Shippy's Southampton Gets Makeover from Legendary McDonald's Executive
Call it another masterstroke of irony, but John Betts, the legendary executive who’s behind the refreshed Shippy’s in Southampton Village, got his first job in the food business in 1970 at the McDonald’s on North Sea Road, working for $1.85 an hour.
The Southampton native didn’t know it back then, but it was the first small step on a remarkable 50-year journey that saw Betts — now 71 and “retired” — become one of the most respected executives in the history of McDonald’s, guiding the fast food giant into the 21st century and transforming its Canadian operations into the envy of one of the world’s most iconic brands.
“There’s so much of that experience that’s relevant to why I’m sitting here today,” said Betts, from a sunny window seat in the newly renovated but still charmingly familiar Windmill Lane restaurant he purchased in 2021, roughly 50 years since his days burning buns at Southampton’s only McDonald’s.
“People are putting the dots together that McDonald’s has become part of the Shippy’ story.”
It’s a story that now includes a new act courtesy of Betts, who returned to Southampton last year from his adopted home of Toronto to consider his next move after he left his role as Chief Executive Officer of McDonald’s Canada.
Not exactly one to idle, he’d been occupying his time as a consultant for McDonalds’ South American market when he happened to be sitting at the bar in Shippy’s one night, between travels, and heard an interesting rumor.
“I’m sitting here, I’m missing the energy … I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do next. Am I going to write a book? I don’t know. My brother said to me, ‘I hear this place is for sale,’ … and I’m looking around, it was the first time I’d been in Shippy’s in years, and it reminded me of a McDonald’s that just needed a little ‘TLC.’”
Before he knew it, talks with longtime owner Nick Nielsen to sell the restaurant and property escalated quickly and the two struck a whirlwind deal, all within a few months. “I did not intend to buy a restaurant when I retired,” Betts said.
Yet it seems meant to be. All at once, the sale reunited Betts with his hometown — he graduated from Southampton High School and Southampton College, and lives now in his original family home in North Sea — his expertise in food hospitality, and a local favorite known for traditional German fare like wiener schnitzel, sauerbraten, and bratwurst since the 1970s.
Betts led an 11-month renovation process that took the property down to the studs. The result is a massive boon for Windmill Lane, and Southampton Village’s overall food scene.
Comfortable as ever with a cozy bar, booth seating, and banquettes for bigger groups, the new Shippy’s is offering the same great no-pressure vibes in an approachable but more contemporary setting that now sports spiffy finishes, updated systems, and a streamlined kitchen operation.
“If you’re in the restaurant business and your successful it’s because you like what you do, you’re somebody that enjoys the dynamics of restaurants and has a passion for the business … after all those years in McDonald’s, employees and guests are my endorphins,” he said. “Some people play golf … I’ve probably remodeled 5,000 restaurants. I built close to 2,000. I knew how it worked.”
That advantage helped Shippy’s reopen in the middle of this summer, albeit without much fuss or fanfare. “It was not the best time to open, but it reminded me of the long hours and the pace and the environment [I was accustomed to], and all the things that come out of that. [Re-imagining Shippy’s] brought back some great memories and it gives us a purpose.”
For Betts, who thinks about hospitality with near-scientific precision, running Shippy’s is an outlet for his natural leadership skills and a return to doing what he loves. “I talk to every table,” he said about acquiring data and learning from customer feedback.
He’s currently tinkering a bit with the menu, while staff and management have also been re-structured, and he’s had to make a few adjustments on the fly to cope with American supply chain quirks.
Yet, it seems like he’s thought about — and put his personal touch on — just about everything, from the design of the basement to the tech at the front of the house to the consistency of the French Fries, as you might expect from a proud McDonald’s executive.
“McDonald’s is all over this place .. the way I thought about the hospitality and the procedures,” he said, holding a French fry up to the light. “I’m still working on the fries. We’re reviewing the supplier. Generally speaking, the response to the fries has been good, but I want them to be perfect, because you can have a fry that’s crisp, but still not cooked all the way through.”
He recommended his team use a timer for optimal results. That’s the kind of owner Betts is going to be — hands-on, learning from feedback, and moving Shippy’s forward, all while not forgetting those loyal customers who have always relied on Shippy’s for comfort food and local warmth.
“The vast majority of people love what we’ve done with the [more streamlined] menu … they’ll say, ‘I love these scallops, but when is the calve’s liver coming back,'” he said. “There was a huge menu here for 68 years … we’re 10 weeks old and we’ve kept it manageable, but it’s a transitional period.”
He said the traditional old-time specialties — like lamb chops, calves liver, and duck — will be returning as the kitchen comes all the way up to speed. There will also be a new delivery and takeout program come the winter, brunch service next summer, and events throughout the year in a new outdoor beer garden.
Like he’s been doing his entire career, you can be sure that Betts will be considering new and better ways to improve the restaurant experience at Shippy’s, one perfectly cooked French fry at a time.
Shippy’s is located at 36 Windmill Lane in Southampton. Call 631-283-0007 or visit shippys.com.