By Matthew Lynas
SHARING its name with an infamous poacher of the past, Johnny Foxes in Inverness has snared more than a few regulars and visitors to the Highland city over the years with a warm welcome and a cold pint.
Taken on in 1997 by Don Lawson, Johnny Foxes and adjoining sister venue The Den picked up the SLTN Award for Beer Quality in association with Tennent’s last November.
For Lawson, the award was recognition of the high standards maintained by the team at his Inverness bar – standards he has advocated throughout his hospitality career.
There’s nothing worse than hearing ‘that’s a horrible pint’.
His CV includes 14 years working for Stakis Hotels before a stint as the chief executive at Aviemore Mountain Resorts from 1992 and 1997; in addition to Johnny Foxes, he also operates Inverness-based Caledonia Catering and Aviemore venue Ski-ing Doo and The Doo Below.
Lawson, who currently serves as chairman of Inverness Pubwatch and is a member of the Highland licensing forum, said his time in the trade means “there’s never a dull moment in my life”. And his commitment to the industry doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon.
“I’ve been in hospitality all my life,” he said.
“It’s an industry that they say is a labour of love, but it’s more love than labour.”
If Lawson’s love of the trade has created the kind of venue well-suited to serving the perfect pint, manager Tina McDonald’s commitment to quality at the coalface has kept those standards high.
McDonald, who has run Johnny Foxes and The Den for the last three years, explained that both she and the staff are passionate about quality beer.
“I think [beer quality] is very important,” she told SLTN.
“I know from our guys it’s something we pride ourselves on. There’s nothing worse than hearing someone say ‘that’s a horrible pint’.”
And standards are more important than ever, as McDonald reckons customers have never demanded a higher level of quality.
If you become complacent your standards will drop.
“I definitely think you can see that the consumer expects a higher standard and they should,” she said.
“What they perhaps would have taken a few years ago they won’t take now.”
Johnny Foxes ticked the standards box for SLTN Awards judges, who were also impressed not just by the venue’s ability to produce a quality pint on command but to do so on such a large scale.
Having added Johnny Foxes’ sister venue The Den six years ago, the outlet’s overall capacity – now all under one premises licence – increased from 280 to 520.
To cater for this many punters, bar staff pour pints over 32 taps with a guest cask ale also available on hand pull.
Looking after a dozen draught products over 32 lines is no small job, but between staff training, strong routines and outside support McDonald and her team are able to keep on top of things.
The venue hires an independent cellar manager who ensures the cellars are kept clean and tidy as well as assessing any equipment snags and holding regular training sessions on basic cellar management duties.
On top of that, there’s more than a few staff members in Johnny Foxes and The Den who know their way around a cellar.
“Myself, my assistant managers and our supervisors are all trained in cellar management,” said McDonald, who added that at least one of the trained managers is on site at any given time.
Cellar management duties carried out by Johnny Foxes and The Den staff include carrying out regular temperature checks, maintaining a good storage and keg rotation system, and ensuring that there is a high stock of branded glassware.
While staff keep everything shipshape, McDonald said she and the team also work closely with the breweries.
“We’ve got a great relationship with [the brewery] guys that come in and any problems they come in and have a quick check,” she said.
“I think it makes a difference for the [staff] to know they have someone.”
With the SLTN Beer Quality Award in the bag, McDonald may have justifiably kept on keeping on at Johnny Foxes and The Den, but complacency can be the enemy of quality and improvements to the beer offer are ongoing at the Inverness venue.
Johnny Foxes and The Den is being kitted-out with new beer pythons, new coolers for the cellar, new chillers and new pipe work.
And the work won’t stop there. Once it’s complete, McDonald said the next stage will be “renewing things behind the bar area”.
“That’s the thing about it, constant reinvestment in the business is important,” she said. “If you become complacent your standards drop.”