Business grad-turned chef brings gourmet fish ‘n’ chips to ‘Ballysnackamore’

Business grad-turned chef brings gourmet fish ‘n’ chips to ‘Ballysnackamore’
Christopher McCann, co-founder and manager of Squid Shack.

Christopher McCann, co-founder and manager of Squid Shack, isn’t your typical chef. In fact, he’s only been cooking professionally for the last few years. 

Originally from Andersonstown Christopher moved, aged 11, with his family to Dundrum and attended St Patrick’s Grammar School in Downpatrick. While he and his family shared an appreciation for good food growing up, Christopher hadn’t considered a career in hospitality, and after completing his A-Levels went on to study psychology at Liverpool University, writes Ruth Roberts.

He came home prematurely in 2006 due to family illness and worked as a waiter at the Dundrum branch of Mourne Seafood, then run by owner Bob McCoubrey, while simultaneously studying part-time for a degree in business management. “That’s when my love of food really began,” he says.

After three years as a waiter at Mourne Seafood, Christopher graduated to the manager’s position. He spent a further six happy years there, only leaving in 2015 when the opportunity to become front-of-house at the Harbour Inn in Annalong came up.

Christopher McCann, co-founder and manager of Squid Shack.

Then, in 2016, Bob McCoubrey approached Christopher and his then colleagues, Wayne Carville and Aiden Rooney with an offer to buy the Dundrum building and the right to trade under the Mourne Seafood name. The trio accepted and while Christopher’s new role was originally front-of-house, he later moved to the kitchen where he quickly skilled up in the art of making and preparing starters.

How did Squid Shack come about? “It was a Covid baby, really,” said Christopher.

“We had begun offering takeaways at Mourne Seafood during the pandemic and received a rapturous response – people were coming from as far away as Swords in Dublin and we saw a 15% increase in our annual turnover.

“However, when restrictions eased and things began opening up again we noticed that the takeaway was impacting on the restaurant, and we knew we had to separate the two businesses.”

Six weeks after that realisation, Squid Shack opened its Dundrum branch, just a stone’s throw from its sister restaurant. “It was an extremely busy time. We knew we wanted to be open in time for Easter 2021, but that meant everything had to be done at lightning speed, from ordering and fitting the equipment to deciding on branding and writing a menu. Needless to say, we learned a lot!”

‘We’re passionate about offering our customers the opportunity to eat restaurant quality food at an affordable price point’

As for the inspiration behind the name: “Mourne Seafood used to have a stall at Belfast Continental Christmas market every year. It was a small wooden hut and we jokingly called it ‘the squid shack’, as nearly all of the customers were ordering squid.

“When it came to naming this business we just kept coming back to it. It means something to us.”

Two years on from opening Squid Shack Dundrum, and after much success, they opened a new branch, this time on the Newtownards Road in Ballyhackamore – fondly referred to by those in the know as ‘Ballysnackamore’.

“We knew there was a gap in the market to bring restaurant-quality food to a takeaway setting. We’re passionate about offering our customers the opportunity to eat restaurant quality food at an affordable price point.”

Like Mourne Seafood, all of Squid Shack’s fish comes from Kilkeel, apart from the prawns which hail from Portavogie – nothing is frozen. However, while the menu changes daily at Mourne Seafood, Squid Shack has a set offering which Christopher hopes they will be able to roll out easily to future branches.

While it includes traditional staples such as beer-battered fish of the day with tartar and lemon, you’ll also find more adventurous eats such as sriracha and sesame chicken wings with Young Buck blue cheese and de rigeur parmesan truffle fries.

However, by far the most popular item on the menu remains the squid, specifically the squid salt’n chilli box, complete with napa slaw, coriander and chilli jam and Asian dressing.

Christopher explains: “We’re definitely more adventurous than your average fish and chip shop, and while we use a lot of different fresh ingredients, our prices aren’t that much more expensive. All of our sauces are made in-house and we do our best to buy-in as little as possible.”

That doesn’t mean they haven’t been affected by the rise in food costs, though: “I always cite onions as an example – before you could have bought a 20kg bag for £9. Now it’s £36. It’s crippling the hospitality industry.”

‘We have been incredibly lucky with our staff here, but it will always be a challenge as we endeavour to open future branches’

Aside from the rising cost of ingredients Christopher cites the biggest problem facing Squid Shack as staffing.

“So many chefs left the industry during Covid and became Amazon drivers. I guess they got used to the lifestyle because many of them haven’t returned. We have been incredibly lucky with our staff here, but it will always be a challenge as we endeavour to open future branches.”

As to the secret to Squid Shack’s success, Christopher says it’s all down to volume.

“On an average night in Dundrum we serve 500 people. The Ballyhackamore kitchen and premises are bigger, with room to seat 45, so we can achieve up to 750 orders during a busy service.”

Now that the dust has settled in Ballyhackamore, Christopher has returned to work at the Dundrum branch, although on the day we meet he and his colleagues are doing a deep clean of the Ballyhackamore kitchen.

“We all muck in wherever and whenever its required,” he tells me. “Running a hospitality business isn’t a Monday to Friday job, rather seven days a week.”

The success of Squid Shack suggests it isn’t only surviving in a difficult climate, but thriving. “We’re really proud of the brand. Opening the Ballyhackamore branch has been a definite highlight.

“A lot of our trade in Dundrum comes from people we know and repeat customers so it was incredible to be able to move to a new area and people already know and recognise us either from visiting our Dundrum branch or from social media.”

As for the next chapter Christopher doesn’t say too much, but I suspect it won’t be long before we see another Squid Shack pop up, given they have already earmarked a couple of units.

“We’ll do whatever we have to do to make the business survive. It’s our livelihood and our employees’ livelihood… You have to strike while the iron is hot.”