‘Anywhere but here to be honest’: Why Eddie Rocket's is pushing outside of Ireland

Fast-food boss Niall Fortune talks international expansion and how Dublin has reached ‘peak burger’.

By Sarah Harford

EDDIE ROCKET’S MAY be an Irish institution, but the man behind the diner chain says he’s now more interested in opening franchises in other countries than dealing with the saturated market in Ireland.

“Personally, my main focus is on international business – there’s huge potential in that,” managing director Niall Fortune told Fora.

Fortune’s company currently has more than 50 outlets in Ireland under various brands – including Eddie Rocket’s, Rocket’s, Flash Harry’s and the Counter – with a mixture of company-owned and franchised restaurants.

While the food firm has previously announced plans to keep expanding that footprint, Fortune said that it will only do so if the right franchise partner comes on board.

“At the moment the challenge in Ireland is property. There’s planning restrictions in the city centre and the price of property is just not cheap – I wouldn’t pay it,” he said.

“If opportunities come up we’ll take them, but I’m not out there looking. I’m looking to Germany, France, Spain – anywhere but here to be honest.”

Fortune’s international expansion is already on track and his first outlet in Germany – located in Center Parcs in Baden-Württemberg – is set to open next week

The opening is part of a franchise deal with German travel food firm Areas, which has signed a contract to open 20 Rocket’s restaurants across the country over the next three years.

“It’s taken us three years to get into Germany, it was very difficult but we have high hopes for that market,” Fortune said.

“Areas has the rights for all the Center Parcs in Germany, so we’re going into those first, then out to railway stations and travel hubs.

“We have a lot of money and time invested in this, but we’re absolutely hoping it will be a stepping stone. We’re in active negotiations in Spain and the Middle East now.”

Source: Graham Hughes/Photocall Ireland!

All of these international franchises will be opened under the Rocket’s brand – the fast-casual concept that was first launched here in 2014 and currently includes five outlets in Dublin.

“Our biggest drive at the moment is Rocket’s. It’s an urban brand and was designed with an eye to the future,” Fortune said.

He added that the brand is “a bit more oriented at the younger market” and is designed to “fill a space” between US chains Five Guys and Shake Shack.

However, he noted there is also a practical reason for focusing on the Rocket’s concept in the future.

“To build an Eddie Rocket’s could cost up to a million euro or more, but to build a Rocket’s is about half of that. It’s a different model, smaller footprint, smaller kitchen, cheaper fitouts.

“Personally I would open Eddie Rocket’s anywhere because it’s my favourite. But we’re moving away from the retro thing now.”

Changing market

Fortune has been in the burger business for nearly 30 years, after opening his first Eddie Rocket’s restaurant on Dublin’s South Anne Street in 1989.

But the casual dining scene has undergone some big shifts since then, with increased competition – especially in Dublin city centre.

“We’ve had competition before and we did alright. The trick is we have to reinvent ourselves every so often,” Fortune said.

“Eddie Rocket’s now is not the same restaurant it was 20 or 30 years ago. The food business is always changing.”

Fortune said that Eddie Rocket’s is introducing a new menu soon that will include more vegan options and salads – even though the chain doesn’t sell many of them at the moment.

And while the business may be best known for burgers, Fortune added that chicken tenders are actually its biggest seller.

Source: Leah Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Ireland has seen somewhat of a burger boom in recent years, with more domestic players and international chains entering the market, but Fortune said that it’s not something that causes him too much concern.

“We absolutely keep an eye on the competition. McDonald’s has gone a bit more upmarket in recent years, so we had to go a bit more upmarket too,” he said.

“I’d say the market is saturated though – we’ve reached the peak of burgers and I think businesses will start falling now.

“But we won’t. We’ve been through tough times and survived. We got through the last recession and if you can get through that you can get through anything.”

According to its most recent accounts, the main company behind the chain in the Republic, Eddie Rockets Ireland Limited, posted turnover of €17.2 million in 2016 and a net profit of just over €1 million. However, 2018 has brought mixed fortunes so far.

“This year hasn’t been a good year – between the storms, the snow, the heatwave, the football, the pope. But things are returning to normal now,” Fortune said.

At 62, the burger boss said that he has his eye on retirement in the coming years but isn’t worried about the future of his business.

“I think we’re in a good spot. If the international side takes off there’ll be plenty of work for all of us for years to come, but I think the place will run fine without me.”

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