“I was a bad waitress, so they put me behind the bar,” she said, laughing. “You can earn really good money there.”
McNaughton graduated with a degree in forensic psychology, but her real education came from her practical experience slinging drinks. So she put her careers plans on hold, and that, as they say, has made all the difference.
“I wanted to open up my own place,” she said simply.
McNaughton and three fellow bartenders decided to make their dream become a reality. The four saved their earnings until they had enough for a 12-year lease on a place in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood on the West Side of Manhattan. That was 11 years ago.
“I was 26 at the time, and it was a huge transition to make,” she said. “Suddenly I was the problem solver. There was no one else to go to if something was broken.”
Her willingness to take on the myriad and sundry challenges of the bar trade have served McNaughton well. Indeed, she has had some traumatic times to deal with. Of the original four business partners, one of them died in a plane crash and another died from AIDS. The third decided to move away from New York.
McNaughton learned how to deal with the new responsibility through trial and error and was relieved when the investment of her savings started to yield a return.
“I used the takings to fix the place up,” she said. “The busier it got, the better it got.”
The bar, called Revolution, is on 44th Street and Tenth Avenue. It is a large space with murals on the rough-hewn walls and a cozy, modern atmosphere. The bar has none of the traditional Irish pub paraphernalia and, perhaps for that reason, attracts a young Irish crowd.
To be sure, it is a mistake to assume that the Irish are eager to frequent watering holes bedecked with shamrock and tricolors. Tastes and fashions have changed and this is one bar owner who has cottoned on to that fact.
“One of the special things we do is provide the personal touch,” McNaughton said. “I work behind the bar once a week and make an effort to get to know our customers and get them a drink. I often hear people point to me and say, ‘She is the owner.’ I think it makes the customers feel more looked after when the owner is behind the bar.”
Revolution has a DJ every night of the week and serves good, hearty food at a fair price.
“When I first told people that we were opening a place in Hell’s Kitchen, they thought we were crazy,” she said. “Now, there is a lot of competition in the area.”
A year and a half ago, McNaughton opened a place in the East Village she named Fuel at Phebes. “It’s hard to get out of this business,” she said. “One opportunity breeds another.”
McNaughton has a working partner, which means that she can split her time between the two premises.
“I have a long day,” she said. “I generally work in Revolution until late, then go over to Phebes to see how everything is going.”
McNaughton is helped by her sister Erin, who works behind the bar.
“I think that my childhood has a lot to do with me being in this business,” the entrepreneur said. “My father, who is originally from Ireland, used to go to his cousin’s bar in Brooklyn. We used to visit all the time and I liked the atmosphere a lot.”
It is an atmosphere she hopes to recreate in Fuel. Every Wednesday night, the band Trigger plays traditional Irish music with a modern flavor. McNaughton said she is going to Ireland this summer to visit her father’s family and hopes to glean more ideas for a successful night out.