No-nonsense Neil

Neil Morrison
Picture: AJ MacLeod

Neil Morrison, owner of Macgochans in Tobermory on Mull, The Lochside in Bowmore on Islay and The Benleva in Drumnadrochit, and co-owner of The Ben Nevis in Fort William, was named SLTN Entrepreneur of the Year 2017 and winner of the SLTN Independent Pub of the Year award for Macgochans in 2014 and 2017. In a trade career spanning more than 20 years he has run venues across Scotland, including Glasgow and Edinburgh. Here he offers no-nonsense, practical advice to SLTN readers on operational issues. 

Do you have a question for Neil? Email gillian.mckenzie@peeblesmedia.com »

All questions go into a draw to win two tickets to the SLTN Awards


June 2020 – Lockdown Special

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.

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

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: 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.

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

March 2020

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!

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

February 2020

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.

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

December 2019

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.

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.

ranald-maccoll
Cartoon by Ranald MacColl

October 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.

ranald-maccoll-cartoon
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.


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.


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.


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.


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!

ranald-maccoll-cartoon
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.


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.


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.


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 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
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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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: 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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, lets 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!