The boss of Supermac's wants robots to help run his fast food empire

Pat McDonagh says staff retention is the biggest challenge facing the company in its fourth decade.

By Conor McMahon Reporter, Fora

THE FOUNDER OF Supermac’s believes robots and having long-standing staff with ‘skin in the game’ will help fuel the fast food chain’s future growth.

Pat McDonagh – who co-owns the Galway-based outfit with his wife, Una – told Fora that the company is looking to automate certain tasks to deal with future staff shortages.

“Every business is going to have to look at automation of some sort or other to survive,” he said.

Certain aspects of Supermac’s business – which has been on the go for 40 years – are already handled by machines.

“The simple example at the moment is online ordering. It has really taken over from answering the phone in the last three or four years. You could say to a certain degree that’s automation,” McDonagh said.

“Most customers ordering online actually order 20% more than they would have by phone, that’s the average.”

McDonagh said he is intrigued by quirky tech attempts like drone-delivered pizza, and is considering the rollout of technology such as automatic chip fryers and self-service ordering, which American rival McDonald’s brought to its Irish stores four years ago.

“All these things are going to have to be looked at because you’re biggest cost in business is labour,” McDonagh said, quickly adding that emerging technologies will also help staff in their day-to-day duties.

Image-4 Pat McDonagh
Source: Supermac's

Staff retention

Founded in 1978 in Ballinasloe, Supermac’s currently employs more than 2,700 people and generated sales of just under €136 million in its most recent financial year.

In January, the company announced plans to open at least six new outlets in 2018 and hire as many as 400 additional staff. The new outlets will push the chain’s tally of stores to 114 across the island of Ireland.

At the time of the announcement, McDonagh said the company was “looking for people that want a career”.

He told Fora this week that the biggest challenge facing the company today is staff retention and finding the right people for the job.

McDonagh is banking on financial incentives like share options to entice people to stay for longer.

“You won’t do it with every newcomer that comes in, but if somebody is there for X amount of time and they’re doing a good job, you work out something, maybe a few shares in the business,” he said.

Staff are also encouraged to invest in a career at the company with the prospect of one day owning their own outlet.

The vast majority of Supermac’s 65 franchisees started out flipping burgers before advancing to management and eventually taking on their own outlet.

“It’s giving them a piece of the action,” McDonagh said.

When asked whether he takes inspiration from newer chains like Chopped, which offers healthier takeaway salad bowls and wraps, McDonagh said: “Of course.”

“You always learn from what other people are doing. The Irish have gotten very adventurous with their food tastes. You have to adapt to suit what the customer needs.”

File Photo Fast food chain Supermac's has asked the EU regulator to cancel the use of the Big Mac
Source: RollingNews.ie

However, he warned that there is little point chasing every food trend: ”A few years ago, the ‘in thing’ was smoothies and they were everywhere. Now they’ve reduced considerably.”

McDonagh said there is still scope for the odd treat in people’s diets, highlighting the “doughnut explosion” as a fad that is “totally contradictory to healthy eating”.

Working the grill

McDonagh – who also owns several hotels and developed Moneygall’s Barack Obama Plaza – was speaking on the fringes of the All-Ireland Business Summit in Dublin, where he received a ‘business champion’ gong.

During a panel discussion at the event, the businessman revealed that he still likes to get his hands dirty even after building Supermac’s into a multimillion-euro empire.

“I wouldn’t ask any of the staff to do anything I wouldn’t be prepared to do myself. I started from the ground up and I know what it’s like to clean toilets or deal with awkward customers,” he told the conference.

Speaking to Fora afterwards, McDonagh said remains hands-on “through necessity” and was working the grill in one Supermac’s outlet in Galway last weekend.

“Four bus loads of customers came together. What do you do? Do you just stand there and look at the staff working or do you get in with them? They appreciate you a lot more if you get in with them,” he said.

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