There aren’t many certainties in life, but one of them is that if you’ve ever in your more wild and carefree days queued for a taxi in William Street at 2am on a freezing cold Saturday, you will at one point have done it with a slice of Pizza from Paolo’s in your hand.
Since the late eighties, pizza in Derry and the Paolo’s name have been unquestionably linked. The green and red branding is familiar and trusted, but the general public are altogether less familiar with the man responsible for their favourite weekend takeaway.
Paul McShane is the man responsible for that popular pizza taste.
Born and bred in the Bogside, he knows his market well. While he loves to travel, he’s lived in Derry his entire life, with the exception of a short spell in England in the eighties before he returned, thanks to the workings of the formidable Derry mammy.
“I’d left Derry at 17 because there was no work in the town and I went to England. I worked in a pizzeria in Leeds and that was where I really learned all about the business. I worked my way up over there and became the manager of a place called ‘Harpo’s’ but my mother was on the phone and she wanted me to come back to Derry, so I did.”
Applying the tricks of the pizza trade to a Derry where the concept was relatively new, Paul took a leap of faith and opened the very first Paolo’s Pizza shop in William Street.
“We opened on December 15 1989, that was the beginning of it all,” he says.
Looking back on those first days in business, the Meenan Square man says it was far from easy setting up, but he was determined to do it nonetheless.
“Like most people starting out in business, you have to beg borrow and steal to get there at the start. The plan at the beginning was to have the William Street shop and see where it went from there. We were one of the first to have an in house pizza delivery service too. Now we have eleven vans around the city.”
In the 23 years in between Paul set about giving Paolo’s a solid reputation and customers have stayed loyal. Although he concedes it hasn’t all been a bed of roses.
“In the early nineties we opened a restaurant at Rockmills and that was something that didn’t really do well for us. It was just bad timing more than anything really.”
During that period, Paul suffered a broken leg which forced him to take a break from the business side of life for a while.
“I was out of action for about eight months and things went downhill a bit. The only thing to do by the end of it really was to let the restauarant go.”
While many would have struggled to pick themselves up after shutting the doors on one of their premises, Paul kept going - and hasn’t stopped since.
“We went from that to opening a shop in Strabane, then Whitehouse, Foyleside and more recently Hatmore. It hasn’t always been easy. When you’re in business, you have to just keep at it and keep going. Our motto is ‘forget the rest, Paolo’s is the best’ and we’re always working towards that.
“Every year I travel to America and that’s where we get a lot of our recipe ideas from. You have to keep bringing the customer new tastes and new ideas.
“There’s so much available to people now but the one thing we pride ourselves on is quality. We buy all our products locally and work in partnership with a number of local businesses.”
Currently Paul has taken a step back from the individual shops and is focusing on the distribution sector.
“I have great staff and without them the business wouldn’t be what it is today. We’re at a stage now where our managers can operate independently, and many of them do. They know best what sells so they order what they need from Paolo’s distribution warehouse here in Pennyburn and we supply them with the same high quality ingredients.”
It’s something the Derry man is hoping to roll out further in the future.
“The Paolo’s name is popular. I’ve had students who’ve gone from Derry to Liverpool asking me to open a Paolo’s over there. I’ve had people from America wanting to see Paolo’s over there.
“So who knows what the future holds. We could be looking at a franchise situation where people take the Paolo’s name and open their own branches. We’ll just have to wait and see,” says Paul.
Despite all this, the pizza chef says he’s not craving the business world limelight and adds quite frankly that life has taught him to appreciate what he has around him.
“I’d love to see the Paolo’s name all over the place, but I’ve taken a step back over the past few years.
“I’m not greedy, I’m happy enough to provide jobs locally and earn a comfortable amount of money. I’ve always loved opening new businesses because I like creating employment.
“I’m not 24/7 any more. I’m around if I’m needed but I try not to work Mondays or Fridays because I like to enjoy the weekend.”
In his spare time Paul enjoys a pint in the Bogside Inn. Next year, he’ll marry his partner of 20 years, Eugene, at a special ceremony in front of family and friends in the City Hotel. Paul’s also involved in the local Cruseo group and devotes some of his time to this.
“I’d probably sum it up by saying that life is for living. I’m lucky that I have a successful business, but it’s definitely not the be all and end all.
“I firmly believe that your health is your wealth and last year I had to take time out because of mental exhaustion, so a lot has changed for me since then.
“I’m proud of Paolo’s and proud of the staff who’ve helped build it up to what it is today. They deserve a huge clap on the back.
“I’m delighted that we’re still bringing the people of Derry food they love at a price they can afford. If we can keep on doing that into the future, I’ll be a happy man.
“Our customers have kept coming back so I suppose we must be doing something right.
“As long as the customers are happy, we’re happy,” he smiles.