‘We’re dreading the electric bill’: More than 50 takeaways in North close in a month as costs soar

‘Tidal wave’ of increased utility bills, high produce costs and a drop in customers putting pressure on shop owners

Above the till of a Belfast fish-and-chip shop gleams a small brass plaque remembering two pensioners who helped a struggling couple go into business.

Kathleen and Danny Morgan remortgaged their modest home and secured a credit union loan for their son Joe to buy Nemo’s more than a decade ago.

“We hadn’t even the money for a float the day we opened. We had £20 in the till,” Joe’s wife, Sharon, recalls.

“Kathleen was the one who put her house on the line. She loved my cooking and used to say: ‘You’re wasted, you should have your own place.’”

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Dressed in a black-and-white striped headband and shop uniform, Sharon McGeown is about to start an 11-hour shift at the counter of the spotless 32-seater chipper.

McGeown left school with no qualifications and spent decades working in the food industry (she “loves the job and the people”); she and Joe Morgan own four shops across the city.

A fortnight ago they moved out of the council estate house they’ve lived in for 30 years for a new build in a leafy suburb outside Belfast.

Within a week, rocketing utility bills, high produce costs and a drop in customers forced the couple to close one of their businesses, a deli.

“Big Joe” is how Morgan is greeted by a customer ordering a fry in an almost-empty Nemo’s; Morgan sits down with a mug of tea and sighs.

“One shop has gone and we’ve had to let some people go. I’m worried. You can only raise prices so much until people stop coming. We’re not running at any sort of profit.

“We’re scraping the barrel at the moment.

“We always opened at 9am but stopped a few weeks ago as we weren’t getting the numbers.

“The gas bill last month doubled to £2,500. We’re dreading the electric bill.

“Our fish prices are skyrocketing. Around 40 to 60 per cent of the white fish that comes into the UK and Ireland come from Russia.

“This war is having a huge knock-on effect. Ukraine is the wheat barrel of Europe, so flour has went way up in price. Most of the vegetable oil comes from Ukraine as well, so that has tripled in price.

“We can’t buy a big load of stock like we used to because we haven’t got the money to do it. So it’s a case or two every other day.

“Our fish supper is £9.80 — it was never that dear. We put it up six months ago but I know I’m going to have put it up again. By Christmas it will no doubt be £12.”

More than 50 takeaways have closed in the North in a month, nine alone over the past week, according to the Northern Ireland Takeaway Association, as they tackle what industry representatives describe as a “tidal wave” of business costs.

By 11.30am on a sunny Wednesday in August, only seven customers are having breakfasts in Nemo’s, located close to tree-lined streets at Finaghy Road crossroads; pre-Covid it would have been full. The shop’s nine staff and drivers have had their hours cut.

“This was our first shop, this is our baby. The beauty of it is we’re on a borderline here. Taughmonagh, which is a predominantly loyalist estate, is behind us and Andersonstown, which is mainly Catholic, is on the other side,” adds Morgan.

“But we’ve never had any trouble, we’ve both sides of the community working for us.

“I sponsor a GAA team and I sponsor a wee boy’s football team around the corner.

“Anyone who has worked for us has been here for 10 years; people do not leave here.

“We’re good to our staff. We don’t come from money and have worked hard.”

Takeaways were among the businesses allowed to operate on a restricted basis during the pandemic and received some government support.

However, those grants “are long gone”, says Morgan, while “rates holidays” ended last month and VAT rates are at a “crippling” 20 per cent.

Michael Henderson, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Takeaway Association, said the sector often feels like the “long-lost cousin” compared with other parts of the hospitality industry.

The association was formed three years ago.

“The reason we started was because takeaway owners felt their voices weren’t being heard. We understand our industry is seen as part of the hospitality sector — and there are similarities — but we face different daily issues to the average restaurant.”

Henderson warned that without government intervention, a quarter of the North’s takeaways could close.

“If we lose that and every takeaway has a minimum of eight to 10 staff, you’re talking 16,000 to 20,000 jobs.

“These are independent takeaways, they’re not chains. These aren’t the McDonald’s or KFCs. These are the everyday people you know in the community; who sponsor teams in the community; who give back to the community.

“Owners are trying to find work elsewhere to support their families. A lot of them have been in the industry for 30 to 40 years — it’s all they know.

“A lot of the takeaways are family businesses — their wife, daughter and son works there. So one takeaway closes, the whole family is out of work.”

Stormont Minister for Finance Conor Murphy has called on the UK treasury to intervene urgently and support businesses.

More than £400 million in unspent frozen public funds have built up since the Stormont executive collapsed earlier this year.

But Joe Morgan says he has little faith in government.

On the day we meet, a third attempt to restore devolved powersharing through the election of a speaker has failed after being blocked by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) over its ongoing protest at the Northern Ireland protocol.

“When we came through Covid, we thought it would turn around but it’s just went from one thing to another,” he says.

“I’ve given up on the people on the hill [at Stormont]. Everybody is in limbo with no government to do anything. Things are going to get worse in October with gas and electricity rises — it’s frightening. I could really see one of the other shops going to the wall.

“We’ve just moved house, am I going to be able to keep it with all of this? We have two grown-up sons and this is for them.”

Asked what his late parents would say, Morgan looks over at the plaque and replies: “Mum and dad would tell me to stick your feet in, grit your teeth and bear it out.”

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham is Northern Correspondent of The Irish Times