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They’re lovin’ it . . .

Gisborne's McDonald's has new owners - meet the Goels.

McDonald’s is one of the most recognised brands in the world but here you could not find a more community-minded couple in charge. Gisborne’s new owners, PJ and Pooja Goel, talk to Sophie Rishworth about how important it is they support the community who made them feel so welcome when they arrived three months ago.

If there is one thing PJ and Pooja Goel would like you to know, it is the lettuce in Gisborne's McDonald's burgers is grown under the Tairawhiti sun and the beef in the patties comes from cows raised on Whangara Farms.

They know the misconception that McDonald's big-brand image leaves people thinking they are not local.

“But we believe in our local community, and look forward to supporting and engaging where we can,” say the Goels.

“Anywhere you go in the whole world, if you connect with the people well, it's your home.”

That is just how the Goels feel about Gisborne — it's home.

“People have supported us here and we want to give back,” says PJ.

When they arrived, their employees told them Gisborne was known as a “sing-a-song town”.

As in, if you put a song on in the car, by the time it finished you would have arrived where you were going.

It makes a pleasant change from the congestion of Auckland traffic which can take a whole play list to get through.

The laid-back feel here suits them.

“We really needed that peace and calm and here we have found it,” says PJ.

“The very first time we came here, people took so much time to show us around. People are so nice here.”

Even though they could have opened up the inside of the restaurant last week when Alert Level 2 was announced, they chose to leave it a week because staff were not 100 percent.

PJ says they wanted to see how the first week of Level 2 played out before opening the doors properly, which happened on Thursday.

Staff wellbeing is important to these two.

They also eat McDonald's every day — both like the McChickens.

The couple have been franchise-owners in the McDonald's chain for a few years, starting out in Auckland.

PJ is one of the few “outside people” who have entered the McDonald's franchise, which is a strict brand to enter and usually recruits from within.

As such, PJ was put into a training scheme, starting at crew level, gradually learning every station and working his way up through the training process before he could own and manage his own branch.

Becoming owners of Gisborne McDonald's happened after a friendly conversation with the former owners at a conference.

On their invitation they came to have a look around — and loved it.

“We loved the feel of the city, the beauty, the people . . . you feel so close to nature here. That was a big thing for me,” says Pooja.

But, for any parents, the most important thing was that their two teenage sons felt comfortable here.

“That's what you think about more than yourself.”

Their eldest was off to university so that was going to be a change anyway, but their youngest is still at high school and really into rowing.

Once he gave them the tick of approval after seeing the school, the rivers and the rowing club, they felt more confident about the move.

“We found this city and the people are so down to earth, and we love that.”

The couple are high school sweethearts.

They met at high school in India. PJ was the new guy and Pooja struck up a conversation with him on his first day of school.

They soon worked out they shared the same initials, and the exact same birthday.

Almost 20 years ago they moved to New Zealand — where they already had family — when they were 23-years-old and their eldest son was one and a half.

The Goels had just taken over McDonald's in Gisborne on March 1, when, a few weeks later, the whole country went into lockdown — they hadn't even learned all the names of their staff.

To get to know our staff better, during the lockdown, we did a small competition. The best answer received a small gift. The question was “If you could have a super power what would it be, and why?”

PJ said they found out they had a lot of kind healers in their staff who wanted powers to help the world. An answer that made them laugh was from the staff member whose super power would be to have a laser machine that could make burgers just by looking at them.

Another initiative they will carry on is the McDonald's Gisborne-Wairoa scholarship for students of Māori descent to study at AUT University. It has been going since 2016 as an extension of the Te Tai Tokerau Scholarship, which has run for nearly 30 years.

The Gisborne-Wairoa scholarship was introduced thanks to the work of Kitea Tipuna, who worked at AUT for a number of years before he moved back to his hometown of Wairoa.

Even though it is internationally recognised, the brand supports local. Last year in New Zealand, $180 million was spent by McDonald's to buy produce from local suppliers. The same amount of produce was exported to other McDonald's around the world.

New McDonald's restaurant owners PJ and Pooja Goel are high school sweethearts who have two teenage boys and love being part of the Gisborne community. ‘It feels like home,‘ they say. Pictures by Rebecca Grunwell