The Big Interview with Northern Ireland McDonald's pioneer Paul McDermott
'I would never say never to the idea of having a third McDonald's restaurant ...'
It's been a busy time for McDonald's franchisee Paul McDermott. His McDonald's restaurant in Connswater, east Belfast, is part of the first roll-out in Northern Ireland of a partnership of a 'McDelivery' service between McDonald's and Uber Eats - a division of online taxi company Uber.
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At lunchtime on Wednesday Paul (58), who also owns the franchise for McDonald's in Dundonald, is keeping a watchful eye on the bags of food leaving Connswater to be brought to customers by Uber cyclists.
At the moment the food can be delivered by Uber Eats riders between 8am and midnight to addresses within a 1.5 mile radius of the participating restaurant.
There are five restaurants taking part - Connswater, Shore Road in north Belfast, Westwood in west Belfast, Boucher in south Belfast, and Donegall Place in the city centre - with the potential to extend it out.
"We had a soft launch a few days ago, and so far the story is very good. We're generally finding that our customers are wanting more convenience," he said.
McDelivery has already been introduced in England and in parts of Scotland too. The 1.5 mile radius proviso has been carefully thought out, and allows a 30-minute delivery period.
"We feel we can get food delivered on time, fresh and warm, within a 30-minute time period," he explained.
"The customer will use the app to place the order. It will be picked up by an Uber rider and then, when they are three minutes from the store, the order is sent through to us and we will have that ready for the rider when he arrives at the restaurant."
The deal with Uber Eats is a global arrangement. "In Uber Eats we have a partner committed to making sure our exacting food quality standards are maintained in transit," he added.
He says that, so far, breakfasts have proved popular with Uber Eats customers and are sold between 8am and 10.15am. The full menu is available after 10.15am.
While Paul is being kept busy with his two east Belfast restaurants, he would "never say never" to acquiring a third one. And McDonald's is planning another restaurant - its 30th in the province - in Knocknagoney on the outskirts of Holywood.
Formerly some restaurants had been company-owned but now the business has franchisees in all the units, in the belief that it brings them closer to the community.
Paul is closely involved in the east Belfast community, and hopes he's in line to become the Knocknagoney franchisee.
"I do a lot in my community and get involved with a lot of football groups in the community. Dungoyne was our community football club of the year. I'll always get involved with people who are passionate about their beliefs. Everything that I have in the community comes back tenfold. I'm not just doing it because I have a business in the area but because I believe in what they are doing."
His roots in Belfast, particularly the east, run deep. He went to school at Rockport near Holywood, then Methodist College in south Belfast.
His father Clancy, who died in 2007, was captain of Glentoran Football Club and earlier played for Fulham.
His mother Kay is 92 and lives near Paul, who is an only child.
"My father's father had a building company and my father was a bricklayer," he said.
"During the war they went across to England to build air raid shelters and my father was there for four years and played for Fulham while he was there.
"Then he came back to Northern Ireland and many, many years later he got into the pub business. He used to captain Glentoran and ended up building pubs in east Belfast.
"He built two in east Belfast and also owned The George later on, which was later the Clandeboye Lodge after we sold it on."
Paul worked in the family pub business and he says the story of how he became a McDonald's franchisee is a "long" one. "When I was at school I wanted to go on and do law but my father was in the pub business so I went into the family business and that's where I ended up in east Belfast."
But Paul decided the pub business just wasn't for him as the industry was getting a lot tougher.
"I even remember in 1988 contacting McDonald's to ask if they would ever bring restaurants here, and they said they had no immediate plans," he recalled.
"They did open their first restaurant here in 1992, in Donegall Place.
"Then, in 1996, the pub business was getting more and more difficult.
"And I just thought: 'I don't want to do this any more'."
He sold the business and then went travelling around the world for just over a year.
"I remember my accountant saying: 'What will you do when you sell up?'
"I travelled for a while, which was good, came back and realised I wanted to get back into something of my own, not a family business. So I decided to apply to McDonald's.
"I was then lucky enough to get an interview and within about six months I started my nine-month training programme, which was unpaid. So I had to go to England and I stayed over in England for six months doing my training, then finished it back in the north of Ireland for three months.
"Inside the nine months, you work from the bottom to managing the restaurant. You learn the business from the ground floor right up to the top. You're learning everything to do with the business so that you can manage your own business when you get the franchise."
Gaining a franchise means getting the equipment, the goodwill of the business and a 20-year contract - with Paul saying the length of the contract reflects the commitment the company makes to the community.
At the time, he wanted the franchise in east Belfast, where he grew up. "It had already been open in Connswater as a company store so I bought it off the company. I took the restaurant on on May 6, 2001, also my father's birthday, and here we are now, 17 years later."
The restaurant had 35 staff then, and now he has 135, some of whom have been there for 16 years. Then, in 2006, he bought the Dundonald McDonald's from another franchisee, and has 120 staff there.
In that period since he opened his first restaurant there have been a lot of changes - of which McDelivery is only the latest. "The refurbishments of the restaurants have been significant, and it's a destination now, much more than before," he said.
Changes include free wi-fi in the restaurants, and table service using kiosks. You place your order, and can then ask for your meal to be brought to you. "It's really handy for families," Paul added. The changes were introduced through a programme of upgrades to restaurants called Experience of the Future (EOTF).
Of the 29 restaurants - which are run by six franchisees - 16 have been transformed through EOTF, with another seven to be done this year.
"Customers are liking it more and there's more interaction and our people are out on the floor more with table service," he said.
As for his own favourite McDonald's order, it's a double cheeseburger, medium fries and Fanta Orange.
East Belfast is close to his heart. "George Best opened my father's first pub - he was a family friend - and Mary Peters opened my father's second pub," he revealed.
Overall, the process of introducing McDelivery has been about introducing convenience to customers. "With the World Cup on now, there will be people and families sitting watching some of the matches and thinking: 'I'd like a McDonald's but I don't want to leave the match'. So now they can get the food delivered to them."