Ex-AA inspector David Young took over the Cross at Kingussie in 2002 with his wife Katie. Since then, the restaurant with rooms has won a host of awards. Neil Gerrard reports
Each week we examine a feted hospitality business to uncover the secrets of its success
This week The Cross at Kingussie, Highlands of Scotland
Why? AA Five Star Restaurant with Rooms & Three Rosettes 2012
VisitScotland Four Star Restaurant with Rooms & Gold Award 2012
Twice winner Scottish Restaurant with Rooms of the Year
Twice winners Scottish AA Wine List of the Year
Louis Roederer UK Small Restaurant Wine List of the Year 2011
Need to know David Young knows a thing or two about what makes a good hospitality business, having spent nearly 20 years as an inspector at the AA, 10 of which saw him hold the post of chief restaurant and hotel inspector. But as their children grew older, David and his wife Katie decided to swap the bustle of London and the South East, where he was based, for the Highlands in their native Scotland to start their own venture. The move came about after the Youngs spotted a restaurant with rooms in Kingussie that fitted their ambitions.
"It suited us because it was the sort of operation you could run on a five-day week, and have one eye on what the kids were doing," says David. So they bought the property in November 2002 and reopened it in March 2003.
The Cross's reputation has been based on food and wine since it started in 1983, and the Youngs have tried hard to build on that. They retained chef Becca Henderson who worked for 10 years under its previous and only other owners. That consistency has paid off and helped the restaurant to hold onto three AA rosettes since 2004.
"The fact that we are only open five days week makes it consistent because we don't have an A-team and a B-team; we only have an A-team on at any one time," explains David.
Target market Given the restaurant's location, it makes sense that it offers eight rooms, allowing diners to enjoy the food and not have to think about going back to a B&B. The clientele is also quite diverse, with customers taking short breaks not just from cities like Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness, but also London, thanks to a direct train line from Kings Cross. The Cross also gets steady business from northern Europe, particularly Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, which probably stems from the enthusiasm in those countries for game sports as well as other outdoor pursuits.
Of course, there is one other factor that draws customers to Kingussie and to the Cross, and that is the village's association with the BBC TV series Monarch of the Glen, which was shot in the area. "We were very lucky in our first two years because we had the final series still being filmed. It was also shown in the US and had a huge effect," says David.
Marketing The Youngs use a combination of marketing tools, not least the traditional guide book approach. They use VisitScotland and the AA for ratings, but other guide books play their part as well. David is particularly keen on Scotland the Best, which he says has a "quirky and independent voice". In total, the guide books probably account for 10% of new business. Direct marketing though the restaurant's database of 3,000-4,000 previous stayers or enquirers also accounts for a chunk, as do online booking systems. But the most significant part is repeat business and personal recommendation, which accounts for 50-55%.
Things I couldn't manage without For David, his two mainstays are Becca Henderson and front of house manager Susan Parvis, who he recruited from Sat Bains three years ago. "Susan has been fantastic, she has taken front of house up a level," he says. The other essential for him is his suppliers.
"I always remember John Burton Race saying, when someone asked him what the secret was of what he had achieved at the time, that 90% of it is the work that you do on sourcing and getting the right suppliers and the right produce," he says.
The restaurant uses the Rothymurchus Estate for many of its meats, particularly roe deer. It also uses Cairngorm Pork for its rare breed pigs, and the Cross's main butcher Jonathan Honeyman in Aberfoyle. Meanwhile, shellfish comes from Island Divers at Kyle of Lochalsh, on the west coast.
Best business advice Consistency is key in David's mind when it comes to making a success of a hospitality business. "The advice I would offer anyone would be to agree what quality standard you are going to operate at and then ensure you are consistently achieving that. Then you can start to generate repeat business," he says. "It is all very well rubbing your hands in bumper years and saying what a fantastic business we have. Can you keep going in the lean times? You can only do that if you have a loyal customer base and you are only going to have a loyal customer base if you offer a consistent product."
Future plans It is difficult for the business to expand physically because of its location on a hillside by a river. But one ambition David has is to see the Cross's wine list, which he puts together himself, do well again at the AA Wine Awards.
"We have won it twice for Scotland in the past and we have got our fingers crossed again for this year because we think the wine list is as good as it has ever been. We are now up to 15 suppliers and 350 bins and the prices are capped at about £75 - and they are interesting wines rather than being just a list of clarets," he says.
Spotlight on Surviving a hotel or restaurant inspection
For the ex-AA inspector, the key to surviving an inspection is easy - just convince the staff that the next person coming through the door could be an inspector. He explains: "Sometimes we don't know they are coming and sometimes we do - it is impossible for all of the organisations to fool us all of the time. But we don't do anything special and we don't wind the staff up about there being an inspector in the house.
"When I look back to my inspection days, probably the biggest mistake that people made was to give the hotel inspector special treatment. Not all hotel inspectors are complete idiots. They could sit in a restaurant and see what was going on and it would be perfectly obvious that they were getting preferential treatment."
In some ways, what holds more fear for David is other chefs. "We've had Gordon Ramsay here and this week we had Kenny Atkinson and you think, oh God, are they going to get what we do? You worry that we've got three rosettes and they might look at it and think: ‘This is quite simple, how do they get away with it?'.
"Gordon Ramsay was quite funny when he was here because he spent half his time as dishes came out saying very loudly: ‘That's never three rosettes. Tell the chef that's not three rosettes.' He was only joking. As he said, he was just getting his own back for all the hassle I gave him."
Facts and stats
Owners David and Katie Young
Head chef Becca Henderson
Average spend per head (inc alcohol) £65
Annual turnover £300,000
Average occupancy 55% (across the year)
Average room rate £90-£100
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