Hugh O’Reilly has been working in the fast food business as long as he can remember, he said.
“I started when I was 12 years old, working for my dad,” O’Reilly, owner and operator of the Ottawa McDonald’s, 2214 S. Princeton Circle Drive, said. “I was wiping tables off on the weekends, then officially started when I was 16 at the McDonald’s my family owned in Emporia and have been working at McDonald’s ever since then.”
He didn’t take over the restaurants, however, until the time was right.
“It was our family business,” he said. “My dad owned the Emporia McDonald’s and then we opened the one in Ottawa in 1981. I took over back in 1993, then acquired the Emporia location after that.”
Having not really worked in any other industry, O’Reilly, Olathe, said he just stuck to what he knew.
“It’s just something I was really good at and felt like I was really good at,” he said. “You just stick with what you’re good at and I liked it, and I still like it.”
‘I JUST KEPT COMING BACK’
“I completed the Hospitality Management Program at Johnson County Community College in 1987,” he said. “I went to Kansas State a few years, but school wasn’t my thing. I was more for working in the restaurant and it was what I enjoyed and felt it was going to be a better path for me.”
Despite having the restaurant business in his blood, he still tested the waters elsewhere, he said.
“I did some photography and odds and ends here and there,” O’Reilly said. “But I just kept coming back to McDonald’s.”
Following in his family’s footsteps, he took on the managerial side of the business in the late 1980s, he said.
“I took over the store as manager in 1988, then I became owner and operator in 1993,” O’Reilly said. “Then I became part owner of the other restaurant location and bought the restaurant in 2003 or 2004. I was the day-to-day manager for six to seven years before I took over the other store.”
CHANGES AND CHALLENGES
The quick-paced work environment in the ever-changing fast food industry causes challenges, O’Reilly said, but learning to evolve with those changes is the best way to face them.
“There’s all kinds of different things coming,” he said. “Like merchandising issues, government regulations and the nutrition people who use us as a lightning rod. It’s complicated, but we do what we’ve always done — serve wholesome food in a clean environment and fast — and it seems to succeed for us.”
Keeping customers happy is directly related to keeping employees happy, he said, but the bigger challenge is just finding employees.
“Finding employees is challenging,” he said. “You run out of people and keeping the restaurant staffed and my people happy and customers happy is an ongoing challenge. It’s an hour-to-hour fight.”
Finding and keeping employees isn’t just his problem though, O’Reilly said, it’s an industry problem.
“It’s ongoing and it’s been that way for a long time,” he said. “You have to staff the restaurant with 15 to 16 people for a lunch shift so you have to have quite a few people. Scheduling is challenging and managing the schedule for 15 to 16 people across the course of a day — it’s not just a matter of putting people down on hours, but putting them in the right place at the right time.”
In a day and age when it seems everything is getting more expensive, food is no exception, he said.
“Food costs are going up, and that’s a challenge to manage that line item and keep prices competitive,” O’Reilly said. “That’s an industry challenge, but we have to always keep our finger on it.”
The old wives’ tale that taste buds change every seven years has never been proven, but O’Reilly said there could be some truth behind the statement.
“The public is fickle for new things,” he said. “You’ve got the core items like the Big Mac and Quarter Pounders, they love those. We just introduced the Southwest Chicken Wrap and we’ve got smoothies and cappuccinos that we haven’t had traditionally. And it’s because the public is demanding new things so were constantly introducing new menu items.”
The Kansas Restaurant and Hospitality Association (KRHA) recognizes members each year who have shown tremendous support for their mission, the hospitality industry and their community, according to a press release from the organization. This year, O’Reilly was honored with the Restaurateur of the Year award.
“The Restaurateur of the Year award exemplifies a level of spirit for service and giving that is so uniquely prevalent in the hospitality industry,” Adam Mills, KRHA president and chief executive officer, said in the release. “We applaud his commitment and are proud to recognize his achievements.”
O’Reilly was presented with the award last month, he said, which means a great deal to him as the recognition is determined by peers.
“I was very honored,” he said. “You look at the list of people who have won, and to be included — it’s very humbling.”
Along with the honor, O’Reilly also earned kudos for his efforts to make his Ottawa McDonald’s restaurant “green,” by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, he said.
“We installed a series of electrical line conditioners that reduce our kilowatt hour usage,” O’Reilly said. “It was a substantial cost to me, but it’s saving me a substantial amount of money and reducing our footprint every month.”
Having had so much success and cost savings from installing the equipment, O’Reilly said, he did the same thing to his store in Emporia over the summer.
“It was a substantial cost, but with a higher cost there’s a bigger reward too,” he said. “I think it could help all businesses, especially restaurants because we use a lot of HVAC and electricity. If you’re using a lot of electricity, this program could help reduce the amount you use and your cost.”
Being the owner of a business makes O’Reilly his own boss, he said, but it’s not all about how much you bring in. It’s about what you give back.
“I’d like to think that we still have a personal touch on the business,” he said. “We do a lot with the community like on teachers’ night and the Cops on Tops program with the Special Olympics and the Ottawa Police Department.”
Giving back to the community is something his family had always done, he said, and now that he’s taken over the business, not much has changed in that regard.
“We like to think we give back and keep everything fairly local,” he said. “We’ve done it for years. It’s fun to do and it’s mutually beneficial. If you do it and do it right, it benefits everybody.”
Working in the restaurant business has taught him an array of things, he said, but it’s the simplest lessons that mean the most.
“You learn to pay attention to details,” he said. “Don’t take anything for granted — don’t take your people for granted. That’s an important aspect of the business. I have great people, and if you keep them happy and keep them growing, because when they’re growing, you’re growing.”