Like most football fans in the catering industry, the only expert dribbling Brian McMillan has seen during the World Cup is in the kitchen. But, unlike some, he doesn't mind - on two counts.
First, there's the fact Paul Gascoigne was dropped from the England squad. "Gazza's done me a favour," says Brian. "I've no interest in the World Cup now that he won't be there." The other reason is that he and his brother, Raymond, have cracked lunchtime trade. In the past four weeks or so, Brian has been cooking as many as 48 lunches a day. This is a huge improvement on previous business, which was struggling with only a handful of midday covers.
Just a quick bite
The problem stemmed from the twin facts that the secluded farmhouse building on the outskirts of Belfast looks exclusive and its previous owner had run it as a more expensive restaurant. That image was ingrained among locals even though average spend at McMillans is £18-£21 à la carte (see panel). Lunch trade suffered most, as potential customers associated eating there with an occasion and didn't realise they could have just a quick bite.
The solution in this worryingly weak area was as unexpected as it was simple. Borrowing the Sunday Times's lunch-for-a-fiver idea, the brothers decided to offer a range of main courses for £5 at weekday lunch. To advertise, they put up signs on the main road running past their turnoff.
Business turned around almost overnight. "The place had a name of being unaffordable," says Brian. "People drove in, took a look at us and drove out again thinking it was expensive. But now they stay." He admits that taking the lunch-for-a-fiver route was a hard decision but fortunately, it has proved to be the marketing jolt they needed.
The deal is even proving lucrative. Once customers have been attracted in, they spend more. The £5 menu comprises a choice of 18 main courses, hot and cold, such as coronation chicken with curried mayonnaise or pan-fried lamb's liver with black and white puddings. Most diners order drinks and many have dessert, such as Armagh apple tart or chocolate fudge cake, at £2.50, and coffee at 80p.
"You do make money on lunch-for-a-fiver," says Brian. "You cost it out but you can't say it will be 40% cost and 60% GP. Some dishes are 25% cost." He adds that he is making £3 on most dishes.
There's also a knock-on effect. Lunchtime customers are asking to see dinner menus and having a look around. They discover that there are two restaurants and that the "bistro" can be hired for functions. The resulting interest has led to party bookings.
Business on Sundays, when the restaurant is open from noon to 8pm, has also gone through the roof. Even though the £5 menu doesn't apply, May saw 228 covers served compared with 79 in April. On offer is a three-course £9.95 menu, giving a choice of six starters such as grilled smoked herring with soused onion salad or spinach fettuccine with ratatouille niáoise; a choice of six mains, such as deep-fried codling in balsamic vinegar and dill batter or caramelised loin of pork with Oriental spices; desserts and coffee.
For those wanting more expensive dishes, such as tiger prawns, swordfish or steak, there is also a £14.95 menu with three starters and mains, followed by desserts or cheeseboard and coffee.
Ironically, Brian is finding the hectic pace easier to cope with than the former patchy trade, even though he has to cope single-handedly in the kitchen. "If you're busy, it's easier than if you are quiet because your mise en place is there," he explains. Still, he is going to have to think about taking on kitchen help if this pitch of business continues. But the kitchen is too small for more than one person. One idea is to extend the kitchen at the back, another is to build a temporary extension to meet the immediate need.
Similarly, in the short term, Brian is talking of bringing his daughter, Jan, into the kitchen during the summer. "I'd like to spend more time out front," he says. Jan has worked with Brian in kitchens since she was 13 and, although she has no interest in pursuing a career in catering, he is confident of her ability. It would also give him a chance to assess the pattern of business. "After the summer, we could be quiet again," says Brian. "The last thing I'd want to do is employ someone and lay them off again."
Even so, there is a downside to being reliant on relatives for staff. A recent illness in the family has affected nearly everyone in the McMillans' team, particularly Raymond, who is often called away.
However, the brothers hope they will all be at their posts on 12 July. The date is a significant one for Orangemen and 100 of them, plus band, are expected at McMillans for refreshments after they have paraded in nearby Ballyclare.
The brothers, who have already installed a Harp draught beer pump, will have five pumps operating that day and will probably also get the barbecue going. It should also give the patio some use. So far, gloomy weather has meant that only the very hardy have braved it.
Brian prays that the summer will be a good one, as the tables on the patio add a further 48 seats to the 32- and 26-seat dining rooms. If business continues to burgeon, he says they will have a problem seating everyone. "We've only got 15 tables inside," he points out, "so if you have a lot of twos in, there is nowhere to put people."
One solution would be to put tables in the upstairs lounge area. It seems dramatic but, then again, as Brian says: "If business doesn't stay as good as it is now, we've only ourselves to blame."