Entrepreneurs: Irish Guy Is Smiling

Dave Magrogan’s Kildare’s empire is coming soon to your town — and you can’t stop him

ST. PATRICK’S DAY IS HEADING INTO ITS 15TH HOUR for Dave Magrogan when he arrives at the West Chester Kildare’s, for what’s scheduled to be his final, most relaxing stop.

This bar, one of six Kildare’s Irish pubs that the tiny, five-foot-six Magrogan has opened in the Philly region in the past four years, is the one he considers his baby. It was his first. It’s where most of his hangers-on and good friends congregate. It’s where he can pretty safely get hammered and not feel like he’s abusing his power too much.

So far today, Magrogan has been to each of his bars — some more than once — popping on the air for quick segments with every live radio broadcast, jumping up onstage with every band, checking in with every general manager to ensure that they’re all executing the Kildare’s “vision.” The first part of the day, he was in his Hummer, negotiating the slippery roads caused by last night’s sleet storm. But he was always upbeat — even when it appeared the lousy weather and sparse crowds might set him back $50,000. “Once it gets later in the day, if people can get some babysitters, they’ll be out here,” he said. “And if we don’t get them tonight, those people will come tomorrow for Sunday brunch. People will come. You’ll see.”

He was right. By evening, the bars did pick up — the Manayunk Kildare’s had a line around the block and a bar full of Car Bombing college kids who probably would’ve been there even if there’d been a terrorist attack on Main Street. And by 12:30 a.m., everything is in full swing here in West Chester. Magrogan is never without a Guinness the whole time he’s here, and even throws down a few of his own Car Bombs. His only problem is the hernia that’s begun poking out of his groin due to the fact he’s spent the day on his feet.

Then, right in the middle of the drunken revelry, Kildare’s is invaded by local police decked out in blue nylon jackets and shining their flashlights. In tow is notorious West Chester zoning board stickler Mike Perrone, who’s there to shuffle the rowdy crowd out into the icy parking lot, hoping that most (if not all) of them will end the night early because the bar is “over capacity,” according to the borough’s zoning laws. It’s the ultimate buzz kill.

Some of the revelers do leave. Most don’t. And 30 minutes later, after arguing ­with the cops in the parking lot, 90 percent of the crowd is back inside. Magrogan stands in the middle of the stage with the punky Irish band Hit the Bottle Boys, microphone in hand, apologizing to the crowd for the inconvenience. And then he unloads:

“Fuck Mike Perrone!”

It becomes a deafening chant, and the Bottle Boys begin a Farmer-in-the-Dell-like melody to go along with it. “Fuck Mike Perrone. … Fuck Mike Perrone. … Fuck Mike Perrone.”

When the din dies down, Magrogan points out that Perrone (or “that fucking guy”) cost him $5,000 in bar money. But he’s not bitching about it. He probably earned most of it back by firing the crowd up afterward.

He grabs his Guinness, stands on top of a table, and watches the crowd, his crowd now, and he’s beaming, because he loves a challenge. Loves it. And though this stoppage of play could’ve derailed many a bar, Magrogan persevered. His mantras start to spill out of him: You need thick skin in the jungle! Keep charging! Believe in yourself and your mission and persevere! This is Dave Magrogan’s MO. This is why he’s a multi-millionaire at the age of 34, thanks to the “authentic” Irish bar business he’s built in four years. This is why he plans on opening up 25 Kildare’s by 2010. This is why Philadelphia’s pseudo-­celebs — from Pat Croce to Bam Margera — adore him. And this is why — no matter how audacious and successful he becomes — you can’t not like him.

DAVE MAGROGAN GREW up poor. His parents divorced early, and he and his two sisters bounced around Havertown and Brookhaven with their mom, who was a nurse. “Every time the rent went up, we moved,” he remembers. The lack of wealth left an indelible mark on him. He saw so many unfulfilled great ideas between his mother and his friends and his other relatives that he vowed never to emulate that habit.

Before his budding Irish bar empire, Magrogan was a chiropractor. It was while he was in chiropractic school that he discovered a little motivational book titled Rhinoceros Success, self-published in 1980 by a then-23-year-old named Scott Alexander. It’s a 122-page book with bold letters and cartoons, telling the reader that the key to greatness lies in transforming yourself into a metaphorical rhinoceros. In fact, the book divides people into two groups: rhinos and cows. The cows are the dawdling middle managers in life, the lazy, disaffected herd who do more whining and waiting than actual doing. The rhinos, on the other hand, charge through the jungle with two-inch-thick skin and overcome adversity with a headfirst-type attitude. The book is incredibly, laughably corny, full of the kinds of exclamatory slogans you’d find in, well, a chiropractor’s office. But Magrogan ate it up. Inside his West Chester Kildare’s office (and his home in Glen Mills), pictures of rhinoceroses are prominently displayed, and the logo for his Dave Magrogan Group, Inc., is a rhino. “If I don’t know how to do something, I don’t waste time trying to figure it out,” he says. “I find the right person for the job.”

Magrogan is by no means a micro-manager. In fact, he’s the type of big-idea managerial presence who doesn’t actually look like he’s doing anything. He’s a walking whiteboard, and each contact he makes during the day — whether a five-minute phone call, an e-mail, or a brief face-to-face meeting — ends in a concrete result. There’s no wasted time.  This is a tenet of the rhino, of course. 

The whole culture of Kildare’s is built around rhino success and other hang-in-there-style motivations distributed in handbooks to both staff and management. Sections include the Paradoxical Commandments of Leadership (“Some people are illogical, unreasonable and self-centered — love them anyway”); guest loyalty (“Touch every guest”); and managerial philosophies offering encouragement and relying on self-evaluation (“You are only as good as your day off!”). And each staff member of Kildare’s is labeled with a role in the hierarchy: entrepreneur, manager, or technician, which are all roles that people can evolve from (or devolve to) based on their performance. Everyone has the opportunity to succeed — ­dishwashers can become general managers if they have that rhino attitude.

After our first meeting, Magrogan gave me a copy of Rhinoceros Success. (He doles them out to employees and friends he thinks could benefit from a rhinoceros makeover.) He says most of his Kildare’s staff has adopted rhinotrocity. Sometimes after he meets with his general managers, they’ll place their index fingers pointing out of their foreheads to show they’re rhinos. Occasionally, if he stops at a Kildare’s and catches somebody on the waitstaff slacking, he’ll go up and gently ask, “Why are you being a cow, man?” Cows can only last so long at Kildare’s; if they don’t become rhinos, well, they’ll be dismissed. As one former employee says, “You’re either on Dave’s side of the fence or not.” No cows allowed.

LIKE MANY SELF-made entrepreneurs, Magrogan started out small but always thought big. He took out loans from family members and ran up credit card debt to open his chiropractor business in 1996. It did well, but he didn’t spoil himself early. He paid himself $500 a week. He saved. He bought real estate. And in five years, thanks to the real estate boom in the early oughts, he had enough money to go into the Irish pub business. He was passionate about Irish pubs — the culture, the look, the camaraderie, and, of course, how lucrative it was to own an “authentic” Irish pub in the United States.

Kildare’s, however, is “authentic” the same way Epcot Center’s World Showcase is — the spirit, the accoutrements and the cultural touchstones may all be there, but that’s where the authenticity ends. The first three Kildare’s were facsimiles that Magrogan put together through the Irish Pub Company, which is essentially a bar-in-a-box-type factory that helps you, young budding publican, become owner of an authentic Irish pub — outfitting your location with custom-made Irish bric-a-brac, sharing Irish recipes, recommending outsource agencies from which to hire “authentic” Irish staff, even offering naming suggestions. (Add “& Sons” or “& Daughters” for authenticity.) The company was featured in a 2006 Slate.com article called “Ireland’s ‘Crack’ Habit,” which outlined how faux Irish pubs have become huge business in all parts of the world — even Ireland. Magrogan’s last three pubs were built through another Irish pub warehouse company, called Bar None, that’s based in the not-so-­authentic Irish realm of Canada. Magrogan disputes the claim that his bars aren’t authentic. “The furniture comes from Derry, Ireland. The millwork comes from Ireland. It’s much easier to come across with a truck from Canada than to wait for customs in New York City. I’d say 85 percent of our pubs come from Ireland. I’m not Epcot!”

Magrogan’s first pub opened in 2003 on Gay Street in West Chester. Already a popular fixture because of his chiropractor business, the former Dr. Magrogan thrived. Abundantly. From there, he went to King of Prussia, razing the old Pizzeria Uno at traffic-boondoggle 202, and that pub succeeded, too. Magrogan became obsessive about buying up places and expanding (charge!) and location. Next, he took on Manayunk, then Media, then Headhouse Square. Building too fast? When Magrogan entered the pub business, he had no desire to open just one. “I didn’t want to be 70 years old, sweeping up the floors of the place at 1 a.m. every night,” he says.

Magrogan isn’t a pub owner. He’s a businessman, in every sense of the word. Kildare’s, Inc., grossed $21 million in revenue last year, and Magrogan owns 86 percent of the company. Twenty-one million dollars may seem small-time compared to national companies, but in a bar and restaurant business that boasts ominous failure rates, it’s phenomenal after only four years. 

And there’s more on the horizon. In addition to a Scranton Kildare’s, in October he’s opening a Doc Magrogan’s Oyster House in Manayunk, taking over the 8,000-square-foot ­Storehouse furniture-store space. Another Kildare’s is set to open off of 611 in Warrington; Magrogan claims it will be his last in the Philly area. From there, Kildare’s is looking at spots in Baltimore, D.C., Delaware, Florida, Las Vegas. Is this selling out? “Hey, there are over 1,800 Applebee’s. This is nothing,” he says.

But there’s more than just Kildare’s: Magrogan’s plans include more Doc Magrogan’s Oyster Houses; a chef-oriented organic food restaurant called Grady David’s; movie production (he’s already consulting and getting production credit on a Bam Margera movie project); more consulting projects; expanding the Two Men and a Truck moving company (which he part-owns); beginning more ­charity-based initiatives; and, of course, making motivational speech appearances.

WHAT’S MOST AMAZING about Dave Magrogan is that he’s not a roaring douchebag. Sure, he has the Hummer (which he claims he’ll get rid of once all of his Kildare’s go green by the end of the year) and the wealth and a house in Key West and another one down the Shore and the celebrity friends and, of course, the rhino philosophy he’s used to build what is, in essence, an Irish-fied chain pub, but he’s surprisingly humble. He radiates so much positive energy that it’s very easy to get knocked over by him. 

Which is not to say he isn’t flawed. He went through a divorce early in his chiropracting days (though he and his ex-wife get along, and he dotes on his two daughters from that marriage). He also admits to living the life of a 30-year-old bar owner on a few occasions soon after his divorce. (Some of his management crew suggest that’s why they were so happy when Magrogan remarried — they no longer have to field phone calls from young, starry-eyed Dave Magrogan groupies.) Plus, his unflagging energy isn’t a plus to those in his small company who might want a life outside of the Dave Magrogan business. Magrogan cops to this as well: “Our company is not a good company for balance right now.”

Many people compare him to Pat Croce — he’s been dubbed “Pat Jr.” by some of his colleagues and confidants — and Croce can see the similarities. Magrogan has looked up to Croce since he heard Pat spout off the “Workout Tip of the Day” on ’MMR in the ’80s. One of their first meetings was at Croce’s Shore house in Ocean City; Croce said Dave could come down on the condition that they work out together the following morning. “I thought, how tough could this be? This guy’s, like, 50,” Magrogan says. But early into the workout, Magrogan keeled over: “He was standing over me — ‘Dave! Dave! Are you gonna puke? Are you gonna shit?’”

“All of it,” Magrogan said, and promptly did. As a gift, Magrogan got Croce a rock engraved “Don’t Throw Up Here!,” which now sits in Croce’s garden at the Shore.

“I love the way he attends to detail, his business acumen, his entrepreneurial spirit and how giving a person he is,” Croce says. “A visionary has to stay on mission — you either buy in or get the hell out. He’s making an impact on people who want that message.”

Magrogan met Croce through their mutual friend John DeBella, the broom-mustached WMGK DJ. Magrogan considers DeBella one of his best friends. DeBella feels the same. They met just three years ago, but instantly melded.

Magrogan talks about DeBella with ­reverence — “He’s a brother, friend, father, guru” — and DeBella seems both flattered and taken aback by those words. In fact, they’re so close that DeBella officiated at Magrogan’s wedding a few months ago to Shannon Grady, owner and operator of Go Athletics, a Bala Cynwyd-based health and fitness facility. (“She’s more of a rhino than I am,” Dave says). DeBella and Dave also recently spent a boozy getaway weekend together in Key West.

“It’s not often in your life, especially at 56, that you meet this person that you bond with,” says DeBella. “The older you get, the more skeptical you get with everyone. But all of a sudden it’s like ‘Oh my God, I’ve got a guy I can call if I’m in prison,’ and me for him.” 

(In fact, during their weekend in Key West, Magrogan got swept up in a Spring Break paddy wagon by local police, who mistook him for a college kid. He spent a few hours in jail, but says it was more because he looks so young than because he was a sloppy, drunken mess.)

“Every once in a while, I’ll have some sort of down, gray moment, and if I do, I’ll call Dave,” DeBella says. “In a moment, I’ll get yelled at by a guy half my age. That’s the friendship we have. And if there’s anybody in this city I feel has my back, other than my own wife, it’s Dave Magrogan.”

ON MARCH 24TH, Kildare’s is about to open its sixth location, not far from Scranton’s Sno Mountain. The new staff has gone through a rigorous two-week training program in order to learn the ­“culture” of Kildare’s.

It’s a hectic opening, as usual, due largely to the fact that Magrogan insists on meeting his self-imposed deadlines — even if they are, on paper, impossible. About an hour before the soft opening to a select list of Scranton “VIPs,” there are still cans of paint lying around, and dust from some of the flooring that’s finally installed, along with the last shipment of kitsch. The liquor license was faxed over last night.

Just before 7 p.m., when the doors will open, Magrogan and his new Scranton general manager bring the staff in for a quick pep talk and a quiz about what they learned during training. Most of the staff of 75 are young — in their 20s — and decked out in black Kildare’s t-shirts that read “Who’s Your Paddy?”

“Who can tell me some of the core values?” Magrogan asks. Hands shoot up. Lots of them. “Enthusiasm!” one waiter shouts out. “Ideas!” yells another. Then they move on to the mission statement, which the new employees promptly recite, in eerie, church-like unison: “To consistently provide an authentic Irish experience to our guests, and to exceed their expectation for quality, service, and atmosphere.” There is applause. There is woo-hooing. There are screams. The doors are about to open. But before that, Magrogan shouts out one last thing: “Remember — you’re not robots. You’re what?”

“Rhinos!” the waitstaff shouts, completely devoid of irony.

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