Neil Morrison, owner of Macgochans in Tobermory on Mull, The Lochside in Bowmore on Islay and The Benleva in Drumnadrochit, is the 2017 SLTN Entrepreneur of the Year and winner of the SLTN Independent Pub of the Year award for Macgochans in 2014 and 2017. In a trade career spanning more than 20 years he has run venues across Scotland, including Glasgow and Edinburgh. Here he offers no-nonsense, practical advice to SLTN readers on operational issues.
Q: I recently took on a pub and inherited several long-term staff from the previous owner. Although most of the team are great one of the long-time bar managers is stuck in her ways and is openly critical of some of the changes I’m making to the pub. I’m worried if I sack her it’ll cause problems with the rest of the team, but I can’t have her undermining me. What can I do?
A: She sounds like a right Happy Harry! Listen, if you don’t like the outcome, change the approach. Generally these people who tend to moan are really lacking attention or importance. Have a one to one with her and explain that you do value her as a manager, however she needs to get behind your changes for this working relationship to be successful. If you can sell your aspirations to your team then they are more likely to get behind you and support your business.
Q: I have owned my town centre bar/restaurant for the last nine years and I’ve built up trade so we get a good mix of coffees and lunches during the day and dinners and drinks at night. But in the last year a couple of chain outlets have opened in the town and it is having a bit of an impact. Not only are they undercutting me and others price-wise, they have also taken a few members of staff. There’s no way I can compete on price. Any pointers?
A: If you try and go head to head with these types of bars then you will lose. They have huge buying power and will not be financially impacted by your efforts. Ride out the storm and get better at what you are offering in terms of quality, service and atmosphere. Their unique selling point is cheap drink and a brand name, make sure your USP is unique to your business and do not get forced down that lonely road of price cuts as your business can only suffer in the long run.
Q: “I’m not what you’d call a ‘trade guy’. In fact, I was a doctor until I took early retirement last year. However, I recently inherited a pub from my late uncle so my life of leisure has been put on hold and I am looking forward to getting stuck in – maybe refurbishing the place and generally improving the offer. The problem is, the staff – and regulars – I also inherited are very set in their ways and have created an atmosphere which is not inviting; some locals have even told me they don’t go into the pub because they’re not part of the clique. I don’t want to alienate this band of regulars but I’d like dozens more. What can I do?”
A: Quite a career change! So you’re going from examining ar*eholes to pandering to them. Make your own rules in the pub and stick by them; get a quick meeting with the staff so that word spreads. However, be mindful that the ‘locals’ you describe may just be procrastinators and have no intention of being steady customers. Your current staff and clientele may just be testing the water with you and could become excellent customers and friends if you do this correctly. Do not alienate but set a new standard that suits customers old and new.
Q: “I thought the pub game would be easy money, but three years in and I’m haemorrhaging cash. I’m thousands in debt and I’ve tried everything to make the place work. I bought what I thought was a good-going business and now the value has crashed as I can’t get the figures to stack up. I’m afraid I’m going to lose my house on the back of this. What can I do?”
A: I’m afraid you’re not alone; it is a common misconception of people outwith the trade. First things first, you have an asset in the building. You need to cut the cloth. I would suggest finding a capable tenant to take over the management of the property. As long as the rent covers your bank loans then you freeze any losses. A minimum rent allows any future tenant the ability to pull the business back into profit. Do your homework as a bad tenant can drop your value even further. You can get my details from SLTN if you would like me to come and have a look for you.
Q: “I have a dilemma. I’ve been flirting with the new barmaid for the last month and last Friday she cornered me in the spirits cupboard. However, my wife works in the kitchen and also does the book-keeping for the business. This could get very messy, very quickly. She could end up taking half my business.”
A: That’s not a dilemma. A dilemma is waking up in Sweden after a night out in Edinburgh; a dilemma is throwing your airplane bag on the conveyor belt and realising your passport is in the side pocket. What you have, my friend, is a problem. Remember sometimes the attraction is more appealing than the real thing. Make a choice but be mindful the wife could be away with more than half your business if her knife skills are up to kitchen standard!
Q: “I’m sure I’m not the only one in the trade whose costs are spiralling. Everything from food costs to wage bills is going up, and don’t even get me started on business rates. I’ve had a go at trimming the fat where I can, but I don’t want to damage the business by reducing staffing levels or offering lower quality products. Do you have any tips?”
A: The issue is that everyone is in the same boat but also too nervous to adjust their pricing to suit. I’m sure your customers would rather pay a little bit more and retain the quality they are used to. On the buying side, it’s turned into a game of constant price watch, especially on the food side as this is harder to control. Set your pricing with your supplier, agree a timescale for which these prices are valid and then watch them like a hawk.
Q: “I bought a seven-bedroom hotel in the Highlands last October and I’ve spent the winter sprucing it up. The hotel has a small bar, beer garden and a 30-cover restaurant. I’ve got a good team of staff who are raring to go for the summer and we’ve got a lot of accommodation bookings but I’m new to the trade and I’m struggling with working out staffing levels and rotas; I’m finding it difficult to gauge how many staff I’ll need on because there’s no way of knowing how many walk-ins we’ll get on any one night, what impact good weather might have on trade, and so on. Any pointers?” – Robert, Highlands
A: It’s Mystic Meg not Mystic Morrison you want to be speaking to! Welcome to the world of management. There is no crystal ball when it comes to this stuff, however make sure and keep records of rotas against income on a weekly basis/graph so you’re well prepared. Also make sure you are keeping active percentages on a rolling calculator so you can adjust to suit. Year one you will just need to set yourself budgets and try and work as best you can to suit the income. Year two you will have actual weekly figures to staff for and you can make slight adjustments to suit.
Q: “A member of my staff has expressed interest in learning more about spirits and has suggested several training courses we could put him through (at my expense). They are quite pricey and I’m worried he’ll just move on to another venue once he’s been through the course. Is it worth the investment?” – Steven, Aberdeenshire.
A: Train him and he may leave or don’t train him and he ends up staying! Staff can make or break any business so it is essential to train them to their highest ability. Concentrate on in-house training first, take this guy under your wing for a while and teach him what you know as he has obviously shown an interest. Then when you feel he can learn more from outsourced trainers speak to the brand owners as they will be happy to bulk train your staff in their portfolio for free.
Q: “I’ve worked in the drinks industry for over a decade now but I really want to have my own place, ideally a small hotel. I’m a people person so the customer service aspect would be no problem and I know a fair bit about the trade; the problem is my practical experience is limited and years out of date! I don’t know whether I should look to invest with someone and work in the business around my existing job or bite the bullet, leave my current job and go and work as bar or waiting staff to gain more experience and work up to it that way. Any advice?” – Lindsay, central belt
A: It’s not all quaffing wine and acting like King Dingaling… well for the first few years anyway! Small hotels are a lifestyle choice so wave goodbye to your 9 to 5 and say hello to 24-hour customer care. I would suggest you pick up hotel shifts at night and see if you’re passionate about the business. Be honest with the owner and ask them to train you up in all departments; this way you will get a reality check regarding its ups and downs. If you’re still serious then start looking around. You’re safer getting involved with a trusted partner who knows the industry. You also need to be very careful about what and where you buy. I’d recommend a failed or struggling unit in a good location. That way you have room for growth and you would get a good deal on the property.
Q: “My pub has some space out the back which, at the moment, isn’t used for anything. I’ve been toying with the idea of renovating the area to create a small beer garden, but I’m worried it could end up costing more money than it’ll bring in. Do you have any advice?” – Paul, Fife
A: Paul, get your finger out and get the beer garden sorted! A few decent wooden benches or outside seating with brollies from suppliers will get you going. Remember and adjust your operating plan and all that jazz but you don’t have to spend a fortune to test the water and with the tropical summers we get in Scotland you will not have to wait long before you see a return on your investment. The most important part, however, is getting the staff to treat this as an extension of the pub and service this properly with regards to table service and cleanliness.
Q: “I’m a chargehand in a well-kent bar which has a ‘dog friendly’ policy. For the most part, our canine ‘customers’ cause no trading difficulty. However ‘Pedro’ (not his real name to protect his identity), although a tiny Chihuahua, causes embarrassment to other customers on a regular basis. This happens when his owner, a good regular punter, gives wee Pedro some beer and he gets a bit frisky. I don’t want to lose my regular customer by barring his dog. Any idea how to deal with this awkward situation?” – Keith, Glasgow
A: I’m sure we have all been in wee Pedro’s shoes from one time to another and I can imagine that Pedro feels rather disgusted with himself the following day when he sobers up and the flashbacks start! It might be worth stocking some doggy beer and you should see a dramatic improvement in Pedro’s behaviour and less attention being given to your customers’ legs.
Q: “I’m at my wits’ end with some of my staff. I’ll often walk into my pub to see three of them standing behind the bar chatting to each other and putting the world to rights while customers are at the bar waiting to be served. I have tried to encourage them to be more aware but it doesn’t seem to make any difference. What can I do?” – John, Edinburgh
A: You’re overstaffed! If you feel the need for three staff members then you need to put one behind the bar, one on the floor meeting and seating guests and the other floating between the tables and the bar. Split them up and make sure the bar person knows to focus only on the bar customers. Remember, the situations you see in your experienced eyes are totally different to what your staff will see. Train, train and retrain. There is no such thing as common sense in this game.
Q: “I’ve recently purchased a bar on the island of South Uist. I’ve owned a few bars in Ibiza but made the move to Scotland as I fell in love with the country. I’m looking at putting on live music and was wondering how hard or easy this would be to do?” – Hector, South Uist.
A: Live music thrives on the Uists so I’d say you’ll have an easy job getting great bands and showcasing them to the locals, although I’d aim for Calum Kennedy rather than Carl Cox. You will, however, find the drinking culture in the Hebrides very similar to that on Ibiza… with the exception of bottled water, so watch you don’t overstock this in your new venue!
Q: “I operate a hotel which is, generally speaking, really popular with tourists. However, we recently had a very difficult couple staying with us who, despite our best efforts, were not happy with their stay. They’ve since taken to TripAdvisor and written what we feel is a very unfair, harsh review – and we’re worried it’ll put future guests off staying with us. What can we do?” – Andrew, Perthshire.
A: TripAdvisor can be one of the most useful tools out there to keep staff concentrating on exceeding customer expectations. Yes, there can be awkward customers; however they tend to be unimpressed with their first impressions of the venue and, after this, it’s just a fault-finding mission for the rest of their visit. The benefit of this is that you know they are disgruntled early on, giving you or your team ample time to rectify the situation. Make sure complaints are dealt with by you or a senior member of your team; and remember to never get defensive when dealing with a complaint – you should be on the customer’s side straight away and do everything in your power to make sure they leave with a good impression of the venue. Regarding the above, be sure to respond to the complaint by being humble – customers understand that every venue can have an off night so an honest explanation of this tends to work best.
Q: “My wife and I run a small village pub which is generally busy with locals, which is great. However there is one customer who has real personal hygiene issues. He’s a good customer who drinks six to eight pints a day. What do we do?” – George, Borders.
A: Oh I’d get your wife to approach this one! Ask her to say to Fred, lets call him Fred for argument’s sake, ‘Fred, is that you smelling today, you normally smell so fresh’ (wife needs to smile and possibly touch his shoulder when talking) and hopefully he’ll take the hint. Or get him some shower gel for his birthday! Failing that, a more blunt approach is required – ‘Fred, you’re stinking and we’re getting complaints from other customers’. If you’re not comfortable approaching this then you can retain your six to eight pints a day sales but could be losing thousands from food sales and putting off other customers. The sooner you address this the better. On a serious note, I’d also maybe enquire about his home situation as he possibly needs support.
Q: “I have just bought a small hotel with a large bar and restaurant attached in a busy coastal area but I’m nervous about implementing a food offer as I have no background in this whatsoever. I have looked at the wage costs of some chefs and it is petrifying. Should I just stick to rooms and a small drinks offer?” – Elizabeth, west coast.
A: Go hard or go home Betty! You said the area is busy and you obviously bought the hotel to make some real money. Look at what the current offer in the area is, ie. food, price point, quality, etc. and see if there is either room for improvement or a gap in the market for a new style that still fits the customer base. Do your homework and create a menu for YOUR hotel. It doesn’t have to be complicated, it can be simple food as long as it’s cooked and presented well. Don’t be dictated to by a chef as they rarely have a future investment in your business and they can come and go from one season to the next. Your hotel, your menu, your customers, your future!