THERE IS A long basin of steaming liquid, brown and glistening. It ripples and swills under the fluorescent light as a young man in a baseball cap dips a long ladle in. Expertly catching the drips, he dollops two glutinous spoonfuls over the contents of a thin cardboard box in his other hand and turns back to the counter, placing the dish gently next to the cash register before ringing up the sale. In the Supermac’s on Galway’s Eyre Square, just before twelve o’clock on a showery Monday morning, another portion of curry chips is ready to go.
Supermac’s is an Irish institution. It dished up chips when the country was an economic backwater, flipped burgers through the boom; and as we flounder through the recession like flies in ketchup, it’s still going strong. The chain has 92 branches nationwide, each one showcasing its combination of the hyper-branding of international fast food – burgers are cooked on a SuperGrill; diners may Go Large for 75c – with uniquely Irish delicacies like garlic-cheese fries and the Snack Box. In many towns, the Supermac’s is the first place to open in the mornings and the last still dishing out nourishment to stragglers from the pubs.
This Eyre Square outlet is the Supermacs flagship. The restaurant expands deep into the building, furnished with a kind of non-decor – half American diner, half cross-Channel ferry – that discourages close attention. On the walls, between flickering televisions, are two blown-up photographs: one of the Galway hurling team, the other a bowl of coffee beans. Well before the lunch rush, the place is is already growing busy as a steady trickle of schoolchildren and shoppers make their way between the two giant plastic ice creams flanking its double doors.
A thick-set man with amiable eyes under a thatch of light hair, Pat McDonagh is the chain’s founder and chief executive. The selling point of Supermac’s, he explains, is its local specialities. “We have adapted the food to suit the Irish palate,” he says. “Whether it’s curry chips or taco fries or garlic chips with cheese.” So is he claiming to have invented these late-night staples? “Well, we’re not sure whether we invented it or not,” he says. “Some people say there was curry with chips around the country long before, and there probably was. But we were one of the first to give it an identity as an accepted dish.” It was Supermac’s, in other words, who took curry chips from acquired taste to national institution.
Oh my God, the garlic sauce
And dressed fries, as the backlit menu over the counter demurely describes them, are still one of the best-selling items on the roster. A quick look around suggests that curry is the most popular – either with or without a lurid topping of grated cheese – and garlic a distant second. But feelings run strong among partisans of both sides. Sarah Mushbellew and her friend, secondary students, are sitting in a corner booth over the remnants of their meal. I ask what they had on their chips. “The garlic sauce,” one says, rapturously. “Oh, my God, the garlic sauce.” She sounds affronted when I suggest they might have chosen curry: “No.”
Before the lunch rush, area manager Sasa Marjanovic gives me a tour behind the counter. It feels a little like being on the beachhead before an invasion. All is scrupulously clean; workers stand in readiness at their posts; long rows of fryers bubble quietly, waiting for the metal chip baskets to be lowered. Sasa, friendly and efficient, speaks the language of a company man. Walking around, he tells me of the “high-quality dairy product” loaded into the ice-cream makers, and explains why the chicken “comes out succulent and juicy.” (It’s a special pressure fryer.) Reaching the chip station, he says proudly, “Fresh cut chips. All the potatoes are peeled on site and cooked off over here, fresh to order.”
Chips are something of a point of pride. “The chips are thicker and have more potato in them than, say, the multinational operations,” says McDonagh, emphatically. “A lot of people tell me that after they eat in Supermac’s they’re not as hungry as if they ate in one of the multinationals. An hour later, or two hours later. And in actual fact you do get 20 per cent more volume in the chips, because they’re a bigger size. That’s a proven fact, actually.”
Peter Callinan, a white-haired gentleman in a flat cap, is sitting alone at a counter with a bag of them. “I like the good fat chips here,” he says. “They’re just nicely cooked, just ideal. Much better than McDonalds. McDonalds, when you get their chips… They’re too narrow. They’re like matches. And they’re roasting hot. They’re not temperate.” He puts the difference down to McDonagh’s choice of staff. “It’s a credit to him, the cooks he has.”
But McDonagh was a schoolteacher when he founded Supermac’s in Ballinasloe in 1978. Having been turned down for planning permission for a pool hall, he was forced to make a decision. “I thought, what was the next best option?” he says, sipping a Supermac’s latte which he has already recommended to our photographer. “Either we went for a furniture shop, or a food outlet.”
So he hired the cook from the local hotel – “not knowing a lot about food myself” – pressed his school football nickname back into service as a brand, and went for it. “The first year, I had one day off,” he says with obvious pride. “The second, maybe two or three.”
Those years were not without incident. Local farmers sold him potatoes that were fit only for animal feed. (“They were the lousiest chips you can imagine. Soggy and terrible.”) On the first night of the Ballinasloe Fair, with a restaurant full of horse traders straight from the pub, the main fuse went, plunging the building into pitch darkness. So McDonagh screwed up the foil paper from a pack of cigarettes and jammed it into the fuse – which worked, for a while, until it blew out the whole street. “Sparks were flying everywhere,” he says cheerfully. “I never told the ESB.” But the business took off nevertheless, and he opened another branch, and then another.
As the lunchtime trade builds, more and more varieties of customer appear. A smart young office worker in a suit sits reading a paper, absent-mindedly placing curry chips one by one into his mouth. A harried-looking mother mixes baby food in a plastic dish, tasting it to test the temperature. Three young eastern European men lounge in a booth, eyeing the females passing along the aisle. Pitching in behind the counter, Sasa explains the challenges of laying on large quantities of food very quickly. “You have to cook little and often,” he says. “To keep it piping hot. Because certain places, from our competitors, you know, would give you pretty much anything. Especially in hard times.”
For three teenagers huddled around a table on the fringes of the restaurant, a little strategising is necessary before they can make this their meeting place. “She buys one ice cream,” says one, gesturing at another. “Then we can all sit here until she’s finished.” What about then? “We put the rubbish on the table.” But the staff, I notice, are wise to this trick. At another table, one boy eating curry chips on his own is joined by two friends, then two more. A worker appears. “Are you eating?” she asks. They point out his chips, but it isn’t good enough. Out they go.
They inject the mayo in
The restaurant’s new flagship product is the Supermac’s 5oz Burger. In response to Ireland’s expanding appetite – and waistline – this has come to supersede the humble quarter-pounder, bringing an extra ounce of meat to the table. It also comes in a double-stacked ten-ounce version. (“If you’re brave, ten-ounce is there,” suggests Sasa.) The chain’s marketing executive Sinead Cassidy tells me that when they launched the new burger, a ‘food stylist’ was hired to make sure it photographed well. “It’s amazing,” she says. “Each thing is so perfectly placed. They inject the mayo in” to make sure it oozes from under the bun in exactly the right appetising way.
There is an impressive spread of ages in the restaurant at this busy lunchtime, from tottering pensioners to unweaned babies. One family sprawl over three tables. Mandelle Toal has brought her husband, two toddlers, sister, brother-in-law, and parents – all in Galway for the weekend – and it emerges that they are aficionados. “We’ve been here three times already,” she says cheerfully, “and we’re only here three days.” Helen, her mother, is at the next table. “We always come in here,” she says. “It’s great for the children. We need a Supermac’s in Enniskillen – they have one in Dungannon.” Her husband Ken chimes in. “It’s too far away,” he says, shaking his head.
In a city of 70,000 people, this Eyre Square branch serves around 10,000 customers every week. It shuts for only four and a half hours each night. The recession has affected Supermac’s, but not in the same way as other restaurants. “People who are tight on cash, who are finding it difficult, do need a treat,” he says. “One of the remarkable things I’ve seen recently is the effect that the children’s allowance has on the day’s business. You can see a spike up by maybe ten per cent. And that’s the first time I’ve seen that in maybe thirty years.”
Over time, he says, you develop a feel for restaurants. “In a well-run restaurant, there’s a buzz in the place,” he says. “And you can probably feel it in here now, you can feel the atmosphere. People are sitting down, they’re talking to each other. You can see it even in the table next door to us now.” It is a group of students in black hoodies, doing something very nerdy with a mobile phone. “They’re interacting among themselves,” he says. “They’re happy.”
As the lunchtime trade dwindles and the afternoon wears on, the profile of customers changes. The lunching office workers leave, and are replaced by shoppers; there is a group of women in high heels with armfuls of expensive-looking bags. Dotted around one area of the restaurant are four or five middle-aged men, each eating alone, each staring absently into the distance though the others are so close. The staff, having weathered the storm, share a joke as they clean up behind the counter. A schoolgirl answers her phone. “Supermac’s,” she says, as if it were obvious. “Where are you?”