Sam swapped big jets for Big Macs in Dundonald
Sam Akbar has always striven to be a high flier.
And now the former commercial pilot has swapped big planes for Big Macs as a new McDonald’s Franchisee.
But although his feet are firmly on the ground these days, the 47-year-old father of two is over the moon at securing his “local” McDonald’s in Dundonald — an establishment he has visited countless times as a customer.
The seeds for his dramatic career change were sown by the Covid-19 pandemic, which had a massive effect on the aviation industry, and by Sam’s own personal desire for a lifestyle change.
“I’d had enough of living out of a suitcase,” said Sam, who has two sons Sam Jnr (18) and 15-year-old Zech with wife Cathy-Ann (47), an interior designer.
“I missed a lot of my kids growing up and didn’t want that to continue; I wanted a complete change.”
When considering his options, the former Emirates, Aer Lingus and Flybe pilot didn’t have to look far for inspiration.
He often popped into the Dundonald McDonald’s — and his eldest son worked there while studying for his A Levels at Campbell College.
“That helped plant the seed for me,” the Newtownards-based man said.
“I’d always liked the idea of being my own boss and McDonald’s stood out for me, because of their values, as a business to buy into.”
Sam worked in finance and recruitment after studying accountancy at Northumbria University in Newcastle but his childhood dream was to be a pilot and, by his mid-20s, that lure had become irresistible.
It’s easier said than done, though; in 2000, he was earning £12,500 a year — and a pilot’s course back then was costing £50,000.
To help raise the money for a year’s training at the British Aerospace Flying College in Jerez, Spain, he dipped into property development — “buying an apartment, tidying it up and selling it on”.
Unfortunately, his course finished around the same time as the 9/11 attacks in New York, which stymied the recruitment process for a while.
Sam took a job as a dispatcher at Leeds-Bradford Airport, before moving into an administrative role with Flybe at their head office in Exeter; ironically training young pilots.
But the company, well aware that he was a fully-trained pilot himself, gave Sam his first cockpit job a year later — with Belfast both the principal destination and Northern Ireland his new family home.
There followed stints with GB Airways, Aer Lingus and Emirates, for whom he spent six years working out of Dubai.
He returned to Northern Ireland in 2016, to begin flying for Thomas Cook out of Belfast — but on September 23 of that year, the 178-year-old travel company went bust.
His final job as a pilot came with SAS Ireland [now SAS Connect], for whom Sam worked until Covid hit.
It was time to get grounded permanently and look towards a new opportunity with McDonald’s, which has been franchising in the UK and Ireland for over 35 years.
He had some limited experience of hospitality — he once impulsively bought a fish and chip shop in Killyleagh when his wife was out at work; he sold it two years later after the family moved to Dubai — but nothing can really prepare you for McDonald’s other than the company itself. It was 18 months before Sam learned the Dundonald premises, which he took over recently, was to become his first Franchise — and that lengthy period was spent training and understanding all aspects of the business.
“After my first interview, I spent five days working in a McDonald’s in Cheshire,” recalled Sam.
“I did everything from cleaning grills out to cooking fries and cleaning tables.
“That gives you an insight into what it’s really like — it either scares you off or makes you want to carry on. Personally, I thought it was great.”
Sam became a registered applicant on a nine-month training programme offered to new Franchisees before they acquire their first restaurant, spending four months in Dundonald and five in the McKinstry Road restaurant in Belfast.
By the time he’d finished training, he’d worked as a crew member, shift manager and business manager and, crucially, the “intense” experience meant he gained an insight into the entire operation.
“You start just as a 16-year-old would on day one, and go through every aspect of the business,” he said.
“McDonald’s aim to attract ambitious and progressive individuals who have what it takes to scale a multi-site organisation.”
When Sam found out that he’d secured the Dundonald restaurant in January 2022, protocol dictated that he couldn’t even share the good news with Sam Jnr — who was already working there.
Unsurprisingly, both Sam’s sons are “over the moon” at their dad’s new job.
Among the benefits of owning a McDonald’s Franchise are the 24-hour nature of the business and the accommodating hours, as well as the opportunity for business growth.
Sam also highlighted the “trusted supply chain within an ecosystem that’s proven and reliable”.
“For me, being able to control my own lifestyle was a big incentive,” he said.
“This one is going to go 24 hours at weekends very shortly.”
He added: “Being in control of my own financial future is also one of the main drivers; there are opportunities in Northern Ireland to grow the business over the 20 years that I have my licence.”
Sam said he’s proud to be part of a company does a lot of good in the community, currently supporting football teams and other initiatives.
They’re doing their bit for the company’s ‘30 Parks in 30 days’ campaign — aimed at tackling litter, in parks and along roadside in towns across Northern Ireland — in early June.
“We’re based here, our kids go to school in the area and we have strong links with the local people, so we’re looking at ways to make a positive impact on the community,” he said.
“We’re doing our ‘30 Parks in 30 Days’ clean up during the first week of June.
“It’s about family, community and being involved in the community and having ties in it.
“McDonald’s has a strong ethos of feeding and fostering local communities, and that’s what running a restaurant is really all about – family and community.
“Also, it’s giving career development opportunities to local people, Most people who work in this restaurant live in Dundonald.”
As a regular customer of McDonald’s as well as a Franchisee, what would Sam’s weakness be when it comes to ordering?
“I’m a bit promiscuous with the menu; I’m all over the place,” he said, before adding: “I like a Big Mac, extra pickle...”