Future Proof: Niall McKenna, chef and restaurateur, Belfast

A business model with an apprentice scheme helped the firm to expand in the recession

"A lot has changed since Brexit, but we don't know yet the full effect it will have on business in Belfast and in the North," says Niall McKenna, chef and owner of Belfast restaurants James Street South, The Bar and Grill, Hadskis and Cast and Crew.

“The euro is so strong against the pound right now so doing business up here at the moment means we are facing unbelievable challenges.”

McKenna developed a business model which involved expanding his restaurants during a recession which devastated many businesses in the hospitality sector. While many people thought it would destroy his businesses altogether, McKenna maintains that opening a second restaurant, a cookery school and an internship programme five years ago actually saved him.

“If we didn’t expand, we would be gone. I bounced the idea off a few businesspeople, and Joanne, my wife, and I crunched numbers and we just went for it. We knew, if we don’t do this, we’re gone,” he says.


“Fine dining was dead. I had to give people what they wanted. So I said if people want a steak, let’s give them the best steak they’ll eat and I opened The Bar and Grill. That and the internship programme were the saviours of my company.

“We started the internship programme five years ago and we’ve learned every year. It’s been a big investment and we funded it ourselves.

"It was a massive gamble but again I wouldn't have survived without it. This year I've taken on six apprentices so far and, of those six, I'll probably employ five. Last year, I took on 12 and I employed four but we've made it more concentrated this year and I've found my staff retention is unbelievable."

He says there was too much negativity in our industry “and I was the worst. I made Dylan McGrath look like a wimp. Joanne said to me, ‘We have to think of this like any other business’.”

Young apprentices

“Restaurateurs are passionate but you have to have two different hats: you have to think of a restaurant like any other small to medium business. Myself and Joanne are becoming really definite about what we want to do with the apprenticeship scheme. We are going to move it on to the floor staff next year and then junior management,” McKenna says.

“As a rule, within our company since we started the apprenticeship scheme, I am only trying to employ from within. I can see a future within this.”

So what is McKenna looking for in his young apprentices?

“The chefs I’m taking on have different capabilities, different motivations. I will take on people to suit my different restaurants, a chef that suits James Street South doesn’t suit Cast and Crew or The Bar and Grill,” he says.

“I don’t want all superstars, I want grafters, different personalities and different wage structures. We have a selection and mixture of chefs. There’s nothing worse than a kitchen full of egos.”

McKenna says the apprentices need to understand that this is a business.

“If I get that into them, that will stand to them. I ask them, ‘How much is a lemon?’ It’s 37p. My apprentices need to know that. They also need to love food, have a real passion for it,” he says.

Passion for food

That, according to McKenna, is the balance between keeping the passion for food and running a restaurant as a business.

“When I see a customer tasting my food and then handing the spoon over to their partners to taste, that’s what it’s all about. I love that,” he says.

“But we are a small to medium enterprise at the same time. I employ 120 staff and in the next year and a half I’ll have 180. That’s a lot of plates that have to go out for me to pay those wages, especially when I’m competing with 20 per cent VAT and the living wage. We have to be on our figures and I am always looking at how we can adapt our business. It’s like a game of chess.”

Belfast Metropolitan College helps McKenna with the selection process for his apprentices and provides the theory element of the programme. As well as qualifications in basic hygiene skills, the apprentices learn maths and English and they come away with a level two exam qualification.

In developing the programme, McKenna says he spoke to different chefs and different lecturers. What he offers, he says, is a career.

He reckons it will be about another year before he expands the programme but he has become a big fan of the concept.

“Hands-on experience during education is invaluable for people. An apprenticeship makes you very loyal to a company. People are interested in getting the name of a company on their CV but that’s not necessarily good training,” he says.

Having worked with chefs such as Paul Rankin, Paul Flynn, Gary Rhodes and Marco Pierre White, McKenna knows the values in good training.