“I want a Northern Ireland that my kids won’t want to leave when they grow up”

Yesterday, I was asked to speak to a group of senior leaders from both public and private sector, on how I’m leading change through leadership in my field for the Northern Ireland I want to see in 2030, along with the individual struggles and challenges I face with in the hospitality industry.

It turned out to be a fantastic afternoon of debate and thought-provoking questions on both how far we have come, but also how far we have to go to thrive in the changing world we live in. We discussed the need to support our youth, embrace technology, and how to make Northern Ireland a place that our children want to study, work and live in.

My Background

Gary Mc Ildowney – Age 35

Husband & Father of 2

I struggled academically through primary and secondary education being diagnosed as dyslexic at the age of 6. I left school at 16 eager to get into work.

ATC Security -Apprentice Electronic Security -Engineer

WPH – Waiter, Bar tender, porter, telephonist

Café Paul Rankin – Front of house, Supervisor & Assistant Manager

ESS Security – Installation & maintenance engineer

Electrotech – Managing Director – Networking & electronic security installations

Former nightclub DJ 

The Now

Founder & Managing Director of Slim’s Healthy Kitchen

3 stores (2 Owner-operated and 1 franchise)

Circa 100 Staff under my tenure

Current challenges

Staying ‘current’ as a brand

In the current day and age new food trends and concepts are opening every week. It’s vital for us as a brand to try and stay relevant and be consumers ‘go to’.

Rising cost of sales

We, as a business, are classified as ‘Fast Casual’ – That’s somewhere in between a McDonalds and a Michelin star.

Our customers are price conscious and also regular; some of them dine with us 5 days per week, sometimes twice per day. The smallest of change can cost us a valued customer.

Cost of sales for us have risen dramatically in the past 5 years and we can’t just bump our menu price to reflect it. We often have to look at making the savings in other areas and share the cost increase with the customer to try and retain the quality and value price point. As a business we have spent time and money innovating our systems and offering to ensure we still provide a menu that is good value for our customers. I am a firm believer that you occasionally have to spend money, to save money, and this has been true with the business overhauling a number of support systems in the last 18 months. With NI not having the same levels of disposable income as other areas in the UK, it is imperative we are clever with our costs.

Uncertainty of BREXIT

I like many business owners across the UK, the worst thing is not knowing. Our industry in particular relies heavily on eastern European workers as well as some of our ingredients being imported from across the continent.


Hospitality is often seen as a stepping stone to a “Real Career” due to it being hard work, long and unsociable hours. Often, we get a lot of students that are with us for short periods of time and then move on; as a business we have to then recruit and train all over again.

How we recruit and hire? In this industry, you have a lot of companies fighting for the same people, and there’s high turnover. We have to understand the dynamic of how to hire right and keep our employees from moving simply for a £ or two.

Skills can be taught so when we do interviews we look for personality and a willingness to learn. We stress that the most important thing right now is their education and in the more mature candidates it may be family. We make our expectations clear and upfront, but we’ll also let them know that we want them to come to work and feel safe and comfortable being who they are.

They like a healthy challenge and competition. We challenge them with monthly incentives and competitions that involve the entire team not just sales staff.

We operate an Employee-of-the-month program that comes with recognition and a bonus. They also value meaningful activities—our guys and girls engage in charity fundraising as part of the localised marketing for each store. When you care about what they care about, you get great mileage when it comes to their commitment.

We acknowledge that this is a stepping-stone for many of them, and we don’t want anyone to feel like we’re trying to trap them here. But I do want them to learn work ethic. Hopefully our ethos of ‘hard work and reward’ helps any of our staff who want to pursue a career within or outside of Slim’s; I think if that approach was instilled everywhere in NI skill sets and businesses would improve.

If you’re a family member and you aspire to be a leader, then there’s a shift-leader goal, an assistant manager goal, and a manager goal. We’re extremely proud that some of our management team were some of our first hires.

The Vision

I want to see a Northern Ireland that’s more susceptible to change and soon. I wholeheartedly believe we need to embrace tourism and review trading and licensing laws to do so fully.

I want a Northern Ireland that’s “buzzing” with thriving independent businesses; a place that when my kids finish school they won’t want to leave.

I want to see more support for entrepreneurs and independent business owners that, take the chance on our towns and cities. Not just those whom export but those that are creating jobs in Northern Ireland.