The Pluck of the Irish

An offhand remark led to a local empire of bars and restaurants

by Christopher Farnsworth and Virginia Lindauer Simmon

mcgillicuddys0318David Nelson bought his first bar at age 25 on a lark, but it wasn’t long before his entrepreneurial bent led him and his wife, Stacey, to create a mini-empire of McGillicuddy’s restaurants in northern Vermont.

He couldn’t have known it at the time, but in 1987, 25-year-old David Nelson took a fateful trip to Rasputin’s, a favorite Burlington bar where he had worked during college. A longtime downtown fixture, it had fallen on hard times.

He was interested only in having a beer that day, when management offered him a job. The offer didn’t interest him nearly as much as the news that the owners were trying to offload the bar.

“I think I said something like, ‘Well, why don’t you just sell it to me?’ Two months later, they did,” he says, still sounding somewhat surprised by it all.

So on December 1, 1988, with the help of a business partner, David opened his first bar, keeping the Rasputin’s moniker. Although he sold it 10 years later, it would serve as a prelude to a local mini-empire that today contains three McGillicuddy’s restaurants (in Wil­lis­­ton, Colchester, and Essex) and Mulligan’s Irish Pub in Barre.

He knows that’s quite a swing in fortunes in the always difficult restaurant business, and while he voices some thoughts on what made it possible, he keeps a philosophical outlook.

“Some things, they’re just fortuitous; they just work out,” he says with a laugh.

It’s understandable why a man who married the girl next door might believe in fate. Stacey Johnston didn’t know him when they were growing up in Montpelier — she was six years his junior. Her family owned a horse farm, and she and David connected after college — he studied business administration at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, and she was an animal science major at the University of New Hampshire. Their first date was on horseback.

“I bounce a lot of stuff off of her,” David says. “She has very good business instincts, and she’s a stickler for the details.”

They married in 1994. “At first I used to work with David,” says Stacey. “Once we started with the kids, though, somebody had to be with them, especially with the hours he was keeping back then.”

The story probably has its roots in David’s history in the industry.

“I loved bartending!” he says. “I grew up in college working at bars. It didn’t feel like work. There was always something going on, you know? You could socialize and still put a few dollars in your pocket.”

That love of bartending might have played a part in opening the first McGillicuddy’s on Langdon Street in Montpelier. In 1990, after his father passed away, David moved back home from Burlington, where he had been living part time.

One night he and Stacey were out in search of a late-night bite to eat with their beer and were frustrated to find it wasn’t an option. “It’s different these days, but back then places were closing at 8!” he exclaims. “I turned to Stacey and said, ‘You know what? Montpelier needs an Irish pub.’”

A few months later they found a location and David’s favorite part of the process began. “I really love doing renovations,” he says. “You get to go in there, rip it all up, and start over. I’m not a builder by any means, but I’m really, really good at tearing stuff down.” They named it after McGillicuddy’s Menthol Mint Schnapps, one of David’s favorite drinks.

Stacey smiles, recalling the early days. “It had its ups and downs. It was a small place and we had to work so hard, so it’s nice not to do that anymore. What we do now is tough, too, but in a different way.”

David acknowledges the difference. “When we opened the original McGillicuddy’s, I was behind the bar, cleaning the place, all that. My brother worked for us behind the bar — it was a mom and pop store,” he says. And although he had experience in the bar business, he had to learn to deal with food.

After Montpelier, Mulligan’s Irish Pub in Barre opened in 2005, followed by the South Side Tavern the Nelsons renovated and opened in 2008. “We sold it four years later,” says David, “and with the proceeds, that got us up into Chittenden County. In 2012, we opened McGillicuddy’s Irish Ale House in Williston, in 2014, went out into Colchester with McGillicuddy’s on the Green, and in 2016, into Essex with McGillicuddy’s Five Corners.

Owning four places means the parts are bigger, he says: four physical plants, one of which (Barre) they own. “Managers deal with most of the problems in the stores, like when somebody’s called in sick, but pulling everything together like tax returns for four different companies — that’s a ton of work.”

Mondays are particularly tough, he continues. “I go to Costco to pick up juices, desserts, things we don’t get from our food vendors. Then I go talk to all the managers and kitchen managers. Then to the bank. Everything you do is times three or four. And that’s paperwork quadrupled.

“So when you have one place, it’s easier, but I think what we’ve been pretty good at is that we’ve been consistent. And because we don’t have a ton of middle management, if a piece of equipment breaks, it comes across my desk.”

It sounds like a lot, he adds, “and it is, but there’s a rhythm to it. You hear horror stories about this business, but I don’t find it as cumbersome as all that.”

They sold the Montpelier pub last year to a longtime manager and a couple of employees.

“You can’t run four or five places at once; you need help,” David says. “And, hey, we don’t want to become too corporate, but we try to take the best of what the chains offer while having the flexibility to do our own things.”

He admits that they were fortunate to hire smart people with corporate experience — “experience that I didn’t have.”

The first such hire was Todd Balcom, who had 12 years of experience at Chili’s. He runs the McGillicuddy’s in Williston, which opened in 2012.

“Dave is a smart guy,” Balcom says. “He understands the industry. He surrounds himself with talent, he’s generous to the community, and he’s good to staff. I really can’t say enough.”

After opening the pub in Barre, things began to snowball for the Nelsons. It was David’s friend and former employee Marc O’Grady who suggested Maple Tree Place in Williston for a location.

For O’Grady, who owns a real estate appraisal company, the secret to what the Nelsons have accomplished is simple. “Dave and Stacey are really just great people,” he says. “He hires good people and keeps them — which says it all in the restaurant business.”

The Nelsons complement each other, O’Grady says. “Dave doesn’t do micromanaging — he let’s the managers do their jobs because he knows and trusts them. Stacey is more detail-orientated and has a lot to do with the aesthetic of the bars. They’re family restaurants and sports bars, which is a truly underserved market here.”

“She helps with the restaurant build-outs, design, has a decorator’s eye,” David says. “When I go through a project, she’s the one who keeps me straight on all that.”

Stacey also had a hand in the McGillicuddy’s logo, a memorial to a beloved dog named Shamrock who was born on St. Patrick’s Day.

“She said, ‘We’ll just put a shamrock in Shamrock’s mouth, and that will be our thing,’” David recalls. “I’m a huge dog lover and missed Shamrock so much, so I loved it. And it gives the restaurants some consistency.”

McGillicuddy’s has embraced the craft beer craze that gripped first Vermont, then the rest of the country, over the last 15 or so years. He turned to Balcom, who has a longtime vested interest in craft brewing and, David says, a tremendous knowledge about beer.

“I’ve been a beer fan for most of my life,” Balcom reveals. “I got into it in the late ’80s, which set me up with a good foundation for the craft beer industry. It’s obviously totally different now. Draft beer wasn’t even really a thing back then, nor was the idea of rotating your selection.”

David recalls that when he first worked at Rasputin’s, there were two beers on draft: Budweiser and Busch. Now his places boast between 24 and 36 taps at one time, often including some of Vermont’s finest craft beers.

“It changed things big-time, for sure,” David says of the advent of craft beer. “But I believe in options. We have these beers, but we’re also not snobs. Whatever you want to drink, we want to serve you. I mean, we sell three barrels of Schlitz a week at the Williston location!”

Giant TV screens showing every manner of sports have given the Nelsons’ business a reputation as a place to take the family for dinner or to watch the big game.

“It helps to know what you are,” David notes. “We’re not the place for taking your wife on your 25th anniversary or something. We’re the place where you might say, ‘Wow! What a long day at work; I’m not cooking,’ or you just get out of Little League and want somewhere to take the kids.”

The Nelsons say they’re happy with the growth of their company. “That being said, we’re always looking for opportunities. I can imagine us opening another store or two in Chittenden County in the next few years, sure. But we’re not going to be some kind of 50-store chain or anything.”

They have two teenage sons, Elliott and Sam, and their lives away from the business are focused on their family.

When he’s not watching his sons play basketball or baseball, David enjoys traveling. “Getting away helps me focus,” he says. “Last year I had some great ideas about the business while I was driving through a sandstorm in the Mojave Desert.”

For the Nelsons, it’s clear that they’ve found their formula.

For David, it’s simple. “What’s better than having some burgers and beer and watching a game you love?” •