The next chapter 6 December 2019 Lexington managing director Julia Edmonds on taking the helm at the boutique caterer and her people plans for the future
In this week's issue... The next chapter Lexington managing director Julia Edmonds on taking the helm at the boutique caterer and her people plans for the future
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Remote possibilities

01 January 2000
Remote possibilities

Book for dinner at Spean Bridge's Old Pines restaurant, watch the sun go down behind Ben Nevis, and the chances are you won't want to leave. That's mainly because the alternative would be a dark drive down lonely, narrow roads to a nearby village or more distant Fort William.

For although it is primarily a restaurant - like other isolated eateries such as Annie and Germain Schwab's Winteringham Fields, Winteringham, Lincolnshire, and the Horn of Plenty, Gulworthy, Devon - the Old Pines would not be feasible without bedrooms.

"One of the problems of running a remote place is that we don't have a pool of customers," says Sukie Barber, who owns it with her husband Bill. "Less than 15% of turnover is non-resident, so we couldn't survive without rooms."

Repeat business

Still, she has little to complain about. In the eight years she has been running the 26-seat restaurant with eight bedrooms, gross income has risen by 200% (with £43,000 recorded in 1991 and £129,000 in 1997). About two-thirds of business is repeat or recommended - as were 66% of guests this May, for instance. Some people come every year; most are tourists. The Barbers also rely on free guides to spread the word, paying for only 11% of the publicity they receive.

"We know what we are doing here is successful," says Sukie. "People come back and bring friends."

At first glance, however, although five of the bedrooms are wheelchair-friendly, the Barbers might seem to be discouraging customers. Besides being off the beaten track, they have imposed a smoking ban and got rid of their drinks licence, putting the onus on diners to remember to bring a bottle. So what are they doing to win this all-important repeat trade?

Value for money

First, the Barbers have priced themselves carefully, believing that if guests feel they have had value for money they are more likely to return. In a bid to fall between bed-and-breakfast and hotel rates, they charge £60 for dinner, bed and breakfast per person - a £5 increase on last year - or £350 a week.

This policy extends to waiving additional charges. So all prices include afternoon tea on arrival, soft drinks and even laundry. And as there are seven double twins and one single bedroom, there's no room charge if a third adult shares. Instead, they pay £27.50 for dinner, £10 for breakfast and £5 to cover bed linen.

"People are surprised at not getting additions on their bill," says Sukie. "But they remember kind things - the goodwill factor is huge here."

There is a downside to getting regular custom, however. Sukie is often told the prices are "too cheap", and she's aware that if they get busier, they will have to put the price up. "But it's not fair on regulars," she says, adding, "People become friends, and it can be difficult to give them a bill."

This informality, as well as the smoking and drinks restrictions, stem fromthe Barbers' other selling point - the fact that Old Pines is also the family home. Between them, Bill and Sukie have eight children, aged one to 18, and they exploit this to attract family business.

Parents can enjoy a break as their children eat with the Barber brood in the kitchen and usually gravitate to the playroom. The charge for children's dishes, such as home-made soup, shepherd's pie and lasagne, ranges from nothing to £10.

In the same vein, guests are seated with each other for dinner. Bill, who is front of house, works out the table plans by observing who gets on with whom in the lounge. The longer people stay, the better the atmosphere and the more likely they are to return, hence the reduced price of £350 for a week.

As repeat business seems to be a winning formula, the couple aim to build on it. One way is continually to improve the food, which is the backbone of the business.

"When people are loyal, they need to feel you are putting something into the business," says Sukie, who does all the cooking. "Even if [guests] eat the same ingredient, I add a new dimension to a dish."

She describes her cuisine as traditional Scottish, and uses local fresh produce in dishes such as roast leg of Scottish lamb stuffed with kidney and fresh herbs, and roast cod with ratatouille and a‹oli. Besides dinner, a three-course lunch is available at £12-£13, although guests can have just a bowl of soup.

The no-choice, five-course set menu allows Sukie to cook items such as whole haunches of venison without fear of waste. And any portions not sold can be used in soup or stroganoff. Basing her gross profit on common sense, she estimates that she never spends more than £2 per dish on meat or fish.

"I know what I can't serve - lobster, truffles or foie gras - because I don't charge enough," says Sukie. "If I've bought something expensive, I'll make a cheaper soup. But I don't work out the cost of everything."

Cheaper produce

What she does do is make use of "free food" such as wild sorrel and duck eggs from her ducks. She also buys cheaper Scots produce that takes time to prepare, such as fiddly squat lobsters and mussels.

Sukie relies heavily on her four staff, who also help with the children and frequently work 12-hour days. Two are local women who work when required. The other pair live in.

The couple's investment of £700 to achieve Investors in People has paid off and they now allow their regular staff to take some of the burden off them. On their Sunday off, for example, one serves a cold supper to residents.

Winter is difficult, with room occupancy of just 12.5% in January. This is an improvement on January 1997, however, when the figure was 7.3%. Few winter holiday-makers venture to Spean Bridge, so trade tends to be weekenders from Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee or local non-residents.

Sukie also brings in extra revenue during winter by holding training courses for the local enterprise company, which pays her £200 a day. She also does cookery demonstrations for which she charges £35 per person.

Despite being family-orientated, the restaurant is open over the Christmas period, when Sukie says they can easily take £14,000-£15,000.

And Sukie is realistic. Having bought the restaurant for £210,000 and having pumped about £140,000 into it, she says: "We couldn't close. We have borrowed too much and invested too much."

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