The next chapter 6 December 2019 Lexington managing director Julia Edmonds on taking the helm at the boutique caterer and her people plans for the future
In this week's issue... The next chapter Lexington managing director Julia Edmonds on taking the helm at the boutique caterer and her people plans for the future
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Marching onwards

01 January 2000
Marching onwards

Raymond McMillan reckons last month's Orange Order parades in Northern Ireland wiped a couple of thousand pounds off the takings at McMillans, the restaurant he runs on the outskirts of Belfast with brother Brian.

But he has already put it behind him as a reminder that political unrest still has to be taken into account when running a business in the region. "The peace agreement will get going and will be good for the whole country. In September, the marches will be seen as just a setback," says Raymond.

It was difficult at the time, however. The Orangemen's standoff at Drumcree and the resulting violence kept potential customers at home after about 6pm. The brothers had to close in the evenings and many restaurants closed entirely. "Everyone was in the same boat," he says, "but there'll be no compensation."

Apart from the effect on business, Raymond is concerned at the way such events tarnish the region's image when they are flashed around the world on news bulletins. "Tourism is shot, yet only a small percentage of people here have even seen a bomb go off," he remarks.

The brothers' attempts to bring in some business on the back of the marching were a let-down. Some 100 Orangemen on a parade at nearby Ballyclare had booked for drinks and snacks on 13 July, but the march was held up and they arrived two hours late. Not only had the brothers been turning business away in anticipation, but the Orangemen could only stay for an hour-and-a-half. The McMillans made no more money than they would have with ordinary diners, but had the hassle of serving and tidying up after a large crowd. "We lost a lot of custom. I wouldn't do it again," says Raymond.

Still, it was only a hiccup in the restaurant's remarkable breakthrough in lunch trade. The signs Raymond and Brian put up beside the bypass advertising lunch for a fiver have been drawing the crowds. A record 850 lunches were served in June, compared with 165 in April before the signs went up. And they have stimulated evening trade as customers realise the restaurant is affordable. Takings for lunch and dinner in June were £13,743 - a staggering £4,993 increase on April.

Unfortunately, the brothers have been ordered to take down the signs by the Department of the Environment because they didn't get planning permission. Undaunted, they are waiting for further action to be taken before complying. "Brian wants me to go to jail for the publicity," says Raymond.

Joking apart, it is a blow. Raymond estimates that at least 90% of customers would not have known the restaurant was there - tucked away down a quiet country road - if not for the posters.

"If we have to take the signs down, we will approach the local farmer," Raymond says. "I don't think he will mind us putting signs in his field - we've got his cows to contend with, leaning over our patio."

Conservatory plans

The brothers are considering building a conservatory at the front of the restaurant. It would double the capacity of the main 32-seat dining room, making it suitable for parties. At the moment, having two separate dining rooms limits seating plans and means staff have to run up and down the corridor between them.

Raymond and Brian will need to get permission from the owner of Corrs Corner Hotel, from whom they are renting the converted farmhouse at £15,000 a year for 10 years. Raymond doesn't foresee any problem because the conservatory could be dismantled easily.

As for the one-man-sized kitchen, there is less pressure to expand it, other than to create more storage space. Brian is still "knackered", but is resisting getting anyone to help at the stove. He wants to remain hands-on to maintain consistency at this delicate stage in building up business.

Brian was hoping to escape from the tiny kitchen this summer and on to the patio, where he intended to preside over the barbecue. But his plans have been scuppered by the atrocious weather.

Raymond has offered to take the weight off Brian's shoulders on Sundays, when the restaurant is open from 12pm until 8pm. He may take over after 6pm, drawing on his experience of serving high tea and traditional dishes, and is even thinking of staying open later.

McMillans is livening up in other ways too. To meet popular demand, the brothers have bought a guitar so guests can create their own entertainment in the upstairs lounge. Typically, now that it's there, no-one is using it. Raymond has invited a music student to play, but he recently broke his fingers playing football. "I'm thinking of approaching buskers in town," he adds.

Reflecting on the 10 months since they opened the restaurant, Raymond is aware that they could have built up business faster if they had not relied on word of mouth.

He wishes they had advertised promotions such as theme evenings externally, rather than simply flagging them up on the menu. But he is learning from his mistakes and is now building up a database of customers' addresses.

All in all, the restaurant is coming together. The boost in business and plans for expansion all add up to more hard work for the McMillan brothers, but they are committed. Raymond hints that they may even be interested in buying the property. n

Next visit: 10 September. Look out for details on McMillans' open day, set for 3 November

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