Three decades of life in the trade

Veteran publican Jimmy Marr still going strong in city of Discovery

Trade veteran: Marr behind the bar in 172 at the Caird

THE Scottish licensed trade has seen plenty changes in the past three decades, and Dundee businessman and trade veteran Jimmy Marr has seen them all.

Marr, who at one time had an estate of over 40 pubs across Scotland, now operates a more modest five, with a further seven properties leased out to other operators.

He said the business is undoubtedly tougher than it used to be, with more competition, tougher legislation and higher costs, but he insisted there’s still room for independent operators offering a point of difference.

“I think it depends on their location and it depends on what people put into them,” Marr told SLTN.

“The days of opening a pub and people bursting through the door are gone. You’ve got to be doing different things to entice people into pubs – even the community pubs.”

The new cocktail bar in the basement of the property, Capone’s.

Marr is no stranger to the ups and downs of the licensed trade.

Several years ago his bank debts were transferred to another company and the loan terms altered. Subsequently, several of his 16 pubs were sold to new owners.

The difficulty didn’t hold him back, however.

In 2017 Marr bought city centre bar and restaurant 172 at the Caird.

The property, which was built in the 1800s for jute baron Sir James Caird, had several uses until it was bought and redeveloped into a bar and restaurant by entrepreneur Cosmo Molinaro.

Marr acquired the property in early 2017 and, late last year, added a basement speakeasy-style cocktail bar, called Capone’s.

He also has plans to expand the venue’s events business and has lodged planning permission for a function suite at the rear of the property.

“You’re seeing more of these secret bars,” he said.

“It’s a different market, high-end cocktails, high-end Champagnes.

“We’ve got a 2.30am licence for it, so my thinking was people were here, in the Caird, till one o’clock and could then head downstairs for the last hour and a half.”

But the development of 172 at the Caird doesn’t mean Marr has turned his back on community pubs.

He continues to operate city centre pub Nicoll’s, which does a brisk daytime food trade and has a large family customer base, as well as traditional pubs The Taybridge and Harlequins.

And last year Marr redeveloped the former Whitfield Labour Club in Dundee’s Whitfield area into four units housing a pub (The Tavern), convenience store, fish and chip shop and Chinese takeaway.

“Right across the road from the Whitfield Labour Club was the Whitfield Shopping Centre, which was a huge shopping centre,” he said.

“It had two supermarkets, hairdresser, a Chinese.

“And over the years it had been run down and then the council decided to do a compulsory purchase and knocked it down.

“So I looked at our labour club lying empty and just thought it would be a good idea to convert it into these shops.

“The labour club was just too big. It fit its purpose in its day, like a lot of social clubs.

“But now we’ve got a nice wee community lounge bar.”

Outside of the licensed trade, Marr’s business interests include a taxi company, which is run by his son Lee, while his other son, Peter, is involved with the day-to-day running of the pubs.

However, retirement is not necessarily around the corner, said Marr.

“I keep saying to folk 24th August 2020 is when I’m sixty,” he said.

“I don’t think I’ll pack it in but there’s a lot of things I’d like to do in my life and if I know Peter is steadying the ship I’d like to leave him the pubs we’ve got and with very little debt and with Lee running the taxi company with no debt. At least if they’re set up I can be in the background.

“My wife says if I retire she gives it three months and I’ll be back.”