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Trade is slow ... but not for the fast food sector

Hello Mr Chips: meet Michael Neil whose Frying Squad franchise is defying the recession and thriving on a healthy diet of increased sales and additional outlets

An overwhelming belief in producing a quality product, staff training and exacting hygiene standards has driven the development of local takeaway franchise business, The Frying Squad. Michael Neil, managing director, reveals how, despite a squeeze on consumer spending, Northern Ireland's love affair with the chippie continues unabated...

No, apart from enjoying a good fish supper like the next man, I had no previous experience in the food industry.

I had originally trained as an engineer and worked in the oil rig industry, working off shore in places like the North Sea, Canada and Africa for companies including BP and Shell.

By thoroughly researching the type of business that I wanted to create, developing a unique brand and image for my business and involving the right business experts at the right time to help me achieve it.

Before I opened my fish and chip shop in Newtownards, I spent six months researching the local market.

The results showed fish and chips is still the nation's favourite takeaway food, and, with up to 65% gross profit margins on product sales, I felt it was the perfect business venture for me.

Also, I saw there was a gap in the market for well interior designed, top branded takeaway outlets like ours that place emphasis on hygiene standards, staff training and delivery of quality food.

I recognised that I had built up a fantastic brand, but knew that franchising would be the best option for me to expand the business.

The Frying Squad is in a constant state of expansion as we are talking to potential new franchisees all the time as we look for the right person, or partnership, with the hard-working and passionate attributes to join our team.

We have established four franchise branches in two years and believe that another two to three would be achievable for 2010.

While we have optioned premises in quite a number of leading market towns throughout Northern Ireland and the Republic, we need to find the right franchisee that has the drive to run this dynamic business to its optimum potential.

Actually, not really a lot. Company branch sales are up 4.5% year on year.

Recent research has shown that, in general, all takeaways have proved to be fairly recession proof as customers are reluctant to give up this treat.

In fact, it was due to the recession that we attracted our latest franchisee, Geoff McKnight, who now runs the Frying Squad in Upper Lisburn Road, Finaghy. He was made redundant less than a year ago and now employs 11 full and part-time staff.

Innovation is essential for the success of any business and a fish and chip shop franchise is no exception. As a former engineer I know that processes can always be improved.

We recently have been working with South Eastern Regional College in a research project funded by an Invest NI Innovation voucher to investigate potential new sites and the market in general in the Republic. Against tough opposition, we were recently awarded the most Innovative Company at the 2009 Bangor Business Awards by the South Eastern Regional College.

But innovation in how we serve our customers, how we train our staff, how we buy, store and prepare our food, how we reduce waste, and how we retain loyal customers and staff are what will ultimately set The Frying Squad apart from the competition.

So far it has been having five Frying Squad shops up and running successfully.

It's great to see the plan and strategy that I set out begin to take shape.

I will be soon recruiting new franchisees for Ballymena, Ballycastle, Armagh, Enniskillen and Belfast ... to name a few.

Our vision is to be the customer's first choice for fish and chips.

Our long term objective is to develop the Frying Squad as a successful Northern Ireland franchise operating throughout the UK and Republic.

To have a vision and to be prepared to work hard to get it off the ground.

I believe in luck, creativity, willpower and tenacity.

The best direct marketing for us is the consistent delivery of a quality hot food product for each and every customer as this customer then becomes an ambassador for us.

We have carried out a variety of tried and tested marketing, advertising and PR initiatives over the years to support our franchisees locally while also developing the corporate brand.

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