By Dave Hunter
The family-owned business – it’s a disservice to refer to it solely as a pub, a restaurant or even an inn – has been continually evolving over the past 15 years and now includes a pub with restaurant and rooms, holiday cottages, microbrewery, shop and a soon-to-be opened tearoom.
I didn’t want to build a run of the mill building. I wanted one that reflected the area.
And the outlet, which was last year named SLTN Independent Pub or Bar of the Year, in association with Kopparberg, is a focal point in the village of Balmaha.
Right from the outset owners Sandy and Lucy Fraser wanted the business to be part of the local area in every sense.
They accomplished this by using largely recycled materials in the construction of the Oak Tree, including timbers from an old shooting lodge and stone from a local quarry.
“I didn’t want to build a run of the mill building,” Sandy told SLTN last week.
“I wanted a building that reflected the area.”
Although initially trading it as a bar and restaurant, the operators quickly added accommodation.
The upper floor of the Oak Tree had originally been staff accommodation, but this space was transformed into letting rooms.
“We quickly realised that for it (the Oak Tree) to be successful we felt we needed to give the opportunity for people to stay,” explained Sandy.
“So we moved out the staff and converted the upstairs into en suite accommodation.”
In the following years the Frasers expanded the accommodation even further, with the purchase of several local properties that were subsequently refurbished into holiday cottages. In total, the Oak Tree Inn offers 30 letting bedrooms across all of its properties.
In 2008 the business’s local credentials were expanded further when the Frasers opened a ‘market garden’ in order to grow their own vegetables.
The result, said Sandy, has been an upturn in food revenues at the Oak Tree.
“There’s always been a fairly even split between accommodation, food and drink,” said Sandy, “but I’d say in the last three or four years our food sales have surged on the launch of the market garden; that provenance and going that extra mile to source local products and local food [pays off].
“It’s not possible to do it all. I’d need a potato field here to supply our own potatoes, but if we can grow some of it, we show an intent and people love that.”
Positioning not only the Oak Tree Inn, but the village of Balmaha itself, as a destination has been key to the success of the business, said Sandy.
We have to make it a destination here. We have to give people a reason to come.
“You have to remember, I’m not on the other side of the loch,” he said.
“People need to come here, so we’ve got to make it a destination. You’ve got to give people that reason.”
Attracting holidaymakers had previously been a challenge because of the lack of a local shop and so, in 2009, the Oak Tree opened its own.
Stocking a range of products that includes Oak Tree-branded sweets and biscuits, the shop is used by locals as well as visitors to the area.
“If you come up for a holiday on east Loch Lomond-side, we will look after you from the basic loaves of bread, to daily papers, to fresh rolls, to anything you might need,” said Sandy.
Last year the Frasers broadened the outlet’s appeal even further with the launch of its own microbrewery.
The Balmaha Brewery produces a range of beers that include Balmaha Best, Firkin Point, Lomond Hop and Kiltwalk (produced in honour of the Glasgow Kiltwalk, a sponsored event that sees participants walking from Glasgow to Loch Lomond).
“I was fed up with people walking through the door and asking what the local beer was,” said Sandy.
“The local beer invariably was Tennent’s Lager or Belhaven Best.
“So it was great to be able to say that the local beer is now Balmaha Best.”
And this year has seen even more expansion for the business.
Although the Oak Tree has already broadened its appeal to include holidaymakers, diners and beer aficionados, the Frasers are targeting yet another market with the opening of a new tearoom.
Sandy said that older customers looking for a cup of tea or a bite to eat had sometimes been reluctant to eat in a pub.
And so, in what is becoming standard practice for the family, the Frasers have built a new tearoom in order to cater to this market as well.
Built on the side of the shop and currently in the final stages of construction, the tearoom will be able to accommodate 25 covers inside and a further ten to 15 outdoors.
“It doesn’t matter what sort of market is coming in to the village, I’d like to think that we’re catering for them,” said Sandy.
And yet throughout the expansion the Frasers have ensured the business does not alienate its original market of walkers on the West Highland Way.
“We don’t forget what market we’re in,” said Sandy.
“We’re a gastro pub, but we’ve got to remember there’s 100,000 people doing the West Highland Way.
If you’re not excelling, if you’re just holding your own, the reality is that you’re going backwards.
“We want to attract people from the central belt, but I would never describe us as fine dining.
“We’re not going to exclude the market that put us here.”
The menu at the inn, created by Sandy and Lucy’s son Stuart together with head chef Robert Muir, offers a range of traditional Scottish dishes, with diners able to enjoy a post-dinner dram from a wide selection of malt whiskies (the Oak Tree will shortly be releasing its own 15 year old malt in association with Burn Stewart Distillers).
Customer service is a cornerstone of the Oak Tree, and Sandy said retaining many long-term employees has been crucial in keeping the standards high.
“One of the most satisfying things is that we employ 50 to 55 full and part-time staff, and we’ve stopped a migration from the young people who couldn’t see a future on this side of the loch,” he said.
“This migration to the central belt cities has stopped.
“I’ve got people that started working for me 33 years ago that are still here.”
Key to this loyalty has been the company’s commitment to staff training, something that Sandy said will continue under the Oak Tree’s new front of house manager, Kirstie Fyffe.
Sandy said: “Training is everything. Training is the make or break of the business, it’s intrinsically linked to the food and the operation.
“Without the training and without the service you’re nowhere.
“If you don’t offer a good experience when the customer arrives, with the service, the food could be the best or the worst in the world and it won’t make a difference; you won’t get them back.”
The emphasis on staff training, and on investment in general, is particularly important in the current climate, said Sandy.
“The bar has been set so high now with the other competition within the hospitality trade that if you’re not excelling, you’re just average, and if you’re just average, just holding your own, the reality is that you’re going backwards,” he said.