‘I will pay a premium for Irish potatoes’ – Pat ‘Supermac’ McDonagh

Supermac’s supremo Pat McDonagh says the time has come to put Irish potatoes back on the map.

Despite the iconic role the potato crop has played in Irish history, domestic potato production has decreased from 332,000ha in 1850; to just over 9,000ha today.

Each year Ireland imports an estimated 50,000t of potatoes; with businessman McDonagh using up approximately 50t on a weekly basis to supply his multi-million euro empire of fast-food restaurants which includes: Supermac’s; Papa John’s Pizza; SuperSubs and Macs Place Diners.

Although McDonagh sources all fresh potatoes for his franchises from suppliers nationwide; currently this weekly domestic supply is in the region of just 10t per week.

However, just like his meat supply which is 100% Irish sourced, McDonagh is eager to expand his domestic potato supply.

Volume wise, McDonagh buys in excess of 30t of meat per week for the Supermac’s side of the venture.

Although he is paying at least 20% more to use Irish chicken rather than imported chicken and roughly 15% more to use Irish beef instead of imports; he wouldn’t have it any other way.

‘Supermac’

Speaking to AgriLand, the Galway native – who earned the nick-name ‘Supermac’ from his days playing Gaelic football at the Carmelite College in Moate, Co. Westmeath – also revealed plans to develop a domestically-based fresh chips venture.

The Irish are very knowledgeable on potatoes; it is a hard market to satisfy. Potatoes have been part of our diet for a couple of hundred years so we know our spuds.

“Back in the day a lot of people grew potatoes in the back garden. Around 30 or 40 years ago everyone in rural areas grew their own potatoes and even in urban areas they used to have plots in different parts of the towns to grow.

“However, it is a very difficult business to run because you are depending on the crops, the quality, the harvest, the weather. It’s not a product you can depend on year after year; quality can vary.

“There is only a certain life in any breed of potato because they are susceptible to disease. There are lots of people in different countries developing new breeds of potatoes every couple of years and they’re constantly testing them out.

“But you have to spend a lot of money on research and development,” he said.

However, if there was a broader home-grown supply base, McDonagh says he would be willing to pay a premium – “as long as it was reasonable”.

I’d love to expand on the potato side; I think there is great opportunity for Irish farmers to get into it.

“There are a few potato growers up in counties Meath, Laois and Kilkenny that we are talking to at the moment to see if we can do anything jointly,” he said, adding that Irish jacket potatoes are as good as anywhere in the world.

Storage

He cautions that it is not just the factory side alone that costs money; farmers would also need chilled storage sheds to store the produce.

“You’re not going to process them all in six weeks after the harvest; you’re going to have to store them for the best part of six to nine months afterwards to keep the factory and the supply going.

“It’s a whole combination; farmers would need to be presented with contracts to supply a certain amount of tonnes with guaranteed sufficient supply for the year,” said McDonagh, who is also a member of the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA).

As most Irish potato plantations are grown for consumption – not as processed products – the father-of-four, and husband to Una, also sees a lot of promise in the frozen chip field which he is actively exploring.

According to McDonagh – whose Supermac’s brand has sponsored many sports teams including: Galway GAA teams; Connacht Rugby; Irish Rowing; and other local sports clubs – there are only four main chip-producing companies in the world at the moment.

He currently sources his frozen chips from two international suppliers.

“Logistically and cost-wise it is a big venture; it’s a multi-million euro project. But, you have to make sure that you are getting the right potato.

“I’ve spoken to the IFA, and some on the potato side of things on a number of occasions, and I really believe there is a unique opportunity for someone to develop and set up a frozen-come-fresh facility for producing potatoes in Ireland.

“If I was a bit younger I would probably get involved in it; it’s something that is crying out to be taken at this stage,” he said.

“There are a lot of pitfalls; if I was getting involved I would try to get a partnership with an existing company with experience in the business rather than trying to re-invent the wheel again.”

Life lessons

Looking back on his potato history, McDonagh recalls learning crop lessons the hard way.

Shortly after opening his first Supermac’s outlet in Ballinasloe – 35 years ago – McDonagh’s supplier ran out of potatoes at Christmas time.

He vividly remembers that the weather was particularly bitter and frosty which made the challenge of finding new potatoes even more taxing for the ambitious tycoon.

“At the time farmers used to store potatoes in pits. They dug out a small bit of the ground, filled it with potatoes, put straw over them and covered it over with clay again to protect them from the frost.

“I found a supplier and I went to get the spuds. I thought they were beautiful potatoes; but, I didn’t know the breed.

I brought them back to Ballinasloe and I cooked them. But, when I held the chip up straight it turned around in a u-turn to meet me; they were just so watery.

“Whilst they were as big as turnips and looked fantastic; it turned out they were really used for cattle. I learned my lesson fairly quickly.

“The following Monday I made sure I got frozen chips; even though they were a good bit more expensive at least I wasn’t going to poison half the town,” he laughed.

Although the rise of pasta, rice and hectic lifestyles have repeatedly been cited as reasons for a reduction in potato consumption; McDonagh believes fresh chips are back in vogue.

Rural sales pitch

Although he is not from a farming background; McDonagh grew up in the rural parish of Killtullagh, Co. Galway where he regularly spent summers working on his neighbour’s farm saving hay, milking cows, lambing ewes and foddering cattle.

He remains extremely passionate about the farming community and the future success of isolated rural areas.

Supermac’s is Ireland’s largest indigenous quick-service restaurant chain and currently employs over 2,700 people throughout the country.

Supermac’s also recently committed to spending €32 million on Irish produce in 2018; with the increased spend largely driven by the expansion plans of the group. It intends to open six new stores throughout the country in the first half of 2018.

This will bring the total amount of outlets to 114.

“What is going to help rural areas going forward is the quality of life you can have in a rural area; versus a city.

“Whether it’s sport or GAA or whatever, you’re part of the community and that makes it easier to connect with your neighbours. That is the unique selling point of rural Ireland.

“We now have a situation where people are thinking more seriously about working from home and saving the time spent commuting to work. Although it won’t suit every business; we need more employment that allows this and obviously broadband is crucial.

The new roads are improving every couple of years and accessibility from a social point of view is improving. Rural broadband will happen too; but, it will happen gradually.

“It’s kind of like the turn around of the recession; there will be a turn in Dublin first, then gradually in the other cities and now it’s beginning to move to the towns,” he said.

In recent years he has also noticed an emerging trend in his own rural workforce – that is more part-time farmers are being recruited.

‘Brexit might never happen’

Despite widespread fears over the uncertainty of Brexit and its potential impact on Irish agriculture; McDonagh says if he was farmer he “wouldn’t be overly worried”.

People in the UK appreciate Irish food; there is a connection there that dates back through generations.

“Irish food is expanding the whole time; not just in Europe but across the world. So personally I wouldn’t be overly worried.

People are confident in the quality of Irish food. That is always going to be valued and people will pay that little bit extra for it.

To be honest, I still think to a degree that Brexit might never happen. I think it was a protest vote and whenever you see a protest vote it’s not a good result.

“At the end of the day the vote was based on emotional values; not strategic vision,” he said.

“Irish food is very well regarded right across the globe. In America Walmart stocks Kerrygold butter and Irish cheeses.

“Ireland has a great name, we’re looked upon as a green country. Our customer knows their food is traceable; that it is grown without genetic modification and there is a code of ethics that applies.”

Three new plazas inspired by ‘Obama’

Following the national success of McDonagh’s €7 million “Obama Plaza” development in Moneygall, Co. Offaly – the ancestral home of former US president, Barack Obama – McDonagh also revealed his plans to develop three similar centres in counties Laois, Clare and Longford.

We’re in the process of putting in three planning applications for plazas in Portlaoise, Longford and Ennis. They are pretty similar to the Obama Plaza; they are all coming from the same stable.

“At the end of the the day, most business is about the people working there and how they look after the customers.

“The Obama Plaza is getting nationwide recognition and it’s beginning to get international recognition at the moment.

“We get a lot of America tourists – both Democrat and Republican – and they are interested in Obama’s roots. We’ve had quite a few US politicians too – including former US vice-president Joe Biden.

Our connection with the US is very important from a tourist standpoint and it’s a relationship we must look after.

“There aren’t too many countries in the world that can nearly close down the US for a day to celebrate an Irish saint.

“Ireland will always be looked upon as green and neutral and a country where our forefathers helped to build other nations around the world through our emigrants and their manual labour.

It’s thanks to those people that emigrated in the past that we are in a very privileged position worldwide.

“That’s a position we must strive to uphold,” he concluded.