Tuesday 21 November 2017

Goodbye Mr Chips? Not just yet as ex-senator's still frying high

Denis 'Dino' Cregan left school at 13 but went on to become a senator and create Cork's top fast-food chain

Denis ‘Dino’ Cregan, the 77-year-old founder of Dino’s, with wife Mary and children Christine, Sean, Mary, Derek and Denise. Picture: Daragh McSweeney/Provision
Denis ‘Dino’ Cregan, the 77-year-old founder of Dino’s, with wife Mary and children Christine, Sean, Mary, Derek and Denise. Picture: Daragh McSweeney/Provision

Gabrielle Monaghan

When self-made chip-shop mogul Denis 'Dino' Cregan was growing up on the Bandon Road in Cork city in the 1940s and 1950s, before the introduction of free post-primary education, going to secondary school was not on the cards.

The founder of the eponymous Dino's chain of fast-food outlets and restaurants was one of eight children. Five of his brothers worked alongside their father at CIE's road haulage department.

"Back then, people would sit the primary certificate at 14, but I didn't do it because I was very bad at Irish," Cregan says.

At the age of just 13, Cregan left school for the first of a series of laborious jobs, gardening on the grounds of University College Cork.

He also spent time as a messenger boy and as a bus boy at CIE.

"Around our table, it was all CIE uniforms," the businessman says.

At home, his parents argued over politics. His mother had a photo on the wall of Michael Collins, whom she referred to as "Mick", having known the father figure of Fine Gael when she was younger. But Cregan's father, who instilled a strong work ethic in his children, was, he says, a "great Labour man".

Cregan was promoted to bus conductor at the age of 20 and married his wife Mary two years later. "Then I became a CIE lorry helper at the road freight department with my father and brothers, loading goods on and off the lorries," he explains. "I got great training from CIE."

Cregan applied some of that training to setting up a small enterprise of his own, selling coal and making other deliveries from a pick-up truck he bought in 1967. But by then, aged 27 and with four children, he figured there was "only so much you could do with a pick-up truck", so he set his aspirations higher. He knocked down a garage at his house on Cork's Tower Street and opened a fish'n'chip shop there in 1970.

Cregan was inspired by local businessmen like the late Jackie Lennox, who had set up a chip shop on the Bandon Road in 1951.

"I could see from how well the local fish'n'chip shops were doing and that it was the business to be in, provided you did it right," Cregan says.

"I gave good service to customers and talked to them. My motto was, and still is, 'I'm only as good as my last bag of chips'."

Unlike in Dublin, there wasn't a proliferation of chippers run by Italian immigrants in Cork city, when Cregan was searching for a name for the shop in 1969.

"Dino is the Italian for Denis and when I was asking people what I should call the shop they said 'Dino' because I have 'an Italian nose'," he says. "But all my schoolmates and all my friends would call me Denis."

The first night Dino's opened on Tower Street, Cregan put all the money he had into a cash register sourced by one of his brothers.

"Back then, £12 was a week's wages and a bag of chips cost 9p," he says. "But by the end of the first night, we had £55."

As Dino's became more established, Cregan entered the pub trade and began to expand his burgeoning fast-food empire by opening outlets in Douglas, Bishopstown and Ballincollig.

"I had four pubs up the road from the Tower Street chipper and when people finished their pints, they went for chips," he says.

Cregan sold the Tower Street shop years ago, but the chain now has eight takeaways and restaurants throughout Cork city and county, employing some 120 staff. The company has a drive-through outlet in the northside suburb of Blackpool, just 100 yards from McDonald's, and a take-away and full-service restaurant right on the pier in the up-market town of Kinsale.

The latter, maritime-themed restaurant was extended during the recession and its windows were repositioned so that diners could appreciate the waterside views.

The expansion of the chain appears to have borne fruit. Dino's Group, which is owned and run by Cregan and his children, had shareholder funds of €3.1m at the end of July 2016, according to the latest accounts filed to the Companies Registration Office. Dino's is searching for more sites suitable for its outlets in north and east Co Cork and is also mulling expansion outside the rebel county, Cregan says.

The businessman believes, however, that he would be "seven times richer" had he not become involved in politics. He was asked to stand for election by Fine Gael and won a seat on what was then Cork Corporation in 1979 on his first attempt, representing the Cork South-Central constituency. He held the seat until 2009, when he decided not to contest that year's local elections. He also served as lord mayor of Cork city from 1991 to 1992.

"Being lord mayor of Cork was a doddle because I could see what needed to be done as I'm a Corkman to the very core," he says.

Cregan also had a stint as branch vice-president of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union - the trade union set up by James Larkin that eventually became part of Siptu - and ran for the Dail, unsuccessfully, three times.

However, he was elected to the Seanad in 1982 and served in the upper house for almost 20 years until a narrow defeat in 2002.

At the helm of Dino's, meanwhile, Cregan made sure not to get bogged down either by competition from multinational fast-food behemoths, like Burger King and McDonald's, or by economic downturns.

"I'm not afraid of international companies and Irish people should not be afraid of localisation," he says. "We purchase all our ingredients locally and more businesses in Ireland should be doing that.

"There's no frozen food. We have a factory run by my son Sean that opens at 5am, where people cut potatoes and supply the shops with fresh product every day, and we use fresh local fish."

The recession made the owner of Cork's best-known fast-food chain determined to work harder and even expand.

"When I started off in the 1970s, times were a lot tougher. All I had was my work ethic, because I had no education. So we just worked and worked. It was the same during the last recession, when we just got on with our work. We extended the Kinsale shop during the recession and even opened other shops."

Now aged 77, Cregan has health issues that has slowed him down more than he'd like.

"I had a heart bypass and had my gall bladder and prostrate removed. And the diabetes makes you tired, so after four or five hours at work, I have to sleep. But I'll wake up after half an hour. I'm getting old now but I still go from shop to shop and could be at any shop till at 11 at night."

Recognising that he needs a succession plan for Dino's, Cregan has been gradually handing the reins of the business to six of his seven children.

"I have one daughter overseeing staff, one in marketing and one in finance," he says.

"One or two of my 15 grandchildren are interested in getting involved in the business as well. The Cregan family is in it for the long term."

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