The Briar Group
The Briar Group thrives by being people and location-focused.
By Alan Dorich
The Briar Group has built a nearly 30-year legacy in the Boston area by treating people right. “In the end, that ends up being good business,” CEO Austin O’Connor Jr. says. “We try to do the right thing for our people, and that has generated [great] results for us.”
Based in Boston, the independently owned restaurant group has 15 concepts that serve offerings that range from modern dishes to comfort food classics and Irish cuisine. O’Connor’s father, Austin O’Connor Sr., a native of Ireland, planted the seeds for Briar Group when he purchased an Irish pub in 1970.
Austin Sr. also operated construction and real estate businesses, where he worked alongside his children. In 1988, he approached his son about opening another restaurant with his cousin, Dessie Kerins, currently director of operations.
A year later, the two opened The Green Briar Irish Pub in Brighton. Since then, Briar Group has continued opening restaurants and now has 15 concepts in 11 locations, including two MJ O’Connor’s locations, one with a large local following in the historic Back Bay, and one adjacent to the Boston Exhibition and Convention Center. The Briar Group also operates sports and nightlife staples in the downtown area, including The Harp across from the Garden and Ned Devine’s in Faneuil Hall.
Upscale casual eateries include Gather in Boston’s Public Innovation Center -District Hall, Glass House in Kendall Square, Cambridge, City Table in the iconic Lenox Hotel, Anthem Kitchen + Bar in Faneuil Hall and two City Bar locations. Also in the portfolio are two cafes – K2 and Brew, and Solas Irish pub, just steps from the Boston Marathon Finish Line.
Briar Group places a strong emphasis on location when opening or acquiring restaurants. “It’s always about looking at the location, what is the need of that location and how we can drive revenue,” O’Connor says.
The company also evaluates the financial aspects of a new location. There are three key factors: revenue, build out and rent. “We’re quick to move on if those three things aren’t aligned,” he admits. “It’s critical in our industry to turn a profit to keep rent in line.”
One concept Briar Group recently moved forward with was Glass House, a restaurant and bar located in Kendall Square in Cambridge, Mass. The area was once a focal point for the glass-making industry long ago.
Today, “It is a biotech mecca,” Shea declares, noting that 90 percent of its customers are from that sector.
The restaurant’s glass motif designed by Hacin + Associates, also has earned praise. Recently, it was recognized as one of six eye-catching restaurant designs in the world in Interior Design Magazine, he adds.
The Briar Group also recently acquired Hurricane O’Reilly’s, a restaurant and bar located on Canal Street in Boston, steps from the TD Garden. “We’re off to a great start over there,” Shea says, but notes that the company will evolve the restaurant’s concept.
O’Connor is proud of how he has extended his father’s legacy with Briar Group, which employs people that share his family’s values. “We hire people who are passionate about hospitality,” he says.
This passion has led to many staying with Briar Group for more than 20 years. “They want to make their passion into a career,” Shea says. “We have been really lucky to find some talented people and keep them.”
The company has nurtured this commitment by making work fun for employees and cultivating a culture of togetherness. “We took the general managers to Bermuda last year,” he recalls, adding that The Briar Group also organizes staff outings, including Boston Red Sox games and empowers management staff to go above and beyond when recognizing staff birthdays and other milestones.
“We have really worked hard at empowering our team as well,” O’Connor adds, noting that the company allows them to make decisions and be involved in creating new concepts. “It is a really collaborative approach.”
Briar Group’s partners also are critical to its success, including Burke Distributing Corp., which has worked with the O’Connor family for more than three decades. “The Burke family has been a great local partner to us,” Austin O’Connor says.
President Bill Burke leads his company in a similar method as O’Connor manages Briar Group. “We’re both family businesses and we’re very focused on the Boston area,” O’Connor says. “The relationship is a very strong one of mutual respect.”
Briar Group plans to stay focused on the Boston market in the years ahead. “We’ll continue to pursue to those opportunities and grow our team,” he says. “That’s what makes us successful and gives us the best service and quality of product.”