By Gillian McKenzie
AS long as people are eating burgers and drinking beer and cocktails, there’s a place for Scotch & Rye – that’s the view of Scott Murray, the entrepreneur behind the Inverness bar, as he embarks on ambitious expansion plans.
When SLTN caught up with him in the Highland capital last month, he was in the process of securing a site in Glasgow for the Prohibition-inspired cocktail bar and kitchen concept; and has plans to open Scotch & Rye outlets in Edinburgh, Perth and Dundee in the next three to four years – before potentially expanding south of the border.
For Murray, who began his trade career working in hotel kitchens as a teenager, expanding the Scotch & Rye brand, which he launched on Queensgate in Inverness in 2014, is a natural step for Cru Holdings – the company he set up in 2009 and which now operates five venues in the city.
“Scotch & Rye has been really successful,” said Murray, who worked for hotels group Hilton before starting out on his own in 2006 with a hotel acquired under a pubco lease.
“It’s outperformed what we expected; and it’s had good year-on-year growth.
“This site had been various pubs over the years; we wanted to do something totally different to bring people here.
Scotch & Rye is doing really well; it has exceeded our expectations.
“We were the first to do the Prohibition industrial-style thing in Inverness. What we’re doing here is quality but reasonably-priced food and drinks; and we try not to take ourselves too seriously, it’s quirky.”
Scotch & Rye is just one brand in what is a diverse portfolio of venues in the Cru Holdings estate.
The opening of cocktail-led Bar One in what was a traditional pub in 2009 laid the foundations for the company, which went on to add Dows – a community pub on the outskirts of Inverness which the group plans to revamp shortly – in 2012 and Scotch & Rye in 2014.
Two years after that, Cru acquired the long-established Riva Italian restaurant on Ness Walk, next to the river, which it relaunched as steak and seafood restaurant Prime at the beginning of this year.
And Murray said the repositioning of the eatery has paid dividends.
“There’s so much competition when it comes to Italian restaurants so we decided to redo the concept,” he said.
“It was always a risk – you’re taking a £12 dish [of pasta] and replacing it with a £25 dish – but it’s going really well. Prime is 25% up on sales last year.”
The fact the Inverness market is described by Murray as “buoyant” hasn’t done any harm.
Inverness is buoyant; tourism is not as seasonal as it used to be.
Tourism is strong, he said, helped by a growing number of visitors from cruise ships docking in nearby Invergordon.
“The season has extended from the end of March until the end of October; it’s definitely not as seasonal as it used to be. The shoulder months now are as good as the peaks used to be. Aside from tourism, they are building more houses and there’s lots of students. Inverness is buoyant.”
As for adding to Cru’s portfolio in Inverness, there are no immediate plans, although Murray said there are “a couple of ideas we’d like to try if we can get the right site”.
In the meantime, the focus is on taking the Scotch & Rye concept to new Scottish cities and beyond.
Cru has bolstered the management end of its 90-strong team in preparation for the expansion and ensured it has the systems in place.
“We’ve got a diverse portfolio [in Inverness], and as a business that makes sense; but it’s probably as diverse as we want to go at the moment,” said Murray.
“We’ve identified cities [for Scotch & Rye] for the next three or four years.
“And we’ve spent the last two years gearing up for expansion. We’ve had consultants in doing back of house stuff and we’ve built a management team; we’re top heavy at the moment.
“We also wanted to iron out the [Scotch & Rye] concept and get investor packs ready.
“Up to this point it’s all been organic. That’s one of the reasons we’ve grown quite slowly.
“Now we’re looking for the right people to invest – we want to find investors who can help us grow the business.”