every hour or so, he says he loves Raleigh, and then apologizes for seeming trite. He extols downtown density (but scolds contractors who don't use materials thick enough to keep noise out of new apartments and a City Council that addresses only one side of that issue) and the restaurants he can now get to by foot from his own home. He points at bottle shops and bars and breweries and talks about developing a "beer tourism" program in Raleigh.
If he mentions garage doors that slide open on the fronts of bars, patio seating or even entertainment alongside Glenwood Avenue, he's quick to point out that he was the first to try many of these things in Raleigh. "I'm the roof deck king!" he exclaims at one point.
But he seems less to be bragging and more to be doting on the achievements of something in which he's long been invested. Hanley helped make the city's growth possible, but he knows he was never good enough to do it alone.
"Every time I see a new bar, I say, 'Yay.' I don't mind the competition—the more, the merrier," he says. "People want to be here, and it wasn't always like that. This city is blossoming now."
Lunch is almost ready when, suddenly, Hanley screams.
"Oh, goddammit," he yells, then begins laughing. "Why did I do that? I put barbecue sauce on the fucking salad."
Hanley scoops up the plate, holds it over a trashcan and scrapes away the meal he had nearly finished making. Earlier in the day, during his stop at the farmers market, Hanley bought a watermelon, which rolled around the back of his Range Rover with each new turn for the next six hours. Around 3 p.m., when he finally decided to pause long enough for lunch, he scooped the fruit from the back, walked into the kitchen of the Hibernian and began cutting.
Late last year, Hanley purchased a condominium at Carolina Beach, but he's been too busy opening restaurants to enjoy it. He's canceled trip after trip. As a sort of maritime substitute, he's taken to making one of his favorite dishes—a watermelon salad with olives, feta cheese, balsamic vinegar and salt—himself and even selling it in the Hibernian. He stole it from the Surf House, a Carolina Beach restaurant that makes gourmet upgrades to comfort food. That's one new aspiration.
"I need to get that chef down here and let him go to work for me," says Hanley, plating the salad for the second time and taking care to reach for balsamic vinegar instead of barbecue sauce. "I need to raise the bar just a little bit, all the time."
After Hanley finally sits down to eat, he stops every few minutes to answer a question, to greet another guest or to fetch a cappuccino. Each time he returns, he asks about the salad, as though the watermelon's suddenly spoiled. When I tell him it's still good, he smiles, picks up his fork and returns to the sausage on his plate. It's delicious, too, he says.
"If the food's going to be really good," he finally tells me, "I just want to, you know, be known for the food being really good."