Neil Morrison’s Rocks Leisure Group, which was named SLTN Independent Multiple Operator of the Year 2023, operates venues in stunning locations across the Highlands and islands, including Macgochans and Roslyn House in Tobermory on Mull, The Lochside in Bowmore on Islay and The Ben Nevis in Fort William. In a trade career spanning more than 20 years Neil has run venues across Scotland, including Glasgow and Edinburgh. Here he offers no-nonsense, practical advice to SLTN readers.

Do you have a question for Neil? Email

July 2023

Q: I’m a proud third-generation publican who has worked in hospitality since I could walk. My dad was the same way, as was his dad. I always assumed my kids would take on the business when I decided to hang up the spirit measure, but neither of them seem the slightest bit interested. It makes me really sad to think of selling the old place on but I can’t force my kids to take an interest if they don’t want to. Any advice?
– Billy, Highlands

A: You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink as the old saying goes. Let your kids make their own path in life. If you are looking to sell the business you may want to give them the option to purchase it; that would mean they are committed if they want to go ahead rather than you gifting them a business meaning they have nothing to lose. If they commit to buying this, it means they can also tell you to bugger-off if you are hanging around micromanaging them, which is never going to end well.

Q: I’ve always been a ‘head down, get on with it’ kind of guy and never really had a lot of time for self-help and all that sort of stuff. But lately, for the first time I can remember, I’ve really been struggling to keep my head above water. Everything just seems so hopeless at the moment, from running a business to the state of the planet. And for the first time I’m having trouble just getting out of bed in the morning. This is all new to me. Any advice on how to pull the nose up?
– Andrew, Falkirk

A: Start by being a head up, walk tall kind of guy. Anxiety can creep up on you from anywhere but it can also be kicked back down again. Start focusing on what’s right in your life rather than what’s wrong with the world. Seek and ye shall find, and at the moment you are seeking problems. Turn off the news, it’s a bombardment of depression. I am a big fan of Richard Bandler and NLP, get yourself one of his books or watch some of his videos and get very handy quick tips to refocus your thoughts and subconscious. Hypnotherapy is also worth a blast to get yourself out of these funks but make sure you are going to experienced and trusted professionals.

June 2023

Q: There’s no avoiding it: my chef’s an arsehole. He’s a great cook and he’s really helped me to build the food side of my business but he’s also a belligerent, sexist neanderthal and I genuinely hate him. It’s safe to say we don’t get on at all. We’ve worked together for three years now and it’s got to the point that we’re communicating through staff members rather than face to face. I’m torn because we honestly can’t stand each other but I know he’s been good for the bottom line. Am I taking too much of a risk by cutting him loose or is it worth the gamble for the chance of a happier ship?
– Laura, Stirling

A: If you are speaking to your head chef via another staff member then it sounds like you have already lost control of the ship and heading for choppy water. Call a meeting with him and lay out your concerns in an honest and calm manner. You may find he is acting up because you are ignoring him and he is unhappy in the workplace. I feel this is worth a one on one whatever happens as it is very easy to conjure up issues in your head when sometimes a chat is all that’s required.

Q: I’ve just taken on a local pub and I’m having a bit of bother with the clientele. There are a group of regulars who spend well but are raucous to say the least and seem to be scaring off some of the other locals. I’ve tried talking to these guys and getting them to tone it down a bit but it’s not worked. Do I bar them and work to grow my customer base from scratch or just accept that these guys are my core clientele and lean into it?
– Kev, Rutherglen

A: Get them to feck. If the dodgy clientele is controlling your business then it’s only going to go one way. Sounds like the tail is wagging the dog and you’re only going to continue to lose good staff and customers if this continues. Set your stall, raise standards with your offering and surrounding and the rest will follow.

Q: Two of my young staff have been flirting pretty heavily and everyone on the team knows it’s about to go further. They’re both with other people and it’s going to be a disaster. I’ve seen it a hundred times before. We all have, right? Should I step in and stop this car crash before it happens or just let them make their mistakes and accept at least one of them probably won’t be working here in another few months?
– Heather, Dumfries

A: As the farmer says, a standing cock has no conscience. Your interference would only encourage the inevitable. Let them make their own mistakes and they can sort their own mess if and when this happens. Concentrate on what you can control within your business, not pre-empting what may be.

April 2023

Q: I pride myself on running a very progressive and inclusive bar. I was running LGBTQ+ events way before any of my local competitors and we frequently raise money for all kinds of local charities. At a recent staff meeting one of my bartenders raised the issue of our male/female toilets and reckons we could get ourselves into trouble if we’re not careful – a trans friend of hers was recently denied entry to women’s toilets in another venue and kicked up a terrible stink about it. I know there’s been a lot of noise about this recently and I don’t want to risk alienating anyone. Should I just bite the bullet and make both sets of toilets gender-neutral to avoid any potential problems or am I overthinking this?
– Caroline, Edinburgh.

A: I think you’re overthinking this – however if this is concerning you then I guess you have two options. You can either invest in ripping out your current peeing places and replace these with single unisex cubicles with a safe waiting space, or you train your staff and put in a policy that allows the use of your loos to fit people’s identity, so whether you’re a John Wayne Morrison or a John Wayne Bobbitt, you can poop where you like. Training and showing openness to all is more important than reinventing the wheel and replacing your infrastructure to accommodate everyone that walks through your door.


Cartoon by Ranald MacColl.

Q: We are a competitive bunch at my pub. In a moment of middle-aged insanity I challenged my young bar back to a race in the pub carpark. To say he trounced me would be doing the event a disservice. He annihilated me. It was awful. And I haven’t heard the end of it since. Now all the staff are calling me ‘slow Joe’. Clearly this cannot stand! How can I get him back and win the respect of my team without humiliating myself again?
– Joe, East Kilbride.

A: Be proud of being Slow Joe, and be happy with the fact you have a good relationship with your staff that you can have fun with them. You want your staff to be fitter than you – if they weren’t then you would still be doing the ‘bar back’ yourself and you would have no ability to grow your business. You may have given that kid a much needed lift so don’t now try and knock him back down. Ego is only a good thing when it’s working for you. 

March 2023

Q: I took over the lease of my pub five years ago and have worked really hard to build my business. When I took the place on it was down at heel. It hadn’t had much love in a long time. Bit by bit I’ve managed to bring it back to life and built a good customer base of locals. Now the landlord’s telling me my lease won’t be renewed. They’re selling the place to a developer. I’m absolutely gutted because I poured my heart and soul (not to mention a fair bit of my own cash) into this place. There’s another unit in the town that’s available but I don’t know if I can face going through it all again just to have the same thing happen a few years down the line. Do I just bite the bullet and jump in or is this whole ‘leasehold’ thing a disaster waiting to happen?
– Darren, Dundee. 

A: Leaseholds are fine providing you do the hard work at the start and secure a decent term, or negotiate an extension option for a decent term so you know that your investment is safe. Landlords will want to support good tenants however be wary of buying yourself a job with some of the larger companies. These leaseholds need to work for both parties or they will be short lived, however if you are building this trade from scratch or plan to increase the trade with your hard work then you should look to benefit from this.  Don’t be scared to negotiate hard in the beginning and remember what’s for you won’t go by you.

Q: I’ve had a nightmare finding staff over the past year. Finally I brought on an enthusiastic young lad who’s keen to learn and doing a great job. Only thing is he… smells a bit. A fair bit, actually. I don’t want to embarrass the kid but I’m going to have to address it. And better it comes from me than a customer after four pints. In ten years this is never a conversation I’ve had to have with a staff member. Help!
– Laura, Inverness.

A: You have two options Laura. You can either ignore this and change your pub name to ‘The Honkin Highlander’ or the ‘Pong Inn’.  Alternatively, pull a staff meeting and run through your health and safety policy in a group setting. Make a special address to the hygiene procedures and expectations when working in a food and drink environment. If the penny doesn’t drop and things do not improve then you can have a chat with him privately and because you have addressed it before it will be easier to talk about. Please be mindful that this boy’s home and financial situation may be the cause so possibly dig a bit deeper into his predicament. 

February 2023

Q: With so many of my customers now paying for their food and drinks by card, we’ve noticed a real drop in tipping. I understand cards are easier for a lot of people but my staff are (understandably) complaining about taking home less money. I’d love to be able to increase pay for all my staff to cover the difference but with takings down that isn’t an option. Is there anything I can do to encourage tipping when customers pay for their drinks by card?
– Stuart, Livingston

A: Cash seems to be vanishing quicker than a pair of knickers at a Tom Jones concert. Cash is king may unfortunately be a term of the past. I would advise adding a service charge to all table service; this hits all your food and associated table drinking, however does not affect your pint drinkers. This will 100% go back to your staff and make sure you have a tronc system in place to show clarity and cover all legals. This is fairly standard practice these days; it is almost a hassle when businesses do not add a service charge and people have to scrabble for cash to leave on the table. Another possibility could be to add a tip option to your credit card screen, however this would dramatically slow up your operations.

Q: One of my staff has a bad habit of venting his work frustrations on social media. Sometimes it’s a wee moan about me, which is annoying and unprofessional but I can take it. But when he has a rant about customers it looks really bad. He’s not an ‘influencer’ or anything so it’s unlikely any of them will see it but even so, it reflects badly on my business. For the most part he’s a really good bartender but I can’t have him calling my customers arseholes on Twitter. How can I make him see that he’s potentially damaging my business? Or do I need to suck it up and let him go?
– Linda, Dundee

A: I’d be sitting down this keyboard warrior ASAP. He is obviously deeply miserable within himself and venting this on social media, looking for some form of reassurance. I would be explaining, not only the effect on business but the effect on him personally. If he is not happy in his current role then possibly he should be looking for a career change. That being said, potential new employers would be looking at his socials and they would probably not even entertain an interview. Address this early as your business is only as strong as your weakest member of staff.

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl
Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

January 2023

Q: I work in a popular, busy bar in Aberdeen as the under manager to the owner of the pub. You could call me the ‘lieutenant’ to the ‘captain’ of the business. I love my job, dealing with the punters, locals and visitors alike and working with my lovely team behind the bar counter. But there is a fly in the ointment. More of an elephant in the ointment, actually: the owner! We are a well-oiled, happy team when the boss is absent, then when he appears he upsets the applecart with his, often, unnecessary negative observations regarding the way the bar is being run, even although the takings are better than many of our competitors. As you know, a happy, busy crew makes for a good customer experience, which helps with keeping a returning punter, and the tension our owner creates with his aggressive management style is not conducive to creating a good working or drinking environment.
– Keith, Aberdeen.

A: This could be one of two scenarios. Either you and your team are aimlessly prancing around the place like you are auditioning to be extras from glee, oblivious to the trials and turmoils of the business. Or the owner is a miserable bastard, downtrodden by his parents and has learned the behaviour of misery as a child or subsequently is being browbeaten at home and misusing his power to boost his ego to give himself purpose. Either way, try and get a dinner outwith the business in a relaxed environment and try and get to know the man. No one is that bad, so learn who he is and understand his struggles, if you can support him then in turn your team will get peace and possibly you can achieve further opportunities. You might even learn something.

Q: I have a large busy unit in the centre of Belfast, a great team of staff and good local and tourist trade. We change the menu 3-4 times per year due to seasonality and adjustments in trade. I also like to keep the business fresh and introducing changes keeps customers returning. The problem is that I spend a lot of time with my head chef – and time is money – to create these menus and try and keep sales pricing as attractive as possible, however supplier fluctuations are making this near impossible. As soon as I complete a menu, train the staff in the prep and send the menus off for printing, my suppliers fire on additional increases meaning half these dishes are now unaffordable for me to sell. Any suggestions?
– Patricia, Belfast.

A: Putin is having a massive impact on supply prices and fluctuation of available stock into the country. Most large suppliers will fix their own brands for set amounts of time, however will squeeze these up to hold their own margins. There are companies for purchasing where once your price is set, it will not allow your supplier to increase the price on you. However, this can be problematic with thousands in unpaid bills and supply issues if your order is not fulfilled as it stops you picking un-negotiated items. I think the only option we have at the moment is to build in a buffer to all new menus to allow fluctuation on pricing to happen. Aim for a 70-75% GP on your food products and then you have the window of comfort. I would also arrange a sit down with your main suppliers and get them to agree to a price fix or percentage fix moving forward.

December 2022

Q: After a career as a submariner cook, I got married, left the Navy and opened a restaurant.
Despite the constant attempts to torpedo, (excuse the pun), our business with the Brexit-induced staff shortages, COVID, ever-climbing business rates and the ongoing increases in stock and energy costs, we were determined to ride out the storm as we had worked hard at making our restaurant a quality business. But recently we began getting a rodent infestation and although we tried to keep it under wraps while we dealt with it, we suspect a disgruntled former employee has let the rat out the bag, so to speak, and a sizeable number of regular locals (our mainstay), have been noticeable by their absence. Any ideas on how to deal with this situation to get them back?
– Ronnie, Inverclyde.

A: I smell a rat! I am never one for encouraging any form of closure, however in this instance, I would recommend temporarily shutting the doors, getting a team of professionals in to not only eradicate any problems but also make sure your building is externally sealed to ensure no unwanted guests are making their way into the building. I would then get in a professional cleaning squad to deep clean your entire venue. Moving forward, make sure you are anal regarding your cleaning procedures and ensure your customers can see this so they can be confident that they are in a clean and safe environment.

Q: I have a three-generation family-owned free house in central Scotland. When my grandfather ran it, it was a very popular small town pub. During my father’s tenure as the landlord things began to change as the big breweries began buying up the small pubs and put in their own staff and changed the décor to pull them in line with the brewery’s branding. Now a well known national bar/restaurant has opened in our town and it has decimated the other few free house businesses with its cheap drink and food prices. With the current spiralling supply costs and energy bills, this has been the last straw for our family business, so I am selling up while I can get some return. Are we seeing the demise of the traditional family-run bar?
– Morag, central belt.

A: I do feel it is becoming more and more difficult to make a success of a traditional family-run pub due to the social shift over the years, however these national chains you speak of, to me, are soulless dining halls with cheap beer and microwave meals. There is absolutely no point in trying to compete on a price point level with these establishments. Focus should be on customer care, atmosphere, entertainment, etc. Kill your customers with kindness, make every person that walks through your doors feel like they are the king or queen of your establishment and you will automatically be the first place they think of when they are planning a night out. Let’s bring the hospitality back into hospitality as large chains cannot come close to competing on the personal touch a small family boozer can offer.

November 2022

Q: I’m sick of these yellow bellied kids these days.
If they are not phoning in sick every five minutes they are moping about at work and have about as much motivation and ‘get up and go’ as a wet fart in a thunderstorm. I understand that depression is a thing, however it seems to be the trump card being played every time you ask anyone to go above and beyond the basic daily chores.
– Brian, Hebrides

A: OK John Wayne, hold your horses. Motivation and positivity needs to come from you and work its way down through your team. If you are constantly looking for issues then you’re gonna find them. Set out your house rules and procedures when it comes to sickness etc and stick by it so your staff know where they stand. On the depression front, we have a real issue with this and our job has now transitioned from a task master to a social worker. More needs to be done for these kids at an early age and I would personally like to see schooling reform to give young people the tools they need to deal with self help. Let’s swap out trigonometry for NLP and scrub Hamlet for motivational techniques and positive thinking, educate people that fitness and healthy living has a direct effect on mental happiness and give people the knowledge they need on how to change their mindset in an instance.

Q: I run a busy restaurant and have a nice life, however I have two wonderful children and I feel I need to build something special for them to inherit. One is not the brightest so he may need to take on a manual role and the other is fairly driven so I have full faith in her carrying on my legacy. I have the option of investing and operating another two outlets and I feel this would be a good stepping stone to build something really special that they can take from great to fabulous.
– Richard, Borders

A: If you want to give something to your children, then give them time, love and knowledge. Be very careful you do not fall into the trap of growing too fast. You will spend your life spinning plates to try and keep various businesses afloat, you then have to keep these plates spinning to feed the lifestyle you have become accustomed to, and only to leave this mess to your kids. Is this about your kids or your ego? If you want to build your business, then do this for yourself and allow your kids the option of getting involved at a later date if they then show an interest. However, build this so you also have an exit strategy in place. Don’t run too fast or you may just lose yourself.

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

October 2022

Q: I’m at the end of my tether and seriously considering closing down and laying off all my staff. I have been running a busy city centre hotel for over 15 years however with the recent electricity hikes, I am being quoted £310,000 per annum; last year my bills came to around £80,000 per annum, which was painful however manageable due to my turnover. I feel like I’ve been left with no choice but to close and go through the pain that goes with that process. I feel terrible for my staff but what can I do?
– Jane, Glasgow

A: Jane, I feel your pain and you are not alone. I see businesses dropping like flies with this current situation and there does not seem to be a solution. The government did announce a ‘cap’ on the wholesale energy price for businesses, however your bills will still be a lot higher than you are used to paying and so your prices will need to go through the roof to cover this. All I can say is hold fast and don’t be too hasty until we have clarity as to what further support may be available. It is not in the government’s interest to see businesses closing all over the country and people being made unemployed.

Q: I’m making myself quite ill operating my business, I’m continually stressed and getting daily pressures from staff. I run a fairly small business with nine full time staff however they all want to vent to me and it becomes so draining on my brain, I am shattered during the day and can’t sleep at night as my brain seems to kick into problem solving mode between the hours of midnight and 3am. Help!
– Cathy, Borders

A: If you don’t have your health, then you have nothing. It all starts with you and your ability to operate so first and foremost you need to look after yourself properly. If you are not in the position to hire a manager to create a buffer between you and your staff then you need to sit them down fast and explain the knock on effect this is having. I can also bet my bottom dollar that you allow your staff to vent to you and you nod and agree to every suggestion which is only encouraging the onslaught of critical comments. Run regular meetings and get all your staff problem solving together. Any clown can criticise, however what you’re looking for is problem solvers and the staff to get behind you and your business. Change your actions and they will follow suit.

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

September 2022

Q: I’ve worked in the hospitality industry for a few years now and love it! However the industry-wide staff shortage is starting to affect that. Like almost everywhere else, the hotel I work in is short-staffed so we’re all doing extra hours to help out but it’s really taking the shine off work for me and I feel frazzled! I’m torn because I really like where I work and want to do what I can to keep the place trading. But if I carry on doing these hours I’ll crash and burn. I know my boss is worried about the business so I’m not sure if I should broach the subject with him or just keep calm and carry on. What do you think?
– Julie, central belt

A: Chat to your employer but do it in a way that you are offering them help and solutions rather than putting more pressure on them to appease your needs. It’s not just an industry problem and it’s not just a UK problem. Turn on the TV and you will see shortages in airline staff, health officials, bin men, fishermen, shop workers… the list goes on and on. The hard fact is that people are wanting to work less which means staffing shortages all over. I feel we will see a dramatic change shortly as the increased cost of living means people are going to have to ensure they are in secure jobs and getting a full week’s wage in order to sustain a comfortable living.

Q: I run a small bar restaurant and, as a favour to my (silent) business partner, I recently employed his daughter as a part-time member of staff. Unfortunately she’s been a bit of a nightmare. Not only is she usually late, her attitude to staff and customers is awful. If she was anyone else I would already have sacked her, but I’m worried it could damage my relationship with my business partner. What do you advise?
– Stephen, Argyll

A: Tell your business partner that although you think his daughter is a lovely person blah blah blah, she is a liability in work and her attitude is driving customers away. If he is serious about his investment then he’ll allow you to deal with her like any other poor performing member of staff. In these types of partnerships, there always needs to be one operating partner and one silent partner who remains silent for this to work effectively.

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl
Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

August 2022

Q: No staff… the staff I have don’t want to work… electricity through the roof… customer spend is down… suppliers rocketing their prices… customers complaining about my prices… the wife’s moaning in my ear… I feel I need to reinvent myself and start again as this is not working and something’s got to give. Any suggestions on a new path?
– Andy, Midlothian

A: Sometimes you need to water your own garden rather than looking for greener grass. Start focusing on what is good about your business/staff/customers/situation because if you purely focus on the problems then you will find more problems. This is a particularly challenging time Andy, however remember no good sailors ever came from sailing calm seas.

Operator cartoon
Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

Q: I recently took on a pub that had been shut for a while, refurbed and reopened it, but I’m finding it hard to shake off the former pub’s reputation. Do you have any advice on how I can get the word out to the community that the place has changed?
– Francis, Highlands

A: First step would be to rebrand, this will give you a new shop window and grab people’s attention. You can hit this hard on the socials and shout from the rooftops about what your business is and what you’re trying to achieve. I’d also suggest some form of launch night where you can invite the nearby accommodation providers/bus operators/tour companies, etc. to get these influential guys on side. All this being said, your current customers will always be your best means of advertising, so give them an experience to remember with brilliant service and watch the seed grow.

July 2022

Q: I have operated a town centre pub for just over two years. We lose a big section of the younger generation to Edinburgh, even on weekdays, and my staff have identified, I believe correctly, that there is no pub offering anything on-trend (across food and drink) enough to attract the ‘Instagram generation’. I am lucky enough to have a decent kitty behind me to shake things up a bit. Do you have any advice on how to appeal to this demographic?
– Julie, east coast

A: Hmmmm, a fake flower wall always seems to do the trick; either that or a big throne so they can kid themselves that they are King Dingaling or Princess Pouty Macpouterson for their team of Instagram followers. Add this in with some oversized glasses, colourful cocktails and a couple of sparklers to hypnotise the senses and you’ll be styling. Food-wise, a hand-grown beetroot burger, however swap out the bun for some radicchio lettuce with vegan mayo and a side of cous cous. Yum Yum. With all this in mind, be careful you don’t lose your base customers and it’s always better to build slowly from there rather than overhaul your entire business to try and be on trend.

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl
Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

Q: I run a bar and restaurant, which sees a real spike from tourists during the summer months and attracts a loyal band of locals all year round. I think we need to do more for the locals during the winter months and was thinking about introducing live music but I’m not sure how to go about it. Do you have any pointers?
– Andy, central belt

A: Live music is great but it needs to pay for itself. I’d try a few nights to start off with and promote it heavily to see if you can make it work. Just make sure that if a band is costing you £200 for the night then you should be looking to turn over £600 on top of your normal income to allow it to wash its face. I’d also suggest seeing the band perform in another venue first to see if they can hold a crowd. You want a good pub band that can create a great atmosphere and drive your wet sales by doing a decent set and getting the party going, be careful of prima donnas doing their own self promotion. Yes, you want to encourage young musicians to get their material out there but if they are on the clock you want them to entertain your clients first and foremost.


June 2022

Q: I am an entrepreneur, however I’m struggling to find my next business. I have a number of interests on the go, including involvement in two city centre bars, and I am hungry for more. I have been looking for my next project for around three years now however there is nothing decent out there. Where should I be looking? Or am I being too fussy?
– John, Edinburgh

A: An entrepreneur is someone unhinged enough to see potential in anything, someone jammy enough to make things work where others can’t and someone skilled enough that they can make enough money in their good businesses that they can comfortably afford all their failures. Where you are looking is not the issue, how you are looking is the issue. Focus on dramatically improving your current interests and the opportunities will appear daily, from a chat with a stranger on the bus to a conversation with a staff member when you make the effort to dig deep. Let your brain run wild and what you’re looking for will find you.

Q: I run my pub with a small team and for the most part they’re a great bunch, but it’s become clear that one of my staff has a serious problem with alcohol. I am doing what I can to support them in their efforts to become sober, but it’s not proving to be easy. Every week there’s a new issue and they’ve fallen off the wagon more times than I can count in the time I’ve employed them. When they show up for work they’re great – hard working, with a great rapport with our regulars – but I struggle to cope on the days they leave me in the lurch. Worse still, some of the other staff are starting to think it’s OK for them to cancel shifts at short notice too. I want to help my staff member but I’m at my wits’ end. Please help!
– Anonymous

A: I feel you need to get this guy some professional help. By ignoring his behaviour or pattern then you are encouraging it and also setting a bad example to the rest of your team which will inevitably bite you in the arse. Have a chat to him and explain you want to support and help him through this however he must also show you he is prepared to help himself. If he refuses to get help then you may struggle to continue to be able to support him and you need to think of an alternative plan. The way you are speaking I am assuming he is binge drinking. Try and dig a little deeper as to the trigger for this. Alcohol may be the escape rather than the addiction.

May 2022 

Q: My colleague and I generally have good banter at work but lately his jokes have become quite insulting and I’m beginning to take some of them personally. How can I steer it back to the lighthearted wind-ups it used to be? Or should I confront him about it instead and tell him he’s crossed a line? I don’t want to create an atmosphere at work but equally I don’t want to take any more of these insults. Help!
– Jill, central belt

A: Where’s the line? His idea of a lighthearted line could be a country mile away from your line so unless you have a chat with him then it’s not going to stop. Grab him for a beer and explain your sensitivity to certain comments, however it would be better to keep things professional rather than trying to create this invisible level of acceptable fun. I normally finish my notes with a potentially funny or cheeky quote, however I’m worried you may take offence… ah the joys of the 21st century!

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

Q: Well, the season is upon us again and we are doing our yearly staff drive, however with the amount of social trolls, especially on the chef pages, it’s actually making me nervous to advertise my jobs with any form of salary indication. I believe I’m a very fair employee and I am very hands-on in my business so I work well with my current team however we are on the North Coast 500 route and things are very seasonal and we need to increase our staff every year for the summer months. Any advice on where else to advertise as I can’t handle the online abuse and when people read these comments it makes me look like an unfair employee.
– Susan, Highlands

A: Keep on keeping on, Susie Q. Plug the socials and plug them hard. If you’re worried about keyboard warriors then turn off the comments, the more information you can put on your adverts the better and the less tyre kickers you will attract. I am afraid this is going to be another year of business fighting for staff so try and think outside the box. Make yourself so busy that you have no time to waste concerning yourself with the opinions of others… especially clowns.

March 2022 

Q: I’m at my wits’ end and really need some advice and hope you can help. I’ve been in the pub game for a long time now and, like everyone, my business was hammered by the pandemic. I knew trade wouldn’t bounce straight back when the last of the restrictions were lifted, but I was looking forward to getting back to some sort of normality. Instead, it’s a bloody nightmare! My pub has been busy enough, all things considered, but my costs have gone through the roof – the situation with energy prices doesn’t bear thinking about, and the prospect of trying to pay business rates – albeit at 50% for three months – from April could well be the final straw. I can’t absorb all the cost increases and will need to put my prices up by something but it’s quite a traditional pub I have with a lot of loyal regulars and I don’t want to put them off coming altogether. I don’t know what to do. Help!
– Jim, north east

A: Scary times ahead indeed. On the plus side, the whole country is in the same predicament. There is no option other than to increase your prices, and by jumps that your customers will not be used to. It’s a simple game of margins and percentages. Whatever increases you are facing need to be passed on or you will not survive. The hike in costs is very well reported on the news and getting a lot of airtime so your customers will be well prepared for this. Gone are the days you would be creeping around like a timid dog after sneaking your Tartan Special up by 2 pence a pint.

Q: I have been leaving two of my team to lock up recently, but in the last week or so I’ve started to suspect they’re getting up to more than just clearing the tables! My staff don’t tend to ‘date’ each other much so I’m not sure what approach to take here. Should I take them aside and talk to them about it or is it best to just to leave it be? I’m not crazy about them using my pub for their ‘romantic rendezvous’ – particularly when they should be working – but they’re generally good workers. What should I do?
-Sarah, central belt

A: Ah, leave them to it. You’ll always have the threat of leaked CCTV footage if their work starts to slip. As long as you’re not finding flunkies in the pool table pockets then you should be safe enough.

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl


February 2022 

Q: I own a city centre bar/restaurant and as we are hopefully moving out of the pandemic, I am struggling to find the focus to drive my business forward. Much of my trade was from office workers and I’m concerned many of these people will end up working from home indefinitely. I have swithered over selling up and trying something new but can’t reach a decision on what to do. Or do I try to return to the glory days I enjoyed previously?
– Andy, Glasgow

A: Indecision is one of the main causes of failure. Do not hum and haw over your future… you have been blessed with common sense so make an educated firm decision about what path you want to follow and charge on with furious conviction and unwavering confidence to deliver your goals. Create yourself a target and write that sh*t down. How you reach your target may change along the way but this will come naturally. Failure fades in the presence of persistence.

Q: I run a small hotel in the Highlands and I’m having the worst time with my chef. Things were going fine until last year but with the chef shortages in the industry good cooks are few and far between – and boy does my guy know it. I’ve already had to drastically increase his pay to keep him from jumping ship, and now he’s wanting another pay bump. With everything still going on in the industry my takings aren’t exactly breaking the bank and under normal circumstances I’d tell him where to go but with so few chefs around I’m worried I won’t be able to find a replacement and I can’t exactly plug the gap myself as I struggle to make beans on toast! Help!
– Angus, Highland

A: Hi Angus, without knowing what you are currently paying your chef and also the capabilities of this guy it is very hard to comment. However, if this person is just demanding more cash for the same level or lower levels of work then it sounds like he is taking full advantage of the current situation. If he is of value and the TRUST is still there then build in a package that YES he can make more money. However the business needs to perform better to allow this, and that is down to him and your FOH team. Chefs are an integral part of your business and you need to look after these guys, but if this guy is happy to blackmail you when the whole country is struggling then I would suggest that says a lot about the person’s character. Either build in a package that boosts both his wages and your profitability or let him walk. You will always find a way to trade and letting him leave will probably open up great opportunities for your business and force you into looking at different options.

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl
Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

January 2022 

Q: I took over my own bar five years ago. I have a great daily trade of regulars and I now class most of them as friends. The only issue is that I feel like I need to drink with these guys every day. When customers come in I feel obliged to have a beer with them. It can be different people every day but they all expect me to prop the bar up with them and once I’ve had a couple then I get in the mood and I end up out all night. I have found myself in a wicked cycle and I’m starting to worry about my health. My business is also suffering as I’m too rough in the mornings to get much done. But if I stop drinking with these guys then they might drink somewhere else.

– Jo, Edinburgh

A: Bet you’re shaking like a sh*tting dog when you’re trying to clean your beer lines on a Monday morning. Start by taking at least two days out of your business every week. Make sure these days are sporadic. The guys will still come in and entertain themselves if you’re not there. Also if you feel the need to bevy with them all night then try and stay off the hard stuff, this will help avoid the feeling of impending doom… feeling like the toilet seat has just slipped off the porcelain every time the phone rings. Yes, we have all been there, but start thinking about the long game.


Q: Things have been really hard this past year. I have supported all my staff through this pandemic. However, I fear that now we are back trading, some of my bar staff are giving away free drinks. I have heard reports of staff giving away doubles as singles and handing out free shots at the weekends. This is great for having a busy pub but the till does not reflect this. My drink GP has taken a nosedive and I can’t pin-point who is doing this. How do I approach this as I do not want to accuse my good staff?

– Sam, central belt

A: People justify theft in lots of different ways and some don’t see this as theft at all, which is even more worrying. You need to pull a meeting with your staff and explain the situation. Explain that you know there is drink leaving the bar for free and idiot-proof that explanation by saying that if a staff member is handing out your bevy and passing it off as their own then this is 100% theft. Go hard and heavy on one and the rest will fall into line and you should end up with a nice team you can trust. Follow this meeting up with a few traps and make it your mission to catch at least one morally-twisted Robin Hood, and remind them they are nothing but a Robin B*stard.

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

November 2021

Q: After last year’s ‘lost Christmas’, I was hoping to have an absolute belter this year. And I think the demand will be there, with people desperate to get back to the usual Christmas nights out. I’m trying to plan for this but, aside from the industry-wide staffing challenges, I’m worried about food and drink supplies. How can I plan and publicise my menus when I don’t know what will be available a few weeks from now? Should I start stockpiling as many turkeys and as much wine as I can now? Help! A second damp squib of a Christmas could be the last straw for my business.

– Mo, Glasgow

A: Yes, you need to stockpile now and be smart about what you are offering. The whole country is thinking the same thing, so think outside the box. Be very careful with pre-orders and set menus as the Christmas crowd can be fairly demanding at the best of times. You don’t want Auntie Karen turning up to her work Christmas dinner and throwing a tantrum because there are no Brussels sprouts with her advertised turkey dinner. Be very careful about set pricing also – supplies are getting thin and prices are rocketing. Keep your business more flexible than a Vegas showgirl this winter.


Q: I have always been dog-friendly however I am finding this year that dog owners are letting their pets away with murder. I had one family in yesterday with a dog which barked constantly from the start of their meal to the finish (they even ordered desserts and sat around for coffees to my disappointment). Normally I am all about the up-sell but this barking dog was annoying all my other customers and I feel like it was hurting my lunch trade. What do I do about these people and how and when do I approach this subject as it’s fairly awkward when the family themselves are not doing anything wrong.

– Paul, Argyll


A: If ‘Rex the Collie’ was a misbehaving drunk then he would be removed quicker than a dry bogey from your finger. You need to train your staff to address this situation as soon as it starts and catch this quick. Politely and professionally recommend to the dog owner that they need to control their pooch or take it outside for a walk if it continues to be disruptive in your venue. If the owner is aware early that this is causing issues to your other customers then nine out of ten will be more mindful.


October 2021

Q: My staff are taking the absolute mick out of me. It’s no secret that the whole country is having a staff shortage crisis but my team seems to think it’s currently OK to push every boundary going. Every week I manage to scrape a rota together to barely cover my business with the guys I have, and nine times out of ten I have a ‘no show’ or some elaborate excuse why at least one of them can’t make it in. I have spent this whole summer working from morning to night and covering staff shifts on a daily basis, meaning that my side of the business is really suffering. Do I discipline these guys or bite my lip until staffing is back to normal?

– Sue, Borders

A: Stop. You are training your staff that it’s OK to behave like this. I would get a sit down with them ASAP and explain the situation and that you are not prepared to continue operating your business in this way. It may mean you have to limit your trading hours or business offering until such time as you get a solid, reliable team in place. Oh, and if you’re waiting for things to go back to normal then I would say your pissing in the wind. Stop fire fighting and start working on fire prevention.


Q: I have been in the pub game for over 15 years and I don’t know what’s going on with the young ones at the moment. I’ve run some pretty rough pubs in my time but the youth behaviour is terrible and they have no respect for the places they are drinking in or the staff that work there. It’s disgusting and putting off my good customers. What’s going on?

– Robert, Ayrshire

A: Bear in mind we are getting a double whammy here: two lots of 18 and 19 year olds hitting the pub for their first time all at once. So instead of these pub virgins getting integrated into the public drinking culture by their slightly older friends one at a time and getting educated in the dos and don’ts of how to behave, they are swarming in like a squabble of seagulls at the first whiff of a fish supper in the Easter holidays. With any rowdy big group of people, there is always one particular gobshite; deal with him/her and you’ll deal with the rest, either that or chase the lot.


August 2021

Q: My post-lockdown resolution was to calm down a bit and stop being such a Jack the Lad but already I’m back flirting with the customers and my staff and generally having a fling or two. I think being a bit of a cheeky chappie is a good thing behind the bar but the missus isn’t too happy. I don’t want to become a boring fart – without blowing my own trumpet, I think a big part of my pub’s success is because I’m a larger than life character. Any tips?

– Anon, Scotland

A: You can still be larger than life without running around like a dog with two kn*bs. Telling yourself the business needs you spreading your seed like a Dutch tulip farmer is purely to justify your behaviour. Either cease your sordid ways or finish with the missus and continue to swoon every female that walks through your door. I think the latter may be the only option for you at this time. Work on your own self contentment rather than looking for short sharp ego boosts served with a side of itchy nuts.


Q: I have a family-run pub – my husband and I took this over from my parents and now we are pulling in our children to take over the helm from us so we can retire. However, the problem is that they are lazy and would do anything to avoid coming in and getting involved, never mind learning the trade. They are drunk half the week and I have my suspicions of drug use by one of them. They can be really horrible children sometimes. Should I keep pushing them to get involved, or give up and sell up?

– Jane, southern Scotland

A: The tree complaining that the apples are rotten!!! Possibly try and spend some time with your children outwith a work environment and take the time to get to know them and what they want in life. I suspect you have spoiled them over the years as your business has taken priority. Quite often, the first generation starts the business, the second generation expands and grows the business, the third generation blows the lot. This is not the third generation’s fault as they are a product of the cycle. I’d break the wheel before it breaks them.


July 2021

Q: We have a small local pub and, due to us having no outside space, we have not been able to open; but now since we are finally and hopefully getting back to some kind of “workable plan”, we are looking at it. The issue is we normally opened at 18.30 to licensing hours close, seven days a week; but since we are wet sales only we are wondering should we be realistically looking at five days instead, as we don’t know what business there will be out there. 

– Alex, central belt

A: Full steam ahead McPhail! You sound like you’re giving up before you even have the door open. Ramp the business up and get things moving. If you then feel you are not getting any trade, you can dissect the business and see what the problem is and when the problem is. Is your whole area quiet? If not, it sounds like the problem may be with your offering, staff, pricing, atmosphere, etc, etc. but you need to get trading before you can see the issues. The sun don’t shine on a sleeping dog’s arse.

Q: Help! I can’t open my business because I cannot get any staff! Chefs seems to be like hen’s teeth this year and trying to find a seasoned barman is like looking for a new husband on a night out in Glasgow. I have exhausted all the usual social media sites and even the agencies do not seem to have anyone. My insurance costs have tripled due to COVID, from £5000 per year to £14,000 per year, and all the utilities and costs have rocketed. Do I even bother trying to open or just admit defeat?

– Joan, Dunfermline

A: Joan, I don’t think it’s quite time to hang up your hat just yet. However, this is by far the worst year hospitality has experienced in terms of staffing and I am afraid to say that things are only going to get worse. With a perfect storm of Brexit, COVID and furlough we have been left with some major challenges ahead. All the large hotel groups that filled 80% of their roles with Europeans are now fighting for the same people we are. We also have a lot of people fleeing hospitality for the brighter future of packing boxes at Amazon (I feel this will be short-lived, active brains need fed) and many staff are still being furloughed and don’t seem to be in a rush to get bums back off couches.

The way hospitality is moving is the same way things went in Dublin, £6 a pint and £20 for a fish and chips. We are going to have to massively increase prices to allow us to survive the increased business costs and also to be able to create appealing packages to attract the correct staff. The big question is, who’s gonna go first?

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

June 2021

Q: I’ve worked at my boss’s bar for nearly ten years, the last three as assistant bar manager, and by and large I’d say the owner and I have a pretty good working relationship. But over the last year we’ve been arguing a lot more and he doesn’t seem to be taking me, my opinions and ideas as seriously as he once did. The scuttlebutt on the team is one of the staff members has caught his eye and now he’s only got eyes and ears for her. I’ve worked hard to get where I am and I’m really disappointed with the way the owner is behaving. Any advice?

– Sarah, Aberdeen

A: I’d say, speaking from an owner’s perspective and also someone who has worked up through the ranks, that I’d imagine your boss will be under enormous pressure this last year and probably is not looking for a manager who constantly argues with them. Try and get behind their plans, help to implement these and work on driving trade. He will soon notice you as figures increase and the business moves to a slicker operation. Remember, the proof is in the pudding, not in the gobshite telling you how good their Spotted Dick is.

Q: My staff have turned into the COVID police. I turned a blind eye at the first relaxation of lockdown last year hoping this would pass but some of them seem to be worse this time around. My pub feels like the operating theatre at the Golden Jubilee. They are sanitising the place to death and making the customers feel very uncomfortable with the 20 questions on arrival and over the top performance when seating them miles away from each other. What can I do as my business is suffering and things are bad enough without this?

– Jim, Dumfriesshire

A: Sounds like the tail is wagging the dog here, Jim. Sit down with your manager and work out a procedure for meeting and greeting guests, ensure you have the self hand sanitising stations at the entrance and QR codes and rapid means of taking information on arrival. Set out your tables so you maximise seating while keeping within the required spacing – this can be altered when there are dividers present or you are sitting customers back to back. Write up a procedure for serving and clearing tables then meet with your staff and train them on these procedures and your expectations.

Ask the Operator June 2021

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

May 2021

Q: We introduced a takeaway offer at the start of lockdown and it’s been doing quite well – so much so that one of the guys in my team thinks we should keep the takeaway option going when we reopen. I’m worried if we keep it, it will stop people coming to the pub. What’s your take on it?

– Peter, Lothian

A: Keep ‘er chappin Peter. You are hitting a totally different market with your takeaways so if your kitchen can cope and it’s not affecting your sit-in customers then you need to drive whatever trade you can – more so than ever this year where it’s going to be essential for the survival of so many businesses in our sector. Get your hustle on for 2021.

Q: Any tips for mending a broken heart

– John, Glasgow

A: Wine, whisky and ‘80s rock tunes. Have yourself a good old pity party and when the hangover begins to leave your body then SNAP OUT OF IT. Remove this person from your head and stop wasting your time on them. You cannot rely on someone else to fulfil your happiness, only you can do that. Work on yourself and your own needs before jumping into bed with the next ex. Fresh air, friends, health, career, goals, confidence – concentrate on these things and the right people will slot into place.

March 2021

Q: I am trying to get my staff excited and ready for our reopening when lockdown ends but half of them don’t seem interested. One or two are keen and help out with what’s needed, however the rest just seem happy to sit at home and take their furlough money. I’m struggling to get them to take a call, never mind chat about plans for opening or, god forbid, do some training. 

– Jane, Argyll

A: I don’t think you are alone here Jane and many publicans are having the same issues.  First and foremost, I’d check in on your staff individually and see where they are mentally and if they are coping with the current situation. It’s going to be a struggle to get your team back and motivated but it’s so important as we will have a very short and sweet summer and you need them firing on all cylinders to maximise the summer. On another note, be sure to look after the people who are looking after you and don’t let these gestures go unnoticed. These will be the people that have risen up during this time and are showing you they have a bright future with you and your company. Good people bring out the good in people.

Q: I have someone I thought was a friend who I now think has played me like a bloody fiddle! We’ve always got on really well and had a great laugh and I like to think I’ve been there for them. However, things seem to have gone a bit weird. They are hardly ever in touch any more, and when I get in touch it’s as if I’m a bloody annoyance. What should I do?

– May, Borders

A: Don’t be paranoid Floyd. With lockdown comes boredom which creates overthinking. I’m going to take a stab in the dark and assume this person is a male? If so, these creatures can happily go four or five years without talking to their best friend from high school and not give it a second thought. Concentrate on your own happiness and resist creating problems in your head which are only going to lead to pointless unhappiness.

February 2021

Q: I have a fairly mainstream town centre pub which was doing pretty well before all this started. Before the first lockdown I had planned to refurbish it – nothing crazy, just a thorough spruce up of everything. Obviously I put all that on ice when the first lockdown kicked in, and then limped through the times we were allowed to trade last year. Now that we’re locked down again it would obviously be a good time for me to make the changes I had planned so that it’s good to go when we are allowed to reopen again. But equally I’m not sure if I should spend the money doing the place up when there’s still so much uncertainty. And if I do refurbish, will a spruce up be enough? Or will people’s expectations have changed hugely when they are finally allowed back to pubs? Help!

– Scott, central belt

A: If you have the money then this is a good time to refurb as you get to do it without it affecting your trade. I would suggest spending time with a designer, preferably pick one that you know or you know of their previous jobs. Designers can get carried away with themselves so you will need to be open and honest about your expectations and budget. The reason I suggest a designer is I have seen too many publicans that think they are the next Piero Fornasetti only to end up with a pub which looks like a cross between a Star Trek film set and their granny’s living room. Take the time to plan before you begin and stick to your plan as the dosh will skitter away in no time the more changes you make mid-refurb.

Q: I currently have all my staff on furlough, however we had a zoom meeting the other day just to catch with everyone and see how they were doing. It seems one of my assistant managers, who is a bit of a trend setter, has swayed the majority of my staff into refusing the vaccine when it comes; they are also being difficult when it comes to me setting up these meetings and it is nearly impossible when trying to do staff training when they are off. Does he not understand the current situation we are in and the damage it is doing to the country and the future of the hospitality industry? What can I do about this problem?

– Kenny, Edinburgh

A: Sounds a bit like the tail is wagging the dog here Kenny. You need to speak to this manager on his own and get through to him the importance of keeping the team as one, especially in the current situation. Remember it is harder to give a wigging than to receive one so plan it properly, but you need to change this manager’s state of mind if he wants a future with you. I think you need to express the hard facts and if he continues to shit stir with the staff you may be better parting ways. You cannot demand your staff take the vaccine, however you are well within your rights to continue with training your guys so you all can come back stronger when the time comes.

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

January 2021

Q: This coronavirus has been devastating. I have been forced to close my business like everyone else which meant spending more time with the wife. Well, two months in and she has kicked me out the house and I’ve had to move in with my brother in a bloody dingy high rise flat in Glasgow. I’m miserable. No woman, plenty cry…

– Gary, Glasgow

A: Best thing you can do Gary is wait till the sun goes down tonight, roll up the blinds in your brother’s dingy flat and as you look out across the city’s skyline viewing all those thousands of glowing orange lights, imagine there is a wonderful woman and an amazing opportunity in every light you can see, and you’re currently not getting any of them. Now give yourself a slap and work on changing your outlook and good things will follow. Become so confident and driven in your success that the actions and criticisms of others run silent.

Q: I introduced free wi-fi in my pub but every Tom, Dick and Harry was coming in to use it – ordering a soft drink or, even worse, a bloody tap water! I don’t like confrontation but equally I’m trying to run a business. Any advice on how to handle these wi-fi waifs and strays?

– Sheila, Highlands

A: Dry your eyes Sheila. Free wi-fi is an essential part of any hospitality business nowadays and your customer expects it like they would expect a warm welcome or a working loo. If you’re struggling for table space with these Tom, Harry and Dicks coming in then you may have to explain that tables are reserved for diners. However if you have a half empty pub/restaurant and you just feel they are not spending enough then you need to change your own attitude. People draw people, so work on your upselling to these customers, work on your soft drinks offering and promote good quality bottled water. A snack menu on the table with a gentle nod from your waiting staff will work wonders.

December 2020

Q: I own a fairly busy bar and restaurant with a few recently-added bedrooms which I have grown over the last ten-plus years. However changes in my health have made me start to look at an early retirement. I had a young manager approach me to lease the property and he has been working with me for the last three or four years. He has been instrumental in the growth of the business and is brilliant at what he does – his awareness and planning is like nothing I have ever seen. The issue I am having is he seems to go on a heavy drinking spree once a month and really lets himself down. Can I trust this guy to look after my business or will he piss it away and damage my legacy?

A: With truly talented people comes the ability to multi-task and they can be constantly overthinking to allow them to work at a higher level. If these guys are overthinking in their workplace then they will be overthinking in their personal life. I would say he is using his drinking to escape from his own mind for periods when things get overloaded. If you give him the responsibility and discuss his habits then he has the option to alter his coping mechanism. I would certainly give this guy the opportunity. To be aware of someone’s weaknesses gives you a huge advantage to work effectively with them in the future.

Q: I live in a small community and the lack of tourism in the current climate is killing me. I have no hours for my staff and things are looking bleak. I really need to advertise to promote my business, however people in the community are worried about people coming into the area and some are scared to leave the house. I want to use free platforms on social media to try and advertise, however I have seen a few others do this and they are getting attacked online by people trying to keep tourists from jumping over the border. What do I do and how do I save myself from going under?

A: It’s a truly horrible situation and I can see both sides of the coin. I think all you can do is advertise your business to the max and aim your advertising at people in your current tier or a lesser tier; you are responsible for your business and the livelihoods of your staff and their families. If you were then getting attacked online I would speak to these individuals privately and explain your predicament and the future implications involved in a drop in tourism, however you should also appreciate why people would be frightened at this time. Ultimately you should never let the opinions of others suffocate your hopes and dreams.

November 2020

Q: With the most recent restrictions I feel under pressure to trade to try and give my staff hours and draw some form of cash flow into my business, however we are haemorrhaging money and I don’t know how long I can sustain this. The thought of the government lifting restrictions for November and reintroducing measures for Christmas is terrifying. We can apply for a £1500 grant, which we have done, however this is barely keeping the lights on. My staff, which I can’t give hours to, are expecting furloughed and I need to cough up the further 30% as well as contributions and admin fees to allow this to happen. I expect bankruptcy is looming and it is out of my hands.

– John, north of Scotland

A: I feel your pain John, regarding the government with their restrictions and guidelines, I’d say the more they know, the more they know that they don’t know!!! Next week, only customers wearing a pink jumper with a surname starting with a Q will be allowed a lager shandy providing they can speak Swahili and stand outside on one leg between the hours of 3pm and 4pm. I would suggest there are tougher times ahead and an optimist would be looking towards Easter or into next summer for any form of normality. I would say batten down the hatches during these winter months. I know it’s hard but you may need to put the business first as its survival will ensure future employment rather than allowing it to bleed for short-term sureties.

Q: I’ve worked in bars for a few years now and love the trade – so much so that I want to have my own pub but it’s a big step and I’m not quite sure if I’m ready. Any advice on how to go about it or pitfalls to avoid?

– Samantha, sunny Leith

A: Be careful with some leases; also if you have no security behind you then this can be a major stumbling block. If I were you, I’d try and get in with a small growing company and express your interest in owning or part-owning your own business. If they are straight and you prove your abilities to them then you can look into leasing or buying a property with them as backers. It’s in their interest to see you succeed and they should support you along the way. They provide the security, experience and buying power and you provide the hard work and drive to make it work.

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

October 2020

Q: Since COVID and lockdown I have lost everything. I am at my wits’ end and life does not seem worth living. I am a burden to my family and can’t go on this way. I was financially strong and had a great purpose, things were going well but everything has crumbled this year. Please help.

– Anonymous

A: I am in no way qualified to comment on this so please contact the people at MIND or a similar organisation – you can call, text or email with your concerns and they will help in a way that I can’t. What I would say is that you are now in the right place to make long-term changes to your life. Move your body – walk, run, swim, join a sports or martial arts club, anything you feel comfortable with but get your blood flowing and release those essential endorphins into your body. Eat well; you are what you eat, so fill your body full of greens. Focus on what you can control in your life and not things that you cannot change. Reach out to friends and have a heart to heart with someone. Small changes can have a massive effect on your whole outlook. Dr Richard Bandler has lots of great online videos regarding changing your thinking and redirecting your focus. You are certainly not alone and this will pass, do not give up.

Q: I am not in the trade however I have met the most amazing girl who owns a city centre restaurant. The only issue is she is an absolute workaholic. Don’t get me wrong, she makes great money and has a fantastic lifestyle however she seems to prioritise her business over me every time we make plans. She says she is currently growing the business but will she ever stop and be happy with what she has, including me?

– Brian, Glasgow

A: Brian, I’d say you can either support her, hop on and enjoy the ride or rethink your relationship. If you constantly try and pull her away from her business then she will end up resenting you for this. If this girl is highly driven then do not try and clip her wings. Earth shattering motivation and heartfelt contentment do not share the same mind.

Q: Hi Neil, more of a trade personal problem here but I am in a predicament. I met my partner (let’s call her Maggie) when she came to work for me with her then husband many years ago. Anyway, we struck a chord and soon after she split with her husband. Since then she has had a few indiscretions, however I have recently found out she is sleeping with one of my chefs. I don’t feel I can forgive her this time – do I confront her and force the split or bite my tongue and carry on regardless?

– Peter, north east

A: Peter, it sounds like Maggie has dropped more boxers than Mike Tyson. Tell her to jump back on that horse she rode in on and bolt. I’d also be advising you that your kitchen seems to be slightly overstaffed for this time of year. As Churchill said, if you’re going through hell, keep going.

September 2020

Q: In hindsight, it was a mistake. I allowed the wife of a prominent ‘businessman’ to hang back for a couple of drinks after closing. One thing led to another and, before you knew it, we were in each other’s arms. CCTV footage of this found its way onto social media and now I’m Britain’s most wanted. I can’t go back to work and my mum’s asking why, all of a sudden, menacing looking men are at the door. Please help.

– John, Edinburgh

A: Hmmmm, I think it may be a good time to get the hell out of Dodge or you may have to blow some dust off your daddy’s blunderbuss. Do, however, learn your lesson and keep your hand on your ha’penny the next time Maw Capone pops in for a sherry. Also, just an observation, it may be about time you flew the nest and gave your poor mother some peace from the local mafia.

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

Q: Before lockdown business had been quite slow on Friday nights in the village pub I run. So, in an attempt to attract some more customers, I agreed to let my son and his pals – who fancy themselves as disc jockeys – play some records. The pub was packed with young people, but my regulars disappeared. Furthermore, the place was trashed every night with the wrong crowd. Where did I go wrong?

– Susan, Ayrshire

A: Rookie mistake there Susie Q.  Put the brakes on Jazzy Jeff and the young team and reset your Friday nights back to normal, you will have a good excuse to do this with the current restrictions. I’m sure trade could be good with your new clientele however this can also come with its own problems as you experienced. Your locals will forgive your indiscretions and you can focus on building trade back up. If the grass looks greener then you can bet the water bill is higher.

June 2020 – Lockdown Special

Q: I’ve been in the pub game a long time and love the social nature of the trade so the past couple of months have been torture on a business and personal level. Although reopening is on the horizon, it will need to involve social distancing (whether that remains two metres or is reduced) and maybe staff wearing gloves and masks and Perspex screens between tables – basically going against everything a pub should be, not to mention the financial impact of trading with reduced numbers. How can I prepare for this and get my staff – and myself – ready for this strange new way of working?

– Luke, north east

A: Prepare to succeed young Jedi. The thought of our bars turning into a scene from Grey’s Anatomy is a pretty scary and unappealing vision. However, you should look at this transition to operate more of a European-style bar where you are running table service for drinks as well as food. Once we have a full understanding of the rules then we can better plan for what is to come. I would not go daft in dressing you staff in full latex, ordering the voice-activated jukebox or installing bidets into your loos just yet. You can, however, work on your risk assessment with your staff so that they fully understand it and they feel involved in the changes that are being made and why. One thing you can be certain of is the uncertainty of what’s to come.

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

Q: I have a fairly small pub with a large beer garden situated in a tourist area in the north of Scotland.  After listening to Nicola Sturgeon’s speech on the ‘route map’, I am in a conundrum as to whether I should open in phase two with my beer garden only and take a gamble on the weather or hold off till phase three and try and open all at once.

– Duncan, Inverness-shire

A: Slowly slowly catchy monkey on this one Duncan, an ethos which has never really been my approach in the past. Normally I am fairly comfortable to throw my chips to the wind and deal with the consequences of how they land. However, we are in different times and there are too many variables to consider. I feel you need to be physically and mentally ready to open at the drop of a hat. Have a long chat with your team and explain the situation so they can show you some kind of flexibility in regard to working to get the business back on track as staffing will be tricky as trade is unknown. The beer garden situation will be very weather dependent, and you could run into problems if the heavens decide to open halfway through a dinner service. If you can operate the bar or kitchen by yourself then it may be worthwhile taking a punt and seeing what trade is there; or if you can cover your beer garden then you could potentially trade in the rain. However, I would tend to hold off until you can operate the full business and hit it hard when the time comes. Fortune may favour the brave however we may have to substitute courage for caution this time.

May 2020 – Lockdown Special

Q: I had suspected my boyfriend might be having a fling but now we’re in lockdown I’ve convinced myself he is. He was always out and about at ‘trade events’ and ‘meetings’ and now that he’s stuck in the house he’s like a bear with a sore head and spends more time on his phone than anything else. I really want to confront him about it but it’s not ideal when we’re trapped in the house during lockdown – I can’t exactly kick him out during all this! What should I do?

– Fiona, Edinburgh

A: Chin him Fiona. Nothing good ever comes from bottling stuff up… well, except whisky. It may be totally innocent and he may prefer spending his time watching Tik Tok videos about Carole Baskin rather than making meaningful conversation with his beloved. Ask the question, and if he is getting his leg over with Lexy from the laundrette then remove him quicker than a Super Soft Andrex in a pandemic.

Q: I’ve got a fairly mainstream town centre pub, which trades reasonably well, but it could be doing better. Running your own business is full-on so I don’t really ever have the time to take a step back and look at the bigger picture but I want to use the rest of this lockdown to do that and review the whole business so we can come back stronger when we’re allowed to reopen. The trouble is I don’t really know where to start with it all! Any pointers?

– Peter, Aberdeenshire

A: I’m afraid I can’t be the artist to your bigger picture. Everyone’s picture is painted differently so you should spend the time to do a bit of soul searching and figure out what you want your future life and business to look like. It will be a whole new world on the other side of this lockdown. I feel it is going to be like a 30-year social rewind button. The more affluent people will be a lot more particular in where their food and drink is coming from so sourcing local ingredients and displaying quality and cleanliness will be an important part of your business. On the flip side, there will be mass unemployment and social issues so there could well be pockets of the Wild West returning to drinking dens around the world. Your older staff will be well rehearsed in dealing with this from the ’80s and ’90s, however some of your stereotypical millennial types may be as much use as disinfectant to a Trump supporter.

Q: Is it acceptable to start on the gin at 4pm each day during lockdown? Asking for a friend.

– John, Inverness

A: It’s better than starting on the wife.

April 2020 – Lockdown Special

Q: Only a couple of weeks into lockdown and I reckon I’ll be divorced by the end of this. I’ve got loads of paperwork and planning for when we reopen to get on with but my wife won’t give me a minute’s peace. She’s got me doing stuff in the garden, washing the windows, and is generally just nagging at me all the time. If this coronavirus lockdown has taught me anything it’s how much she grates on me and I’m seriously considering ending things. Any advice?

– Fred, Glasgow

A: Fred, I am probably not the man to advise on this as I have had more big breaks than Ronnie O’Sullivan at the Crucible. However, here goes… I assume it is not the chores that are getting you riled and rather the fact that you are getting spoken to like a 12 year old tea boy on his first day at the building site? May I also assume that when you do not jump to attention you are being met with either a 20-minute tantrum or, worse, a two-day huff? Hmmm, I’m afraid you are going to have to take control of the situation, put your emotional foot down and tell your good lady that you need a serious chat about your future. There seems to be a lack of meaningful communication in your relationship. If, after this, nothing changes, then I would suggest you might need to get the hell out of Dodge.

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

Q: I’ve closed up my pub, tied up the loose ends that I can for now, furloughed my staff and now I’m just waiting for the HMRC site to go live so I can sort out wages for my staff through all of this. It’s a fairly mainstream pub I have which trades really well and I’m planning on business as usual when we can reopen so I’m pretty much just twiddling my thumbs just now. Am I missing something? Any advice on what I can do during this closed period?

– Bruce, Bathgate

A: So, riddle me this Batman: if this pandemic goes on for six months, the new ‘going out’ in Bathgate turns into staying home on ‘House Party’, then how prepared are you going to be? I don’t mean to piss on your campfire, Bruce, however there could be less £20 notes firing over your bar this time next year, fewer fivers being blown on Espresso Martinis and less £1 coins getting spent on your flunky machine in the gents. Plan for the worst with this one. Leased equipment, mortgages, contracts, loans, etc, etc. – get all these things on hold ASAP. Also speak to your suppliers and deal with any outstanding debts. Less of the thumb twiddling, Bruce, the sun doesn’t shine on a sleeping dog’s ass.

March 2020

Q: Having a pint or two after a shift has been a habit of mine for more years than I can remember, but these days ‘a pint or two’ is too often ‘six or seven’. The social side of the trade is one my favourite things about the pub game but every week I’m putting more and more away and I’m starting to worry about my health. I’d never sign up to the ‘Dry January’ nonsense, but have you got any advice to help me rein it in a bit before I do myself an injury?

– David, Glasgow

A: Mmm, I may not be the best person to be advising on this one. However, I don’t see the harm in having a wee bevy with the boys after work; and there are quite a few light beers on the market now so you can get involved and watch what you are drinking at the same time if this a worry. I always feel life is about balance so if you do plan on slashing at it most nights then I would possibly mix in a few days at the gym and watch what you eat at the same time. Try swapping out the Monday Club for the Medicine Ball, and Boozeday Tuesday for an hour of Boxercise.

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

Q: I have had my pub for two years now and it’s trading quite well. There’s a couple of large outbuildings in the garden behind the pub which are just used as a bit of a dumping ground and I’m thinking about converting them into letting rooms but I’ve absolutely no experience in the accommodation side of the business. What would this add, operationally, to the running of my business? And can I expect to see a decent return on the investment? Any help or advice you can give would be much appreciated.

– Sarah, Perthshire

A: Sarah, accommodation can be very fruitful depending on your area. However converting old buildings can be dangerous and you could be opening a can of worms unless you know what you are doing. Firstly, you need to work out what room rates your competitors are getting in your area and also their occupancy to see if this is worthwhile. I assume you own your pub. If so, then you need to look into how many rooms you can get from your unused area, calculate how much this rebuild is going to cost you and weigh this up against your potential income. Do your homework!

February 2020

Q: I run a pub that employs ten staff and we had a staff night out the other week. The problem is, I may have overindulged and am now worried I’ve made a fool of myself in front of my staff. What should I do?

– Davey, north east

A: Ah there is always one clown at the staff party… just a pity it was you! Take the bull by the horns and strut into work like you are the Cock o’ the North. Fear not the condemnations of others as they can also have their own shortfalls, normally behind closed doors. Stand tall my man. Chest out, chin up and crack on. There is no time in this world for self-doubt, self-pity or self-disbelief. The only time you should look back is to see how far you have come. Train yourself to say f*@k it.

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

Q: I recently took on a bar/restaurant and have poured my heart and soul – not to mention a fair bit of cash – into refurbishing it. The work has made a huge difference – it looks much better than it did and I’ve got a new food offer on the go too. The trouble is, the improvements haven’t gone down so well with all of the locals. Some have even taken to Tripadvisor to have a right go at the changes I’ve made. I’m finding it really difficult not to take it personally because I’ve put so much effort into the place. Any advice?

– Mary, Dumfriesshire

A: Suck it up, buttercup! You have made the changes you felt were right and, as you have discovered, people rarely like change. I assume you invested heavily in the place because it needed it and it was not financially viable to keep operating it as it was. You need to remarket with your new look and appeal to new customers as well as making your old customers feel as welcome as they did in their old surroundings. Regarding your Tripadvisor comments, do not take this personally – some people just like to rant from the safety of their computer screens. Contact them to see if there is a valid issue and I am sure if they feel you are listening to them then they will stop being derogatory to your business online.

December 12, 2019

Q: It’s fair to say I am not the biggest fan of Christmas. In fact,  can’t bloody stand it. But working in this trade it’s obviously big business so every year I string up the decorations, put Wham and Shakin Stevens on repeat and try and act like I’m full of festive spirit as customers eat, drink and get merry, when actually I’m like The Grinch. Any tips on how to survive the Christmas period working in this trade?

– Bob, Highlands

A: Leave. Best thing you can do is bugger off to the sun for a week and give your assistant manager or duty manager the chance to show you that they are capable of running the show without you. If you can’t handle two weeks of listening to the Welsh Elvis then you are as well getting out of the road and leaving it to the young ones. If you’re wandering around with a face like a well smacked arse then you are going to make your staff and customers even more miserable than you.

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

Q: I’m sick of these gluten-free, lactose-free, dairy-free, vegan hippies that we are having to deal with these days. I’m having to put on extra staff as my guys spend more time running back and forward to the kitchen to ask my chefs for ingredients of every dish on my menu. Do I need to continue pandering to whatever trend-setting fad is in depending on the day of the week? Half of these clowns demand gluten-free soup and then proceed to scoff a big floury baguette on the side.

– Johnny, Stirlingshire

A: Hi Johnny. I’m actually one of those people with a gluten allergy, however never been classed as a hippy and very rarely as a trend-setter. I’m afraid this is here to stay so spend the time at the start of the season making each dish clear on your menu and train your staff so they are capable of answering questions table-side. If this is done properly you will see an increase in trade and a decrease in your toilet roll expenditure.

October 31, 2019

Q: I just took on the lease of my pub three months ago and have been so busy I haven’t found time to plan any Halloween-themed activities. Any last-minute tips on how I can get into the spirit?

– David, central belt

A: Ah, fire on a £200 prize for the best dressed ghoulies. You will either get a hit from the Halloween crowd or fill your place with old single ladies with the wrong idea looking for a peep! Either way you will get some free publicity I’m sure.

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

Q: I have recently taken over a small bar outside Glasgow. It’s going well and getting a great mix of locals and visitors with great feedback. The issue we are having is one of the locals, Stevie, is great for the first two drinks, however then decides to work his way around every table in the pub talking nonsense to everyone and quite frankly annoying people into leaving the premises before they intended to. How do I deal with this?

– Anne, Glasgow

A: I know a few like that and Stevie sounds like a bigger pest than midges. He will be quite used to receiving lectures on his behaviour. Pull him up when he is sober and explain the situation, then watch and wait for his first indiscretion. It won’t take long, then evict him quicker than a Weegie getting sunburnt on his first day in Benidorm.

October 3, 2019

Q: My husband and I have a small hotel in the country and have run it successfully for the past 20 years. The other day I was having a real issue with my lager fobbing so I went to the cellar only to find my husband with his tongue down the throat of one of the new barmaids. She is half his age and he never even batted an eyelid, I think he was half pissed.

– Julie, Ayrshire

A: Fobbing lager is a real problem and can cost you thousands in wastage if not fixed.  Make sure you are regularly cleaning your beer lines and using good quality cleaning fluid. Make sure you are also cleaning your couplers and cellarbuoys. Another thing that can cause this is cellar temperature, and make sure the correct nozzle is on the tap and there is no sprinkler present. If all the above is correct and your gas is full then give tech services a call as it sounds like an issue with your cooler.

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

Q: I have a small hotel and we get a lot of room bookings via an online booking website. We don’t take an upfront deposit. When someone doesn’t show up and we go to take the full amount the card is often declined. I’m worried that taking a deposit upfront might hurt business. What do you think?

– Jim, south west

A: Depends on your occupancy rate, Jim. You can schedule your payment date to match your cancellation policy, ie. if you have a non-cancellation policy 72 hours prior to your customers’ stay, then you can arrange for your channel manager to request full payment at this time. Another option – and potentially my preferred option – would be to take the first night’s stay by way of a deposit. This may hurt your initial bookings, however customers would be more likely to honour their bookings; it would also give you 24 hours paid notice to try and refill any no-shows. Whatever you decide, be sure and make the details very clear at the time of booking to avoid getting your business and staff slated to death on TripAdvisor – if someone arrives at your business with a bee in their bonnet, you will have a massive uphill struggle to remedy their opinion of your hotel.

September 5, 2019

Q: I opened my pub the year before last and have managed to build up a good clientele of regulars. At the weekends in particular I’m doing a roaring trade, but I’ve encountered a bit of a problem: people are getting frisky in my toilets! The way the pub interior is laid out, we can’t see the toilets from behind the bar and so it’s difficult to monitor the comings and goings. I wish I could say it was only the young ones! I don’t want to have to keep a staff member outside the door all night on a Saturday and it’s a pain to have to check them every half hour but I’m not sure how else to make sure the customers are behaving themselves. Any advice?

– Helen, Edinburgh

A: Looks like a trip to Edinburgh is long overdue! Eh, not sure what you’re putting in the pints over on the east coast, however I would not stress too much. Have you considered building rooms onto your unit?! Stick some WD40 on your cistern heads – this will not only deter the Pablo Escobar fan club, it will make hard work of the couples’ attempts at the hokey pokey. Also fire in some speakers with Fleetwood Mac on repeat. This will not help your situation, however should speed up the process and they will be back in the bar buying drink in no time.

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl.
Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

Q: I’m a manager and I really need advice on how to motivate and manage young staff. At 40 years old I have twice the energy and enthusiasm of these 20-somethings I work with. I don’t know if it’s a generation thing or if they are just bloody lazy! I’ve tried the mollycoddling approach, I’ve tried the motivational approach, I’ve tried the ‘making sure they have plenty of jollies to go on’ approach and nothing is working. I am dangerously close to losing the rag at them! Any advice?

– Anonymous, Glasgow

A: It takes one person to raise the standards and quality of a group and it also takes one person to bring down and demotivate the team. Sounds like you need a reshuffle or look at bringing in a couple of external people hired on their enthusiasm and energy. Use these people to inject some energy into your workforce and keep an eye on the ones attempting to bring this down and deal with them directly.

August 8, 2019

Q: We have a fairly mainstream bar/restaurant which serves decent pub grub but our chef says he wants to jazz things up a bit. Obviously if it makes more money I’m all for it but I’m not sure locally-foraged mushrooms or beetroot foams are quite right for our market. Equally, I don’t want to clip his wings and risk losing my chef. Any advice on how to handle things?

– Michael, south west

A: This all depends on whether he has a future with your business. Is he a seasonal worker who plans on bolting after the summer or is he keen to build your kitchen and his future with you at the same time? Let him play with the specials to start with and record the volume of sales against your normal menu. If his dishes are constantly outselling your menu then I would say it’s time for a change. You also need to be mindful that your food offering matches your surroundings/venue/clientele – I can’t see Jack and Victor rushing down to the Clansman to order Kobe beef with a side of foie gras every pension day!

No-nonsense Neil cartoon Aug8 2019
Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

Q: I run a village pub and have always had fairly healthy competition with the only other pub in the area. But recently I’m hearing that the licensee over there is letting punters buy drink to take away with them. I’m positive he isn’t licensed for that and will get in trouble for it if the LSO finds out. I don’t like getting people into trouble but this isn’t fair. What do you think?
– Liz, Fife

A: Concentrate on your own house. If your competition wants to take unnecessary risks then that’s their choice and they will come a cropper eventually. Keep your own venue legal and professional and focus on that. The more you watch them, the more your own place will lose your attention.

July 11, 2019

Q: I operate a small restaurant with my wife and we’ve recently completed a minor refurbishment. I’m wondering whether to also invest in branded uniforms for my staff? Currently the dress code is black trousers with a black or grey shirt, which is fine, but I’ve noticed branded uniforms growing in popularity. Is it worth the investment?

– Jack, Ayrshire

A: Nope! You should not invest in brand uniforms with your own money. You have perfect point of sale advertising on your potential uniforms to sell to brand managers and owners. Find a distillery near you or speak to your beer supplier. This should be an easy sell to any of these guys worth their salt. However, do insist on co-branding with your own logo and pick the required style to fit best; also, approach a brand which sits well with your unit – you don’t want ‘Coco Pops’ plastered all over your high-end gin bar!

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

Q: I recently hired a new member of bar staff, who is a hard worker and seems to be hitting it off with the customers. Trouble is, she’s the most annoying person I’ve ever met! I like to think I’m a nice person and a good boss, but every time she opens her mouth she drives me to distraction! What should I do?

– Anne, Aberdeen

A: Annie, Annie, if she is a good worker and gets on well with the customers then who gives a monkey’s if she annoys you? Start concentrating on her good points and forget about your ego. Good staff are few and far between these days. Neuro linguistic programming is a useful tool to change your way of thinking and how you react to different situations.

May 16, 2019

Q: There are not enough hours in the day! I’m a single guy who owns a busy city centre hotel and the workload is backing up. Every time I get one job completed, another two hit my desk. What can I do? The pressure is getting to me.

– John, Glasgow

A: Neily’s top five time-saving tips:

1. Get out of your pit an hour earlier every morning – this gives you an extra 15 days per year.

2. Only check your Facebook profile when you’re on the pan; it’s not that exciting.

3. Pay an expert to do what you’re not good at, leaving you to earn more at what you excel at. Why waste your time when someone else would be more efficient?

4. Love what you do and you will become more effective. It’s not a chore, it’s your life; master it.

5. Only buy black socks. Saves time pairing the little buggers and if you lose a few socks to the washing machine, no problem.

Q: I gave my bar a bit of a revamp recently to try and bring a bit of a city centre vibe to the sticks. To finish it off I bought some fancy new glassware, which I thought looked great. The problem is, the customers seem to think so too and mygood glasses are disappearing out the door rapidly, with the worst offenders being groups of women half-inching my prosecco glasses. Any advice?

– Steve, south west

A: I feel your pain. I’m guessing you’re using these fancy glasses for high-end gins, whisky or bubbly. Don’t be scared to whack on 50p to your sales price on these products to cover the expenses. However the best way is to get the staff properly trained on refilling wine and Champagne glasses or offering fresh drinks when they see a glass is nearly empty, and make sure they are on the ball when clearing tables. If your customers are aware that your staff are switched on to this then it’s less likely to happen. Another suggestion would be to get these glasses branded with your logo and sell these to customers. I’m sure many would be happy to buy these items and it’s great for marketing.

April 18, 2019

Q: I have recently purchased a bar in a small town in the north of Scotland.  The turnover was fairly poor so I got it for a song however I’m learning now that the previous owner has barred half the locals from coming in as there has been issues with fighting over the past 20 years. Do I let everyone back in or is this asking for trouble?

– Peter, north Scotland

A: I would always go with your own rules Peter. Have a chat with these people and explain that you’re happy for them to frequent your premises providing they look after the place and follow the rules. You may have to go through a few weeks of pain differentiating the Lenny McLeans from the Lenny Henrys but you may also find a few great customers that are being excluded. The drinking trade has dramatically changed over the last decade and, with the introduction of the smoking ban in 2006, there is much less trouble in bars. Run a tight ship and people will know where the line is.

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

Q: I’m looking to sell my pub with this whole Brexit mess. Prices are going haywire and staffing is already becoming harder and harder. But with the uncertainty of the country I’ve been advised this is not the right time to sell. What do I do and what the hell does Brexit even mean anyway?

– John, Inverness

A: Brexit – it’s a bit like divorcing the wife because Maggie down at your local Aldi has been giving you the eye. You then realise that Maggie has been giving you the gammy eye and is not interested in your pish patter. You’ve now lost your house leaving you out on the street, your pal Stevie has been up doing the hokey cokey with your old beloved, and even your dog Rex is not speaking to you. Hang fire on selling anything till things settle down. You’ll always find staff and price increases need to be passed on in your business allowing you to retain your margin.

February 21, 2019

Q: I recently bowed to pressure from some of my customers to get rid of plastic straws. Now these same customers are complaining that the paper straws we replaced them with are disintegrating. How should I respond?

– Sheila, Highlands

A: Sheila, I feel your pain. Five minutes of watching David Attenborough and everyone and their aunty becomes an eco warrior.  A bit like that wee nyaff Jamie Oliver and his sugar tax. However, that being said, times are a-changing and we need to jump on the bandwagon. Plastic is a real threat so cut down as much as possible and you will see a rise in available products coming to the market to counter this so I would not stress too much.

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

Q: My son and daughter grew up in my pub and now my son is considering taking on a pub of his own. I’m honestly not sure what to say to him. Would you encourage or dissuade your children from getting into the pub business? Why?

– Billy, Falkirk

A: That depends on your son, Billy. Is he one of these spoilt pub children that loafs about or is he one that’s been helping you with the business and knows the ins and outs of what it is you do? If he is the latter then there is no reason why he could not make a success of things. Do not, however, fund this venture; he needs the pressure of making it work for himself.

January 24, 2019

Q: I seem to be having a real problem retaining staff. All staff are given training and, although it is a small team, there are occasional opportunities for promotion. It’s a nice bar to work in with a good clientele but for some reason I can’t seem to hang on to staff. Should I look at staff incentives? What else can I do to improve my staff retention?

– William, north east

A: Look at who are you hiring; if you cannot offer them careers, I’d make that clear from the start. Have a chat with the current staff and see what the problem is, also an anonymous staff suggestion box is handy to find out if you are actually the problem or in fact it’s not a nice place to work. If there is no issue then try and build the staff into more of a team, make them aware of the business and let them help you with this. Always tie incentives into business growth. Try and do more team bonding exercises with your people and make the job part of their life rather than a chore. If you’re excited by your business then that will transfer to your team.

Q: After the rates review 17/18 my rates increase was 39%. The increase was then capped at 12%. I applied for transitional relief which I was awarded. In year 18/19 I believed that the 12% cap was still in place but I was denied the transitional relief for the reason that my poundage rate didn’t increase enough to get the relief. Is that the case?

– Lynda, central belt

A: If you’re no Patrick Swayze then stay off that dance floor, if you’re no Elvis Presley then leave that microphone alone. The trick in life is to learn what you’re not good at and get someone else to do it for you. I’d recommend talking to Kevin at CDLH in regards to what savings are available with your rates, and if there is a fight to be had then let them take over. You’ll save money and you can concentrate on running your pub.

December 6, 2018

Q: I am a newly-promoted key holder in a small country pub and loving my new role. The issue is, I decided to start early last Sunday so I could catch up on some cleaning before opening and walked in to find the manager in a compromising position with one of the barmaids. They jumped up from the pool table when they realised I was there, although they looked like they had been there all night, and I don’t think he was helping her with her late-night billiards! I need to tell the other staff as it’s great gossip but I’m afraid they will know it has come from me and I won’t be trusted in my new role.

– Sheena, Aberdeenshire

A: Sheena, Sheena, Sheena, there is a good reason the ‘three wise monkeys’ are referred to as ‘wise’. If you feel the overwhelming urge to tell someone, then run up to the top of the highest hill you can find at midnight and tell everyone that’s there to listen. I think if it was harmless then you’d be better to just forget about it and enjoy your job. Loose lips sink ships.

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

Q: We took over a small restaurant earlier this year and we are still finding our feet. Obviously Christmas has the potential to be a real money maker, but we’re not sure how soon we should start preparing for it – are there certain dates you’d recommend for having certain things in place? Any advice would be appreciated.

– Susan, central belt

A: This can be a good money-spinner, however can also be a key time to misbudget, overstaff and overstock. I’d be more inclined to stick to the main weekends before Christmas and aim for pre-booked larger groups so you have an idea of how to staff and allow your kitchen to be prepared. Prior Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance.

November 8, 2018

Q: I’m afraid I made an absolute clown of myself at the SLTN Awards last week and I’m worried people will judge me.

– Anonymous, Scotland

A: You’re not alone there, my friend!

Q: Some of my younger staff are telling me I should be stocking more non-alcoholic drinks. None of their friends are big drinkers and they think I should be looking into no-ABV beers, spirits, wine, etc. as a way of appealing to younger customers. What do you think? Is this low/no-alcohol business just a fad or are these drinks here to stay?

– Margaret, Dumfries

A: I have a friend like this, who invites you out for a beer and then asks for a non-alcoholic list… great craic! On a serious note, I think your younger staff are actually quite right on this one. Times, they are a changing so jump on that horse and ride the storm. Fire in a few non-alcoholic beers and a decent soft drinks offering. It’s not going to hurt and it might increase your customer base.

Drinks cartoon
Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

Q: I’ve run a traditional community pub for the past 20 years and have kept my customers happy with friendly service and a great pint. But now I have customers asking about gin and craft beer and I suddenly feel like I’m out of my depth. I’ve spoken to my reps but it just made my head spin. Do you have any advice on this stuff? If I just want to introduce a few ‘craft’ products how I do know what to choose?

– James, Aberdeen

A: Two options, James. One: you get yourself a pair of tight jeans, a checked shirt three sizes too big, well-groomed facial hair and you hit the pavement as an undercover hipster and see what the cool kids are drinking these days. Two: trial and error. Start with introducing a small bottle range of craft beers and small-batch gins to see what is selling in your establishment. I’d then speak to suppliers regarding a listing fee and retro on these items and you can look at growing the range or adding to your draught offering.

October 11, 2018

Q: I think someone is stealing from my restaurant. My tills are always pretty good but there is a large amount of drink going missing. I know in my heart one employee is at it but I can’t seem to catch him and it’s causing me real unhappiness and distrust among all my staff. What should I do?

A: I’m afraid to tell you that you’re probably right, and he is probably not the only one. Pull a staff meeting and explain all staff entitlements are stopped until you find what’s happening to the missing stock. You need to start being anal about the small things; no free coffee, no free cordials, no draught soft drinks, nothing leaves that bar or that kitchen without being charged through the till at full price. Get a stock-taker and pinpoint exactly what is going missing. As soon as you change your attitude, you’ll see the staff tighten up.

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

Q: My wife and I bought a pub about six years ago and it was a nightmare – we were both working long hours and struggled to make the business work, so much so that we ended up splitting up. After that I got my head down and turned the pub around and it’s now thriving. Now she’s back sniffing around and I don’t know if it’s me she wants to get her claws back into or the business – or both! Any advice?

A: By the sounds of things, you were not exactly Posh & Becks when she made for the hills the first time around! I’d imagine your business will lose your investment of time if Yoko appears back on the scene. Choose wisely and have a think about your current and future happiness against your previous situation.

September 13, 2018

Q: I recently took on a pub and inherited several long-term staff from the previous owner. Although most of the team are great one of the long-time bar managers is stuck in her ways and is openly critical of some of the changes I’m making to the pub. I’m worried if I sack her it’ll cause problems with the rest of the team, but I can’t have her undermining me. What can I do?

A: She sounds like a right Happy Harry! Listen, if you don’t like the outcome, change the approach. Generally these people who tend to moan are really lacking attention or importance. Have a one to one with her and explain that you do value her as a manager, however she needs to get behind your changes for this working relationship to be successful. If you can sell your aspirations to your team then they are more likely to get behind you and support your business.

Q: I have owned my town centre bar/restaurant for the last nine years and I’ve built up trade so we get a good mix of coffees and lunches during the day and dinners and drinks at night. But in the last year a couple of chain outlets have opened in the town and it is having a bit of an impact. Not only are they undercutting me and others price-wise, they have also taken a few members of staff. There’s no way I can compete on price. Any pointers?

A: If you try and go head to head with these types of bars then you will lose. They have huge buying power and will not be financially impacted by your efforts. Ride out the storm and get better at what you are offering in terms of quality, service and atmosphere. Their unique selling point is cheap drink and a brand name, make sure your USP is unique to your business and do not get forced down that lonely road of price cuts as your business can only suffer in the long run.

August 16, 2018

Q: I’m not what you’d call a ‘trade guy’. In fact, I was a doctor until I took early retirement last year. However, I recently inherited a pub from my late uncle so my life of leisure has been put on hold and I am looking forward to getting stuck in – maybe refurbishing the place and generally improving the offer. The problem is, the staff – and regulars – I also inherited are very set in their ways and have created an atmosphere which is not inviting; some locals have even told me they don’t go into the pub because they’re not part of the clique. I don’t want to alienate this band of regulars but I’d like dozens more. What can I do?

A: Quite a career change! So you’re going from examining ar*eholes to pandering to them. Make your own rules in the pub and stick by them; get a quick meeting with the staff so that word spreads. However, be mindful that the ‘locals’ you describe may just be procrastinators and have no intention of being steady customers. Your current staff and clientele may just be testing the water with you and could become excellent customers and friends if you do this correctly. Do not alienate but set a new standard that suits customers old and new.

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

Q: I thought the pub game would be easy money, but three years in and I’m haemorrhaging cash. I’m thousands in debt and I’ve tried everything to make the place work. I bought what I thought was a good-going business and now the value has crashed as I can’t get the figures to stack up. I’m afraid I’m going to lose my house on the back of this. What can I do?

A: I’m afraid you’re not alone; it is a common misconception of people outwith the trade. First things first, you have an asset in the building. You need to cut the cloth. I would suggest finding a capable tenant to take over the management of the property. As long as the rent covers your bank loans then you freeze any losses. A minimum rent allows any future tenant the ability to pull the business back into profit. Do your homework as a bad tenant can drop your value even further. You can get my details from SLTN if you would like me to come and have a look for you.

July 19, 2018

Q: I have a dilemma. I’ve been flirting with the new barmaid for the last month and last Friday she cornered me in the spirits cupboard. However, my wife works in the kitchen and also does the book-keeping for the business. This could get very messy, very quickly. She could end up taking half my business.

A: That’s not a dilemma. A dilemma is waking up in Sweden after a night out in Edinburgh; a dilemma is throwing your airplane bag on the conveyor belt and realising your passport is in the side pocket. What you have, my friend, is a problem. Remember sometimes the attraction is more appealing than the real thing. Make a choice but be mindful the wife could be away with more than half your business if her knife skills are up to kitchen standard!

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

Q: I’m sure I’m not the only one in the trade whose costs are spiralling. Everything from food costs to wage bills is going up, and don’t even get me started on business rates. I’ve had a go at trimming the fat where I can, but I don’t want to damage the business by reducing staffing levels or offering lower quality products. Do you have any tips?

A: The issue is that everyone is in the same boat but also too nervous to adjust their pricing to suit. I’m sure your customers would rather pay a little bit more and retain the quality they are used to. On the buying side, it’s turned into a game of constant price watch, especially on the food side as this is harder to control. Set your pricing with your supplier, agree a timescale for which these prices are valid and then watch them like a hawk.

June 21, 2018

Q: I bought a seven-bedroom hotel in the Highlands last October and I’ve spent the winter sprucing it up. The hotel has a small bar, beer garden and a 30-cover restaurant. I’ve got a good team of staff who are raring to go for the summer and we’ve got a lot of accommodation bookings but I’m new to the trade and I’m struggling with working out staffing levels and rotas; I’m finding it difficult to gauge how many staff I’ll need on because there’s no way of knowing how many walk-ins we’ll get on any one night, what impact good weather might have on trade, and so on. Any pointers?

– Robert, Highlands

A: It’s Mystic Meg not Mystic Morrison you want to be speaking to! Welcome to the world of management. There is no crystal ball when it comes to this stuff, however make sure and keep records of rotas against income on a weekly basis/graph so you’re well prepared. Also make sure you are keeping active percentages on a rolling calculator so you can adjust to suit. Year one you will just need to set yourself budgets and try and work as best you can to suit the income. Year two you will have actual weekly figures to staff for and you can make slight adjustments to suit.

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

Q: A member of my staff has expressed interest in learning more about spirits and has suggested several training courses we could put him through (at my expense). They are quite pricey and I’m worried he’ll just move on to another venue once he’s been through the course. Is it worth the investment?

– Steven, Aberdeenshire

A: Train him and he may leave or don’t train him and he ends up staying! Staff can make or break any business so it is essential to train them to their highest ability. Concentrate on in-house training first, take this guy under your wing for a while and teach him what you know as he has obviously shown an interest. Then when you feel he can learn more from outsourced trainers speak to the brand owners as they will be happy to bulk train your staff in their portfolio for free.

May 24, 2018

Q: I’ve worked in the drinks industry for over a decade now but I really want to have my own place, ideally a small hotel. I’m a people person so the customer service aspect would be no problem and I know a fair bit about the trade; the problem is my practical experience is limited and years out of date! I don’t know whether I should look to invest with someone and work in the business around my existing job or bite the bullet, leave my current job and go and work as bar or waiting staff to gain more experience and work up to it that way. Any advice?

– Lindsay, central belt

A: It’s not all quaffing wine and acting like King Dingaling… well for the first few years anyway! Small hotels are a lifestyle choice so wave goodbye to your 9 to 5 and say hello to 24-hour customer care. I would suggest you pick up hotel shifts at night and see if you’re passionate about the business. Be honest with the owner and ask them to train you up in all departments; this way you will get a reality check regarding its ups and downs. If you’re still serious then start looking around. You’re safer getting involved with a trusted partner who knows the industry. You also need to be very careful about what and where you buy. I’d recommend a failed or struggling unit in a good location. That way you have room for growth and you would get a good deal on the property.

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

Q: My pub has some space out the back which, at the moment, isn’t used for anything. I’ve been toying with the idea of renovating the area to create a small beer garden, but I’m worried it could end up costing more money than it’ll bring in. Do you have any advice?

– Paul, Fife

A: Paul, get your finger out and get the beer garden sorted! A few decent wooden benches or outside seating with brollies from suppliers will get you going. Remember and adjust your operating plan and all that jazz but you don’t have to spend a fortune to test the water and with the tropical summers we get in Scotland you will not have to wait long before you see a return on your investment. The most important part, however, is getting the staff to treat this as an extension of the pub and service this properly with regards to table service and cleanliness.

April 26, 2018

Q: I’m a chargehand in a well-kent bar which has a ‘dog friendly’ policy. For the most part, our canine ‘customers’ cause no trading difficulty. However ‘Pedro’ (not his real name to protect his identity), although a tiny Chihuahua, causes embarrassment to other customers on a regular basis. This happens when his owner, a good regular punter, gives wee Pedro some beer and he gets a bit frisky. I don’t want to lose my regular customer by barring his dog. Any idea how to deal with this awkward situation?

– Keith, Glasgow

A: I’m sure we have all been in wee Pedro’s shoes from one time to another and I can imagine that Pedro feels rather disgusted with himself the following day when he sobers up and the flashbacks start! It might be worth stocking some doggy beer and you should see a dramatic improvement in Pedro’s behaviour and less attention being given to your customers’ legs.

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl.
Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

Q: I’m at my wits’ end with some of my staff. I’ll often walk into my pub to see three of them standing behind the bar chatting to each other and putting the world to rights while customers are at the bar waiting to be served. I have tried to encourage them to be more aware but it doesn’t seem to make any difference. What can I do?

– John, Edinburgh

A: You’re overstaffed! If you feel the need for three staff members then you need to put one behind the bar, one on the floor meeting and seating guests and the other floating between the tables and the bar. Split them up and make sure the bar person knows to focus only on the bar customers. Remember, the situations you see in your experienced eyes are totally different to what your staff will see. Train, train and retrain. There is no such thing as common sense in this game.

March 29, 2018

Q: I’ve recently purchased a bar on the island of South Uist. I’ve owned a few bars in Ibiza but made the move to Scotland as I fell in love with the country. I’m looking at putting on live music and was wondering how hard or easy this would be to do?

– Hector, South Uist

A: Live music thrives on the Uists so I’d say you’ll have an easy job getting great bands and showcasing them to the locals, although I’d aim for Calum Kennedy rather than Carl Cox. You will, however, find the drinking culture in the Hebrides very similar to that on Ibiza… with the exception of bottled water, so watch you don’t overstock this in your new venue!

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl.
Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

Q: I operate a hotel which is, generally speaking, really popular with tourists. However, we recently had a very difficult couple staying with us who, despite our best efforts, were not happy with their stay. They’ve since taken to TripAdvisor and written what we feel is a very unfair, harsh review – and we’re worried it’ll put future guests off staying with us. What can we do?

– Andrew, Perthshire

A: TripAdvisor can be one of the most useful tools out there to keep staff concentrating on exceeding customer expectations. Yes, there can be awkward customers; however they tend to be unimpressed with their first impressions of the venue and, after this, it’s just a fault-finding mission for the rest of their visit. The benefit of this is that you know they are disgruntled early on, giving you or your team ample time to rectify the situation. Make sure complaints are dealt with by you or a senior member of your team; and remember to never get defensive when dealing with a complaint – you should be on the customer’s side straight away and do everything in your power to make sure they leave with a good impression of the venue. Regarding the above, be sure to respond to the complaint by being humble – customers understand that every venue can have an off night so an honest explanation of this tends to work best.

March 1, 2018

Q: My wife and I run a small village pub which is generally busy with locals, which is great. However there is one customer who has real personal hygiene issues. He’s a good customer who drinks six to eight pints a day. What do we do?

– George, Borders

A: Oh I’d get your wife to approach this one! Ask her to say to Fred, let’s call him Fred for argument’s sake, ‘Fred, is that you smelling today, you normally smell so fresh’ (wife needs to smile and possibly touch his shoulder when talking) and hopefully he’ll take the hint. Or get him some shower gel for his birthday! Failing that, a more blunt approach is required – ‘Fred, you’re stinking and we’re getting complaints from other customers’. If you’re not comfortable approaching this then you can retain your six to eight pints a day sales but could be losing thousands from food sales and putting off other customers. The sooner you address this the better. On a serious note, I’d also maybe enquire about his home situation as he possibly needs support.

Cartoon by Ranald MacColl.
Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

Q: I have just bought a small hotel with a large bar and restaurant attached in a busy coastal area but I’m nervous about implementing a food offer as I have no background in this whatsoever. I have looked at the wage costs of some chefs and it is petrifying. Should I just stick to rooms and a small drinks offer?

– Elizabeth, west coast

A: Go hard or go home Betty! You said the area is busy and you obviously bought the hotel to make some real money. Look at what the current offer in the area is, ie. food, price point, quality, etc. and see if there is either room for improvement or a gap in the market for a new style that still fits the customer base. Do your homework and create a menu for YOUR hotel. It doesn’t have to be complicated, it can be simple food as long as it’s cooked and presented well. Don’t be dictated to by a chef as they rarely have a future investment in your business and they can come and go from one season to the next. Your hotel, your menu, your customers, your future!