Food Insider: Don Dugan of Dugan’s Pub

If you asked Don Dugan when he was in his 20’s what he wanted to do with his life, his answer would have included two things – chasing girls and playing soccer. He fell into the food industry by chance, after he decided mowing yards wasn’t his thing.

“With restaurants, you’re indoors, and temperature control is always good,” he laughs.

When he went off to college in Jonesboro, he found that his competitive nature could complement the industry. While working at Pancho’s, he became excellent at offering customers good, fast service. “My roommate and I had competitions with each other to see who could serve more tables,” he remembers, “I’ve always been hyper-competitive.”

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When he came back to Little Rock he continued serving, and worked at Shorty Small’s for a time. He even tended bar some, and learned an extremely valuable lesson about over-service which he keeps with him to this day. He then landed in the country club circuit – first at the Pleasant Valley Country Club for a year, and then at the Chenal Country Club, which had just opened.

Dugan found a mentor in Eric Bugeya, the Food and Beverage Director for the club. “He taught me more about customer service and how to take care of people than I ever thought I wanted to know,” he remembers.

He worked his way up during his time there – tending bar and working as the head bartender, the captain of the waitstaff, and even the assistant food and beverage director. He still lives by a mantra Bugeya taught him about making your customers happy.

Dugan explains, “If people ask for something crazy and you can do it, why would you not?”

Dugan kept that mindset as he worked other jobs. He spent a good eight years working at Kelley’s Irish Bistro before heading to the La Scala, which was once adjoining the Afterthought. While he learned everything about what makes a kitchen operate at Kelley’s, he learned more about management at La Scala – something he thanks Wally Geirenger for.

“It was a really great experience working with Wally, I learned more about the nuts and bolts and day to day operations when working with him than anybody.”

When Kelley’s Irish Bistro sold and was renamed to Markham Street Grill & Pub, Dugan was working an odd job with Textbook Brokers, traveling around the region and buying back books. When he caught wind that the new owner was sick, he offered to help out, and came home from his travels – a win-win as he had a wife and two kids at home.

Shortly thereafter, he became the owner of the grill, thanks to a casual conversation involving drinks. “I said to the owner, ‘Let me just buy the whole thing,’ and he said, ‘Ok.’ … That was literally our negotiation, that was it,” Dugan laughs.

After the formalities were taken care of, he rode the wave out at Markham Street. His wife Tasha reminded him that he had always wanted to open an Irish Pub, so he started seriously thinking about it. He even began looking at places downtown. The current location for Big Whiskey’s and Dizzy’s were both options, but didn’t work out.

“But everything happens for a reason,” he says, as he remembers standing on the corner at 3rd and Rock outside of his current location. “I stood on that corner and [realized] that everybody who comes through this intersection has to look at our spot.”

After walking through the door on that fated day, Dugan was beside himself with excitement, as the space was huge, extending all the way to where Stratton’s Market is now.

“I said, ‘Wow, we could make a heck of a pub in here,” he remembers, but it turns out the lease was only for the corner space. Not to be deterred, he kept on with the plan. As construction began, there was serious talk of aesthetic as well as menu-testing taking place in his household.

Dugan centered his menu around Irish fare, and worked to make from-scratch dishes that could be delivered out in a timely manner. Coming up with the drink menu was also an enjoyable process, as Dugan looked back to his bartending days for inspiration.

The aesthetic is a different story entirely.

“My wife Tasha is responsible for the warm, cozy look of the place,” he says. “In fact that fireplace was all her idea, and it was almost the end of our marriage,” he laughs, “but now I couldn’t imagine the place without it.”

Thankfully Dugan and Tasha are able to have fun with it all. He laughingly says, “I’m going to make things fun no matter where I am.”

And, as someone who’s been in the food industry for a number of years, Dugan is currently amazed and proud to be a part of the local scene. He says, “In being in this business as long as I have I don’t know that I’ve seen the talent level ever at what it is now.”

Since opening the pub doors, opportunities arose and Dugan was able to take over the two leases adjoining the pub space, ultimately resulting in Stratton’s Market and Skye’s Little Bistro.

The market is run largely by Tasha, who has more experience in retail than he does.

“I remember asking her if she would just quit her job and do this with me and she did,” he says. “I leaned on her heavily for this. She is really the world’s best partner because we work things out pretty well business-wise.”

If you haven’t been in, you should go. There’s fresh produce, all sorts of local offerings, craft beer, and fine wine. Dugan says, “We’re trying to make sure that we are priced competitively or better to Colonial or Legacy – we’ve got the ability to be able to do that and I think that’s something a lot of people don’t realize.”

Aside from the market, watching his daughter take on and grow Skye’s Little Bistro grow has been both exciting and surreal for Don. Thanks to local chefs Amanda Leigh Ivy and Stephen Burrow, Don feels that Skye is in good hands.

“She’s a lot of fun to watch – she’s always been good at cooking … I can’t wait to see her put more of her own mark on the menu,” he says.

It’s truly a family affair down at the intersection of 3rd and Rock. Early on, Dugan knew he wanted his venture to be that and more, like a real pub. He often hosts music, fun events, dart tournaments, sports watching parties, human foosball – you name it and he’s hosted it.

From watching the Cubs win the World Series to the presidential election, he’s seen it all from his favorite spot at the bar, and he says it best – “It’s what a pub should be. It’s the neighborhood place.”

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Food Insider: Don Dugan of Dugan’s Pub