Sisters United in Business
Mary Jane Culhane, co-owner of Culhane’s Irish Pub, started the business along with her sisters Lynda, Michelle, and Aine in 2005. The sisters had a dream when they left their family farm in Limerick, Ireland emigrating to the United States. The dream was to build a family business during an era of opportunity, to honor all of the nurturing women who came before them, and especially pay homage to their mother, Kitty. Building a family business from scratch wasn’t an easy task, and they planned meticulously. They tried to start their restaurant with traditional funding, but due to lack of credit and experience, they were denied the loan. The sisters turned to their family for support and started Culhane’s Irish Pub in Atlantic Beach, Florida. They cultivated a warm and supportive environment, where they focused on customer care.
The restaurant faced many challenges along the way including the 2008 recession, lease issues, and staff turnover. Despite the challenges, the sisters grew their business. They improved their existing restaurant and enhanced the dining experience for their customers. The sisters’ hard work paid off, and they were featured on the HGTV show Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives with Guy Fieri in 2010. Over the years, Culhane and her sisters worked with the Small Business Development Center, a resource partner with the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), at the University of North Florida and their business consultant, Cathy Hagan. Ms. Hagan has worked with the sisters and introduced them to many resources.
In late 2018, MJ Culhane and her sisters obtained an SBA-backed 504 loan to purchase a building and open a second Culhane’s Irish Pub in the Southside area of Jacksonville. This new location saw great success with their lunch service as the site is central to major employers and is in a key business area.
Culhane’s Irish Pub was slated to hit a record-breaking year in revenue and growth, until Covid-19 hit, and the business lost 80% of its revenue. The second location that serves the Southside business district was hit hard as their usual customers continued to work remotely. The second location has not re-opened for lunch-service and both locations continue to face challenges related to resuming normal business.
One of the most significant surprises came in 2020 and 2021 on St. Patrick’s Day. This is usually one of the highest revenue days for any Irish Pub. They lost revenue instead. Although they arranged for an outdoor event; due to continuing health concerns, the City didn’t allow the 2020 event to take place. While they had a smaller event in 2021, the business still lost a significant amount of revenue.
Culhane’s Irish Pub has worked with SBA resource partners and utilized SBA backed financing, however the business would not have been sustainable due to the impacts of Covid-19 without additional assistance from the SBA. Culhane’s utilized Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans for both restaurants and recently received funding under the Restaurant Revitalization Fund (RRF) to stay in business. While the business has not yet fully recovered to pre-pandemic levels, the company is doing better. They were able to take advantage of other SBA initiatives such as relief of mortgage payments during the pandemic for their second location.
The sisters are resilient and did not give up on their dream of having successful businesses. The Culhane sisters staff over 80-people at their restaurants. The challenges of running a family-owned business left everyone stressed and emotionally drained during the pandemic. Despite the challenges, the sisters are true entrepreneurs. They once again gathered their combined forces to launch their vodka line, 5 Sisters Spirit Vodka. The proprietary recipe and trademark, represent their commitment to being strong, resilient, loyal, fun-loving, hard-working, and independent! They continue to work closely with the SBDC again in 2021 to launch and distribute their vodka.
Culhane’s Irish Pub has become very well known in the Jacksonville, Florida area. The Culhane sisters have utilized SBA resources ranging from counseling through a resource partner, 504 loan guarantee, and now Covid-19 relief options to continue to grow their businesses. They have expanded the business and started a new complementary product line. Their vodka is promoted and showcased at not only their two restaurants, but regional bars, local stores, and other restaurants. Mary Jane Culhane has been recognized by the SBA as the 2020 North Florida District Women-Owned Small Business Person of the Year. Culhane’s Irish Pub has also received numerous industry awards.
The Culhane sisters are resilient and effective business leaders. They continue to support each other to grow their businesses, and their brands. The sisters continue to work with the SBA and its resource partners in their determination to grow their business. They believe in their dream, and themselves. Their motto is “never give up.”