'I took my eye off the day-to-day business and was chasing what I thought was the prize at the end'
Gary McIldowney, the founder of Slim's Healthy Kitchen, tells Margaret Canning about how he's consolidating his business after a crisis-hit 2017
Looking back, south Belfast man Gary McIldowney made the success of his healthy eating restaurant chain Slim's Healthy Kitchen look easy.
It expanded to eight branches over a couple of years, with Gary's own story of slimming down from 24 to 15 stone helping create a buzz. It became known as a favourite haunt of young and hip gym-goers and rugby players, who'd visit to refuel on smoothies, turkey burgers and courgette noodles.
But last year, a crisis in the business led to six out of eight of the branches shutting down. Company GJD Restaurants was liquidated with debts of £770,000, with many creditors having to accept they'd never be repaid.
The company closed branches of Slim's in Dundonald, Victoria Square in Belfast city centre, and four concessions which had opened in a partnership with DW Gyms around Northern Ireland. The Belfast Telegraph reported the closures on January 5 last year. Father-of-two Gary says he was left with a bitter choice on that day. "I didn't want staff to think I was burying my head in the sand. I knew they would be worrying but I knew I had to keep going. I made sure I went into work that morning and worked the same as usual. I think at one stage they were thinking that I hadn't seen the article as I was so cheery."
Gary is relating the story of what went wrong and how he's now putting it right at noon on a Friday at the original Slim's Kitchen on the Lisburn Road. It's doing a brisk trade in coffees and its food options. And in a week when Marks & Spencer faces a furore over charging £2.50 for a 'cauliflower steak', Gary says it's planning on carrying a chargrilled cauliflower steak option. But he does admit that the addition of cauliflower rice to the menu was not a hit with diners.
Following the closure of the six branches, Gary was left with the Lisburn Road Slim's, and another on Belmont Road in east Belfast, which opened in 2015. He says he's grateful to those who have supported him, including a benefactor he refers to as "the hand of God". While Gary won't name the benefactor, he says his financial support has helped safeguard the business. But it's been a difficult year, Gary says.
Now he's looking ahead, with plans to franchise the Slim's concept with the opening of a branch in mid-Ulster later this year. The Victoria Square 'Express Slim's' branch closed - not due to any lack in trade, Gary says, but because its letting period was up. He says that has left fans of the brand keen for a new opening in the city centre.
Gary, who's been married to Kate since July - they met when he was DJing - is frank about the tough time which the business has gone through. He says it was brought about by a poor performance in its Dundonald branch, getting behind on VAT and the chasing of ambitions to expand into Great Britain.
Gary, who spent his early days in west Belfast before his family moved to Malone Road, said he had taken his eye off the day-to-day running of the business. He was in talks with private equity firm Foresight over securing investment to open up around 25 branches in the UK. They'd even identified premises in cities like Leeds and Glasgow. "We worked on that with (business advisors) PwC for about 18 months. My operations manager and I were going to meetings in the Shard in London. It was like Dragon's Den."
But there was trouble closer to home as 2016 was drawing to a close. The Dundonald branch (at Eastpoint Entertainment Park) just wasn't doing very well. It was too big, at 3,000 sq ft, and we just got the customer wrong. We got the demographic wrong and we just couldn't sustain it with the rent and rates we had to pay."
They took the decision to shut down the branch - but couldn't exit the lease agreement. Instead, Gary has opened a pizza restaurant on the site, Loco.
A relationship with the gym chain DW Gyms turned sour as the parties couldn't agree on opening hours, with the result that plans to also bring the brand to DW Gyms in Scotland were also dropped. Staff were also becoming more anxious about the future of the business, and large numbers left.
"That was another layer of difficulty as people were leaving the company."
Problems then developed with suppliers and cash flow, and Gary then sat down with his advisers and decided to enter a creditors' voluntary winding-up.
"I'd taken my eye of the day to day game and had my eye on the prize at the end of it."
He says it was a difficult year, in which he tried to shield his children Adah (11) and four -year-old Caleb from what was happening.
Gary is one of a family of five children, raised by parents Joe and Anne-Marie. Business - and later, the world of hospitality - have been in his blood for a long time. Father Joe ran an alarms company which was sold to G4S in 1993.
While his energy for business and the cafe industry is clear, he's frank about what he thinks are gaps in his education. "I didn't sit my 11-plus so I had no grades, and I had dyslexia.. I suppose I still do. I went to St Colman's in Ballynahinch. I didn't get the 11-plus and it was the only place I could get into.
"When it came to exam time I just wasn't very academic and when it came to my GCSEs, I got an F, two Es and a D - which spells 'feed'. So at that stage I was just very keen on getting into work. But looking back, there was stuff that I couldn't see the relevance of at school, like spreadsheets, that could now come in useful - and grammar as well. Not that it's held me back but I think having those things could have expedited where I got to today.
"For me it's all about working for myself and proving myself. I was looking for a chef four years ago and someone called Gerard came in. He told me he didn't have a CV but it didn't matter to me and he's still my chef now."
Gary then left school at 16 and worked in Paul Rankin's Cafe in Belfast's Fountain Street, eventually becoming a supervisor.
He also worked over a long period in the Wellington Park Hotel in Belfast - and it was there that the nickname 'Slim' was coined.
"One night someone said to me something like "will you pass me that glass there, Slim' - and the name stuck."
"I suppose I had gotten the taste for the tuck shop in school so I did get a lot bigger. And I didn't really play any sports at that stage."
But he didn't have a complex or hang-ups about his weight - until he watched his sister Laura complete the New York Marathon in 2006.
The feeling of her achievement spurred him on to plan to run a marathon - but he couldn't run until he shed his own extra weight, coming down from 24 to 15 stone. It took four or five years to get the weight off, and he ran the New York Marathon in 2011.
Gary himself then set up his own alarms, security and CCTV business after training as an electrician. His brother Mark then took over the business, and sold it.
The process of shedding weight and paying attention to his diet made him want to turn to more healthy form of fast food. He loved Belfast rotisserie chicken restaurant Rollo Pollo, and when it closed down, started to think about whether he could put his own spin on healthy eating.
Slim's was born in 2013, with the first branch on Lisburn Road. He followed it with openings in the other locations, including Victoria Square in 2014, and with the ill-fated DW Gyms tie-in.
Now its customer base is largely focused in the 25 to 34 age group, and mainly female. He's also trying to expand the business by working with online delivery service Deliveroo - and has also tried out other food mixes, including a frozen yoghurt shop and 'build your own salad' takeaway joint on the Lisburn Road.
And he feels the arrival of other chains with a healthy ethos such as Tony & Jen's, also on the Lisburn Road, and Goodness Rocks on Saintfield Road, have vindicated his own model.
Nor have competitors like Tony & Jen's sought to exploit last year's difficulties. "Last year Tony got in touch with me to offer me his support, which was lovely. Now we work out together very week."
He also DJ'd and had residencies in Belfast clubs like 21 Social, Il Divino and Rain but hasn't DJ'd since the Il Divino's closing weekend two years ago. It was in a nightclub while was DJing that he first laid eyes on Kate. "I said to my mate that night, I'm going to marry her'."
They were married in July last year.