The Pubster, Jeff Donnelly

Jeff Donnelly owns a dozen B.C. pubs and nightclubs, and he's introduced a whole new generation to drinking, foosball, and shuffleboard.


Jeff Donnelly owns a dozen B.C. pubs and nightclubs, and he’s introduced a whole new generation to drinking, foosball, and shuffleboard.

At first glance, Jeff Donnelly blends into the Yaletown crowd of skater boys and game programmers: flannel shirt, torn jeans and slip-on Vans. But on closer inspection, the look is a little more calculated: the plaid shirt is meticulously pressed, the jeans spotless, the lock of hair casually brushing his forehead held in place with a touch of gel. And as he settles into the neighbourhood coffee bar to tell me his story, it becomes clear that beneath the boyish charm is the shrewd mind of a 36-year-old business mogul. 

Donnelly’s days would be the envy of any university freshman: up around 10, hit the books for a few hours, put in a little phone time, then hit the bars till one or two in the morning. The only difference is that for Donnelly, bar-hopping in Gastown and along the downtown Granville strip is all part of a day’s work. The president and founder of Donnelly Hospitality Management Ltd. is the primary owner of a dozen pubs and nightclubs.

To hear Donnelly describe it, his life is a dream come true: “I love hanging out in my pubs,” he says. “I love playing foosball with my buddies, I love good music and I love it when DJs are playing on the weekends.”

Born in Langley, Donnelly was raised in Surrey before moving to Victoria in Grade 12, after his dad bought a hotel there. After working in his dad’s hotel for a summer, he was lured to Skagit Valley College in Washington by the opportunity to play baseball, but a leg infection cut short any prospect of a career in professional sports (and besides, he says, “I wasn’t a very good baseball player”).

Donnelly eventually transferred to UVic and was near graduation when he found his calling: his dad, now part-owner of a number of hotels, suddenly needed someone to run a bar. “The manager had left; I was running the place for a few months while we were looking for a new manager and I absolutely loved it,” Donnelly recalls. “I just knew that was what I wanted to do.”

Donnelly then took an ownership stake in a bar when a group of Hong Kong investors who had bought Victoria’s Red Lion Inn asked him to take care of the hotel’s cocktail lounge. The new owners had big plans to attract Asian tourists by renovating the hotel and expanding its casino, but when the Asian financial crisis of 1997 hit, the renovation plans were shelved. Unable to live up to their agreement with Donnelly, the owners agreed to buy him out, and the settlement would fund the first of his Vancouver acquisitions.

When Donnelly Bought Bimini’s Tap House in 1999, the ’70s-era Kitsilano watering hole was showing its age. (He bought the business, not the real estate; to this day, all his operations are on leased sites.) Donnelly figured some new furniture, an updated menu and a few big-screen TVs might appeal to the increasingly young and upwardly mobile Kitsilano demographic. 

His only long-range plan at the time was to generate enough cash flow to launch a career in real estate, renovating and flipping houses and maybe someday getting into development. But the updated Bimini’s was an instant success, and with profits exceeding his expectations, “a lot of other opportunities came up.” (The 
neighbourhood pub has been shuttered since a fire struck in 2007; Donnelly says plans are finally on track to reopen in late winter or early spring.)

The opportunities have followed non-stop ever since, and the Donnelly formula has proven a winner: buy a down-at-the-heels bar in a neighbourhood poised for a rebound, update the decor, add hip music and a trendy menu, and a whole new generation of urban hipsters is introduced to foosball and shuffleboard. 

Donnelly is sole owner of Donnelly Hospitality Management, the company that manages all of his bars, and has a 50 to 60 per cent ownership stake in each of his pubs and nightclubs, with the remainder held by a close-knit group of investors. 

Asked where he goes from here, Donnelly is literally all over the map. He might take the concept to the suburbs, he says, or back East. A dual citizen thanks to his mother’s roots in California, he also feels a strong pull from south of the border, particularly Los Angeles, where he spends a lot of time. “It’s a great market, and it could really use our brand,” he ruminates. Then again, there’s Seattle, whose professional football and baseball teams have an undeniable attraction for Donnelly, a diehard sports fan.

But for the moment, Donnelly has his hands full meeting demand in his hometown. “The direction I’m going in is these public houses,” he says. “We’re going to keep doing them in Vancouver. Where we go from here I’m not sure, but right now we like our market.”