From a small beginning in 1999, John McNally’s business has risen far. Starting with a cafe in Armagh and a first year turnover of £110,000, McNally now runs a group of catering businesses with a turnover of several millions, 65 full time staff and another 65 part time.
There was, though, a logical progression to all this. McNally was brought up on a farm, with his father involved in a meat business and his mother engaged in a bakery enterprise. Much of his early working life was away from the food trade, but this was good preparation for what came later – for eight years John advised people on setting-up their own firms through an enterprise agency, where he eventually become chief executive.
McNally branched-out for himself 11 years ago with Cafe Papa in Armagh and the following year won the contract to run the catering and bars in the city’s Market Place Theatre. After another three years, McNally expanded further by buying the Stonebridge Restaurant in Armagh, shortly after selling Cafe Papa as a going concern.
The business grew even bigger in 2005, when McNally began the Stonebridge outside catering business, which provides outside catering at the North West 200, other events and for weddings and special occasions. In 2007, the business enlarged again with the opening of the Sally McNally’s gastro pub near Portadown. And, a year later, the firm took on the bars and restaurant of the Drumbo Park greyhound track at Lisburn.
At the end of last year, in what might be seen as the pinnacle of his business career so far, McNally took on the prestigious catering contract at the Ulster Museum, with its smart new interior and views directly over Botanic Gardens.
Despite this success, McNally believes this is no time to let go of the focus on quality, value for money and use of local ingredients. “We are trying to keep the food real and concentrate on the flavours,” says John. “We genuinely care about the provenance of our food.
“I have a couple of acres of land and supply our own potatoes and other root veg. We now have poly tunnels for the herbs and soft fruit. There is nothing better than food going from the ground to the plate – and we don’t tell any lies about it.”
But even successful businesses have had to adjust to the downturn. “The recession has affected us,” admits John. “Nobody can say they have escaped. But we have to live with it. We have had to be a lot smarter in how we market ourselves: the key is controlling costs to maintain market share.”
Having survived the recession in good shape, McNally is now optimistic that his business will grow further with the recovery. “We are very encouraged by Christmas and the month of December,” says John. With his now established track record, McNally’s operations look in very good shape.