As the new manager of Saunder's Farm and Cidery, Jeff O'Reilly is determined to do for apple cider what he did for beer at D'Arcy McGee's Irish Pub: sell a lot of cider and give folks a good time.
A popular bar and restaurant manager, party-thrower and charitable fund-raiser, O'Reilly is Saunders' new director of guest experience. There, he'll manage the new cidery bar and event centre.
O'Reilly describes it as an opportunity too good to miss.
“It's a good fit for me,” O'Reilly, 55, says. “The Saunders are looking to build clientele for the cidery bar, add events and grow the business. I have 25 years in hospitality, marketing and event planning. As the director of guest experience, my job is to help build the business into a year-round destination.”
It's not the first time he's worked with Mark and Angela Saunders.
Aware of his success as an event planner and bar manager at D'Arcy McGee's, the Saunders asked O'Reilly to manage hospitality for the Strawberry Moon Celtic music festival at the Farm in 2000. Buoyed by that success of that event, the Saunders doubled down on their fledgling event tourism business, adding themed events for Halloween, Christmas and Easter, and camps and zip lines for the summer to become what is now an award-winning agri-tourism destination.
In February 2021, they purchased Flying Canoe cider with plans to make and market their own cider.
“The Saunders are a lot like me,” says O'Reilly. “They're extremely entrepreneurial.”
It's jarring for those that know O'Reilly to imagine D'Arcy McGee's without him. The 55-year-old thought the only way he'd leave the pub he'd managed for nearly half his life would be in an wooden box.
And not without some justification. After 24 years as the pub manager, and at one point, minority owner, O'Reilly had turned D'Arcy McGee's into one of Ottawa's most popular pubs.
Located on Sparks Street about a block from Parliament Hill and the National Arts Centre, D'Arcy McGee's seemed to be hosting special events constantly.
“Great pubs are like great parties,” he explains. “They make you feel welcome. It's like the TV show Cheers. I wanted to make my pub a place where the staff would know your name.”
Many of his customers included parliamentarians, hockey players, musicians and celebrities including Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams, Prince Albert of Monaco and comedian Mike Myers.
More importantly, he was active in the community, sponsoring charitable events and helping social organizations to raise money for worthy causes.
However, when the pandemic closed the city and with no reopening date in the foreseeable future, the pub's parent company Recipe reluctantly pulled the chute and let him go in January.
“I was walking with friends when I got a call from head office asking to meet at the pub,” O'Reilly recalls. “I knew something was up.”
“Suddenly, people didn't feel safe going out anymore,” he says. “We had shut the place last fall lockdown because the city was empty, and it was looking like it would be a long time before it would reopen again. It was hard for Recipe to let me go, but its a decision they had to make. They knew I was a champion for the brand and had won a few awards along the way. But they had to take drastic action. The hospitality industry lockdown is going to take years to recover.”
Suddenly with time on his hands, his priority was to get himself healthy. He studied mindfulness and began walking and biking up to 20K a day, losing 53 pounds in five months.
It was in the midst of this personal journey when the offer to manage Saunders' new cidery entertainment centre arrived.
“I'm in a great place now. I lead a very public life because I love meeting people, and they enjoy what I'm doing. I'm grateful for the opportunity. I'm looking forward to my new life.”