By Matthew Lynas
However, when the team behind fellow Stirling venue The Birds and Bees got their hands on the former coaching inn two years ago, the site was given a new lease of life thanks to a well-executed overhaul that saw the venue pick up the SLTN Refurbishment Award for 2013 in association with Liberis.
It was no small task, with the work taking around six months to complete before the inn re-opened its doors in July 2012.
We wanted to improve the venue and show we were good neighbours.
“We were hoping for an Easter opening, but you see things as the project develops so that was the delay,” said Darren Mitchell, who works as general manager across The Inn at Torbrex and sister venue The Birds and Bees.
“But it’s better to take the extra time.”
Prior to 2012, the upper level of the inn was used as a private function suite accessed from a separate entrance to the main bar.
However owners Ross and Michelle Henderson (Michelle is Mitchell’s sister) were keen to bring the upper level into the fold.
“It was the main thing for us to bring in the upstairs, keeping it that bit private but opening it up,” said Mitchell.
“On Friday and Saturday nights it’s a two floor restaurant.”
The upstairs dining area is now accessed from a central staircase in the main bar. No longer a traditional function room, the dance floor was removed as part of the refurb and the space is now set up to cater for 50 covers with a service bar accessible from the top of the stairs.
The refurbishment work wasn’t restricted to the upper level, however.
The main bar area was expanded with a dining area created in space reclaimed from what was once the venue’s toilets. New toilet facilities, along with the kitchen and cellar, are now housed in a purpose-built extension at the rear of the venue.
There’s also a covered smoking area and customer car park at the rear of the building, but currently no beer garden.
It’s something Mitchell has his eye on and, he said, would not have been right for the initial refurbishment.
“We wanted to come in, improve [the venue] and show everyone we were good neighbours first,” he said.
While the team held off on building a beer garden, there was other work carried out on the exterior.
The venue’s front car park has been covered with artificial grass and the exterior was freshened up while still displaying the coaching inn’s original plaque commemorating its construction in 1726.
The next job at the inn will be to tarmac and line the remaining customer parking at the rear of the venue as the summer season tapers off later this month.
Along with the venue’s look, the team also revamped the offer at The Inn at Torbrex, transforming it from a wet-led to a food-based venture.
“Ross [Henderson] is always on the look out for other opportunities,” said Mitchell.
“He’s had The Birds and Bees for 30 years. He’s seen the business change from wet-led to food-led over the years.”
Although there was a food offer already in place at The Birds and Bees, the owners were not looking to copy and paste that into The Inn at Torbrex.
“We didn’t want to have a Birds and Bees number two,” said Mitchell. “As much as they’re both in Stirling we felt we were far enough apart.
“With the menu here we went for kind of ‘country’ cooking.”
The Inn at Torbrex menu has a base of core dishes while offering a range of daily specials.
The driving force behind the menu is head chef Alan Caldwell, who has been at The Inn at Torbrex from day one, joining from the Meadowpark in Bridge of Allan. Caldwell is joined in the kitchen by two other full-time chefs and three part-time staff.
Mitchell said the kitchen team works well.
“I don’t claim to be a chef, he’ll certainly run everything past me but those guys are the creative ones,” he said.
The refurbishment of The Inn at Torbrex may have cleared the way for a comprehensive food offer, but that doesn’t mean the bar has eschewed its role as a ‘local’, according to Mitchell.
“We’re certainly food-led but we’re very lucky for wet sales from our regulars,” he said.
“Those guys are our bread and butter.”
Ross is always on the look out for other opportunities.
To this end a section of the ground floor has been converted into a dedicated malt and ale bar.
The bar offers a range of cask and keg products as well as a selection of around 25 whiskies that are displayed on feature shelving on the back-bar, built during the refurbishment.
“The malt thing is a big aspect of the business now,” said Mitchell.
Acknowledging the ever changing nature of the Scottish on-trade, Mitchell insisted that the key to a venue’s success is in keeping it and its offer fresh.
“There’s always somewhere else you can go to for a pint or go for a meal, so you’ve got to mix it up and do something different to stay ahead of the market,” he said.
“Never rest on your laurels. There’s always something that will catch your eye that you can do a little bit better.”