Lawson: high standards in the Highlands

Social responsibility underpins SLTN Award-winning venue

Don Lawson opened Johnny Foxes 21 years ago, adding The Den in 2008

By Gillian McKenzie

JUST give your customers what they want’ – advice Don Lawson recalls being given by Sir Reo Stakis when he worked for the hotels group and wisdom he reckons still holds true today.

It may seem simple but it has undoubtedly proved effective for Lawson, whose Inverness pub Johnny Foxes is 21 years old this year.

In fact he reckons his venue’s longevity can be attributed to just that: giving customers what they want.

“I was working on Saturday night and we had queues to get in; there’s not many places that still get that 21 years later,” said Lawson.

“We’ve got live entertainment on every night and we’ve got no TV: I think it kills conversation, it kills the social aspect of the pub.

“It’s also down to the ambience, customer care and pure Highland hospitality.

“I’ve got great staff that I’ve had for years and I’m here; I think you’ve got to be, so many bars now have absent landlords.”

While Lawson has been a constant at the venue since it opened more than two decades ago, the business has seen no shortage of change.

There’s so much regulation now. It’s got to a level now and it’s time to stop.

Launched in 1997 in a former steakhouse on Bank Street, next to the River Ness, Johnny Foxes has grown both physically and operationally down the years.

The original concept of a ‘traditional lively pub’ offering live music, quality food and drink and first class service proved a winning formula; and, in 2008, the business expanded with the addition of adjoining nightclub The Den in the neighbouring unit, taking the total capacity to 550.

The expansion meant obvious operational changes; and saw the Johnny Foxes and The Den team steadily ramp up the focus on social responsibility measures – already a linchpin of the operation – culminating in the venue winning the SLTN Social Responsibility Award for 2017, in association with Diageo.

Lawson, who has chaired Inverness Pubwatch for the past seven years and sits on the Highland licensing forum, said safety has underpinned the operation since day one.

From robust security systems and dispersal plans to ensuring each member of the management team is a trained first aider and the installation of a defibrillator in the venue, safety is built into every aspect of the operation; Johnny Foxes is also involved in a range of broader initiatives, including Ask Angela and Best Bar None.

“It’s all about keeping people safe,” said Lawson.

“The Inverness Pubwatch is a great success; there’s 34 members and it’s very proactive.

“We share ideas, training seminars; we get a lot of information from our LSO and have a good working relationship with Police Scotland.

“It’s helped bring everyone together; it really works – especially when there’s so much involved now.”

The wider trade has, of course, seen its fair share of change in the past two decades.

And Lawson, whose career began with 14 years at Stakis Hotels followed by five years as chief executive of Aviemore Mountain Resort, has been at the forefront of lobbying and campaigning on a range of trade issues, not least of which was the smoking ban, which came into force in March 2006.

Together with fellow Inverness operator Kit Fraser, Lawson set up the Publican Party to stand in the 2005 General Election against the then Scottish Executive’s plan to ban smoking in public places.

Give your customers what they want – old advice that still stands today.

“I was foremost against the smoking ban,” said Lawson.

“I even stood as an election candidate against it, protested at the Scottish Parliament, the whole thing.

“I remember being asked [about the smoking ban] a year later and I put my hands up and said ‘I was wrong’.”

Of course much has changed in the trade since the smoking ban took effect, particularly legislation.

“There must be five times as much regulation as there was 20 years ago,” said Lawson.

“You need to get your head around licensing legislation and all the regulations now or you could be in real trouble. You have to be switched on to operate under all the regulations we have now.

“It’s got to a level now and it’s time to stop; let’s leave it at that.

“There’s been massive change but I have to say generally for the better.”

Despite the shifts in the wider industry, one thing that hasn’t altered is Lawson’s focus on standards.

“There are seven or eight definitions of ‘standards’ – my favourite is ‘a degree of excellence for a particular purpose’,” he said.

“Everything we do here has a standard; it’s all about standards.

“That and continuing to give customers what they want.

“Sir Reo Stakis once said to me ‘don’t try and educate your customers, just give them what they want’. That was it. It still stands today.”