City operator’s charitable spirit

Glasgow restaurateur Ryan James marks 30 years with fundraiser

ryan-james
Ryan James has been in the trade for three decades. Photo: Clair Irwin

By Jack Walsh

FROM business rates to Brexit, restaurants in Scotland continue to face a host of operational challenges. Which makes the marking of a 30-year anniversary in the sector especially significant.

Best Bar None Nite Zone Glasgow Christmas 2019

However, for independent Glasgow restaurateur Ryan James, owner of Two Fat Ladies – which includes a 40-cover eatery in the city’s Blythswood Square and an 80-cover venue in the Anderston area of Argyle Street – the milestone served as an opportunity to not only celebrate, but to cater to his altruistic side by hosting a fundraising dinner for the Beatson Cancer Charity.

The dinner, which saw Two Fat Ladies At The Buttery on Argyle Street filled to capacity earlier this month, comprised eight courses and raised £6000 for The Black Fairy – which Ryan set up ten years ago alongside artist Archie Forrest and cancer survivor Jeanie Rae to raise money for cancer charities.

“We normally do something every year,” said Ryan, whose eight year old whippet, Wilfred, remained close throughout SLTN’s visit to The Buttery.

“It’s usually a lunch. All of the money always goes to a cancer charity.”

To date, The Black Fairy has raised in excess of £120,000.

Raising significant sums for charity through his restaurants is just one thread of Ryan’s entrepreneurialism, which is woven into the entire business.

Having opened his first Two Fat Ladies restaurant on Glasgow’s Dumbarton Road – the address of which, number 88, inspired the name – in 1989, a second Two Fat Ladies opened in the city centre in 2005. And, by 2007, he’d snapped up The Buttery on Argyle Street.

After purchasing the freehold to the latter unit, Ryan took time to focus on establishing the group.

“The reason why the growth kind of stopped is this (The Buttery) was such a monumental purchase,” said Ryan.

“It’s got 80 covers and three floors. It was a pretty massive undertaking.”

The purchase of the freehold, and the subsequent refurbishments, totalled £1 million. Since then Ryan has steadily developed the business.

His efforts haven’t gone unnoticed either, with The Buttery clinching the SLTN Restaurant of the Year (Fine Dining) Award back in 2014, as well as continuing to prove popular with Glaswegians from all corners of the city.

But Ryan remains humble, stating that it’s simply about catering to the market.
“Eating out has always been a big thing in Glasgow,” he said.

“It’s not about innovation. I think what Glaswegians really like is a nice place, with good food, nice staff and a fair price.”

But it’s not without its challenges. Earlier this year Ryan made the difficult decision to close the doors of his Dumbarton Road unit. The lease was passed on to Angus Stewart, operator of The Drake in Kelvingrove, who has rebranded the business as 88.

The effects of certain aspects of technology is also being felt across the business.

“One of the biggest interruptions we’ve had in the past few years has been the rise of the discount sites, which are having a massive impact,” said Ryan, who added that such sites expect restaurants to offer discounts as large as 50% off just to be listed.

Wearing his chair of the Glasgow Restaurant Association hat, Ryan said: “We can’t take 50% off the wages, we can’t take 50% off the cost of the food, off of anything.

“It’s not that it’s an exercise of being a busy fool, but it kind of is. It gets your restaurant full, it gets it busy, but actually your costs will continue to go up and you’re left sitting with a big black hole in your books at the end of the year.”

Despite the challenges, the Two Fat Ladies restaurants continue to perform well and have become something of an institution in the city – something which Ryan attributes in large part to his near 60-strong team of staff.

“I think it’s all to do with the people we employ to be honest,” he said.

“We’ve got a really good staff, and we’ve had lots of good staff over the years, all of whom weren’t waiters.

“If you give a nice person a job, you can train them to do anything; you can’t train someone to be a nice person.

“So it’s all about nice people and I think the family ethos I’ve engendered over the years.

“It’s a genuine Glasgow institution, but an institution which appeals to an international market as well because it’s so popular with Glaswegians.”

Looking ahead, the focus in 2020 will be a move into the accommodation sector; specifically, a small, luxury boutique hotel.

And it will of course be in Glasgow.

Ryan said: “Glasgow is where we’re good. We know what we’re doing here; people understand us.”