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Tom Lewis on building his own business empire

14 April 2008 by
Tom Lewis on building his own business empire

He may not be widely known outside Scotland, but Tom Lewis is slowly building up a remarkable empire of hospitality businesses with his siblings in a sleepy corner of Perthshire. Tom Vaughan went to explore the Mhor vision

"I'm just a farmer who diversified," laughs Tom Lewis as he revs his Land-Rover up the sheer green slopes beside Loch Voil. But it's not true. Believing Lewis is just a farmer who took on a few side projects would be like seeing Heston Blumenthal as a brasserie chef with a microscope or Jamie Oliver as a landlord's son with a passion for cucina rustica. In fact, what Lewis has achieved since taking over his parent's bed and breakfast business, Monachyle Mhor, in Balquhidder, in the Trossachs National Park, is remarkable by anyone's standards.

What was once a 2,000-acre farm set in the hills around Loch Voil and Loch Doine, bought by his family in 1983 when they moved from Wales, then a quiet B&B when his parents decided to supplement their income, is now a farm, fine-dining destination, four-star, 14-bedroom hotel and hub of a burgeoning business empire that includes a tearoom, bakery and chippy, the last of which achieved the remarkable feat of scooping Best Newcomer at this year's Observer Food Monthly Awards.

More on this later. First, to understand the past 10 years at Monachyle Mhor, you have to understand Tom Lewis. If you ask around the chef community, they'll say he's crazy. Not the eat-a-lightbulb, shave-your-palms kind of crazy, or a reclusive, demented inventor-style crazy they'll say it with eyes wide open and a big smirk. They mean an eccentric, garrulous, voluble, endearing crazy. Try to imagine an Irish setter packed inside a checked country shirt - or chef's jacket- sporting Sid James's laugh, a voice that breaches warp speed and the rough appearance of a short, smiling, out-of-shape Vin Diesel.

Conveying the exact force of his personality is hard in text, but if you want to gain a vague handle on it, imagine the sight of him riding a rally bike down Ben More with an armful of snowballs because one of his foreign chefs declared they'd never seen snow, prompting a dash for the wheels quicker than you can say "freezer compartment" or a balding head bobbing around Loch Voil of a summer afternoon, cooling down with the rest of his kitchen brigade.

The transition from Trossachs hotel to luxury destination began nine years ago when Lewis bought the business from his retiring parents. Before that he'd been responsible for looking after the 3,000 Blackface sheep on the family farm, occasionally helping out in the kitchen, where his blind mother cooked for guests while teaching Lewis the basics. "I swear she can see!" he says in a mix of Welsh, Scottish and Australian, delivered in the blink of an eye. "She'd know when I was doing something wrong or rolling my eyes. But she turned out amazing food just on an Aga."

Passion for food

Lewis admits that, at first, he hated the cooking side of operations. But two events were to change that. The first was hearing Nico Ladenis on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs and David Wilson, formerly chef-patron of the Peat Inn near St Andrews, on Radio Scotland, both overflowing with passion for food, ingredients and cooking. He couldn't help, he says, but be enthused. With the passion lit but the skills lacking, he then discovered classic cookbook and culinary bible Larousse Gastronomique. Fascinated, he pored over it for hundreds of hours, teaching himself the fundamentals of French cooking. "It's still, to this day, my standard wedding gift to friends," he says. "The book is just amazing."

Slowly he began to build up a burgeoning reputation for his local, seasonal food. In fact, "local" is almost too hackneyed a term to describe his ingredients. All his lamb (Black-face sheep), beef (Highland cattle), pigs (Tamworth crosses), venison and game is farmed or shot on his land. Wild mushrooms, wild garlic, wild leeks and countless other woodland foods are foraged on the farm. Behind the kitchen is his own vegetable garden. Chickens lay the eggs for breakfast. Salmon, trout and Arctic char come from the nearby rivers and lochs.

Lewis gets other fish fresh each morning from Scrabster on the north coast. It varies hugely depending on the boats' catch. In the winter months he gets up at 3am to drive to Glasgow market on Tuesdays and Fridays to personally pick up vegetable supplies. "Sometimes suppliers won't send you the best stuff," he says. "I want to see it all and feel it all myself."

With the four-course dinner priced at £46 and so many ingredients free or taken from the farm, he admits there are huge GP fluctuations, but spending little on some components of a dish does offer the possibility of elevating it with finer ingredients.

Awards slowly started to trickle in, with Monachyle Mhor being named Taste of Scotland's Best Out-of-Town Restaurant in 2001 and Small Hotel of the Year by Hotel Review Scotland in 2005, and Lewis being highly commended in the Scottish Chef Awards hotel chef category in 2007. The pinnacle of the plaudits so far was Lewis's appearance on the inaugural Great British Menu TV programme in 2006, battling against Nick Nairn in a Scottish heat to win the honour of cooking a birthday meal for the Queen. He lost the heat but did so in a typically eccentric way, travelling down to London with no preparation, just a saddle of Monachyle Mhor-shot venison and a basket of other ingredients in the boot of his car. "I was a little bit naïve I think," he says. "I'd have done some work on it if I was to do it all again. But it was great fun."

In fact, this is all the more remarkable when one considers that, up until last year, he was cooking for the 34-seat restaurant on a kitchen Aga, only buying a pair of range ovens when he found some second-hand.

For those who like their restaurants dramatic, there are few better locations in the country. Tables are set in a conservatory fronting the pink former farmhouse. Through the glass, beyond the hotel's lawn, a flock of Monachyle Mhor sheep graze on the ridges and rocks that edge Loch Voil. A sweep of snow-topped hills tower imposingly across the short stretch of water. If you think this is theatrical, then imagine guests arriving on one of the weekly seaplanes that transport lunching customers from Loch Lomond. Lewis has even been known to don his wellies and carry diners to dry land when the plane can't quite nudge the shoreline.

Until seven years ago Monachyle Mhor was a stand-alone hotel and restaurant, still very much in the country-farmhouse style Lewis's parents had fashioned. Two things were to alter that. First, and maybe the spark that initiated Lewis's mini-empire, was the foot-and-mouth crisis. The hotel was getting cancellations at the rate of £1,000 a day and was struggling to turn any profit. The best solution Lewis could think of was to improve his product. So he borrowed from the bank, stripped out the six rooms and redid them in a chic white boutique style. Business picked up, and the refurbishment continued. Six rooms became 14 when the stables and storage barns were converted. Steam rooms were installed in some bedrooms, twin stand-alone baths in others. The product hit luxury levels, and with Lewis's cooking ever improving, Monachyle Mhor slowly turned into a destination site when the crisis resided.

Then, two years ago, with the hotel picking up 70% occupancy and rack rates sitting between £100 and £220, Lewis went through a divorce and decided he needed something different to "get me back on my feet". So he borrowed from the bank again and bid for the Ben Ledi Café, a chippy in nearby Callander. To his surprise his bid succeeded, and he got the site the next day.

He brought his brother, Dick, on board, who had recently left a job in farming, and the pair deliberated on what to do with the site. The original plan was to open a normal shop. But as the site sat derelict for two months while they talked through different plans, the idea of keeping it as a revamped version of its former self gathered impetus. So they did it up with money from the bank - "I have to borrow," says Lewis. "I haven't got any money myself" - put fresh fish on the menu from the same supplier as the hotel, and put a counter out front for customers to buy the fish for home cooking. In the two-and-a-half years since Mhorfish opened, the pair have doubled the turnover of the 35-seat restaurant and take-away (see panel opposite).

"People can come in for some fresh battered pollack, or they can come in with a Mars bar, give us a quid and we'll deep-fry it for them," laughs Lewis. "That's pretty good business, hey? One quid and it doesn't cost us a thing."

Around this time Dick also went through a divorce and in the settlement got the tearoom that he and his wife had been operating beside the loch at the end of the four-mile single-track road leading down to the hotel. Now part of Monachyle Mhor, it sells large numbers of sandwiches, scones and other lunches from April to November.

After the success of the chippy, the brothers decided to buy one of the town's bakeries, again with 100% help from the bank - "I'm lucky to have a brilliant relationship with them," says Lewis. The bakery was in a poor condition, but Lewis found that the bakers he inherited on the payroll all possessed amazing skills - only they hadn't been able to use them for years.

The pair got them back baking traditional loaves, stripped out the front of the shop and the adjoining tearoom and gave it the white, chic look that is fast becoming the Mhor signature. Now Mhorbread and its tearoom are doing in a month what it used to do in a year, supplying about half-a-dozen local restaurants - including his other tearoom, but excluding the restaurant all the bread there is made on site - and Lewis can afford to pay his bakers handsomely for their invaluable skills.

It was also about two years ago that Lewis's sister, Melanie, at the time working for a design company in London, came up to visit him. Lewis offered her a job designing the look of the burgeoning mini-empire. Now all the art hanging in the hotel and other businesses is Melanie's and she oversees an ongoing program of refurbishment among the Mhor businesses.

The key to Lewis's success is simple: everything he does is rooted in an instinctive understanding of food as fresh, seasonal and well-made, and now, with the help of Melanie, the operations have a vibe that'd be light and funky on the King's Road, Chelsea, let alone in rural Perthshire.

Three-year plans

There's no holding company over the separate Mhor entities. Each of the businesses has to stand on its own, and despite the loans needed to get them started, Lewis unfailingly works out three-year plans to turn the businesses profitable.

His astute knowledge of the product is combined with an indomitable work ethic. For example, when he and Dick bought the bakery, they tackled their lack of knowledge on the subject by baking bread with their staff all through the night, grabbing three hours' sleep before respectively running the hotel and selling the bread front of shop. "We reckoned we could do without sleep for a while," says Lewis. "And we could, but after three months we had to stop because we were just exhausted." When the bakery kitchen needed a refurb recently, the pair didn't sleep for three days.

Do you ever get too tired? I ask him. "No, because a new challenge comes along," he answers. "A change is as good as a rest. If I'm knackered, I'll go for a walk, go farming, go mushroom picking."

There are more plans on the horizon. Lewis wants to open a butchers in Callander, but admits he'll do it only when he finds a quality butcher able to properly sell meat he's opening a shop selling suitcases and cashmere jumpers in the hotel plans are afoot for several self-catering environmentally friendly chalets across the farm - just part of a green drive that includes ground-source heat pumps for the staff accommodation and he nearly bought a Callander hotel last year, but with the project requiring roughly £3.5m, he admits that might have been biting off more than he could chew.

Fifty-two staff are spread across the Mhor payroll, from a ghillie to bakers, chefs and housekeepers - and builders and electricians undertaking the constant refurbishment programme at the hotel. Last year Lewis went on a recruitment drive in South Africa, coming back with 15 staff, and has two more trips planned, to Australia and New Zealand. But is it easy getting staff to stick around in the Scottish glens? "It can be hard," he admits. "But if it's meant to be, it's meant to be. If not, we'll replace them."

At the hub of this "Padstein of the north" - a little town succumbing to a unique vision of hospitality - are the three siblings. "Melanie's the designer," says Lewis. "Dick's the get-the-job-done guy, and I'm the cook, the one that doesn't sleep at night. We've all got the same vision, and we're all getting it done."

As this little empire blossoms, and with Lewis only 38, there'll be time enough for sleeping when he's old, right? "Yes, we can all sleep then," he says. "We work our arses off, but we have so much fun doing it." The Sid James laugh erupts again, and you can't help but believe him.

Eating at Monachyle Mhor

(Dinner £46)

  • Port of Mallaig oyster with lemon and lime topping
  • Cantaloupe melon and Blackwood gin sorbet
  • Seared Scrabster scallops, herb leaf salad, saffron risotto, purple-sprouting broccoli and frothy fish velouté
  • Ballotine of rabbit saddle, fricassée of wild mushrooms, spinach, soft quail's egg and Madeira sauce
  • Monachyle spring lamb, celeriac crush and bonbons, braised red cabbage, Caesar salad and Café de Paris jus
  • Sautéd halibut and monkfish liver, new season's peas, garlic and leek leaf, kohlrabi rémoulade, truffle beurre blanc
  • Roasted Monachyle venison haunch, "magret" red cabbage, peppered celeriac purée, root vegetables, smoked bacon sauce
  • Hot prune and Courvoisier soufflé with vanilla ice-cream
  • Vanilla and rhubarb crème brûlée with ginger shortbread and chocolate mousse

Mhorfish

It might seem strange to some that Mhorfish, a high-street chippy in a sleepy Perthshire town, was named Best Newcomer in the Observer Food Monthly awards, especially when one considers that Acorn House, the much-celebrated London eco-restaurant, took the title in 2007. But the award recognised something unique in the business, identifying it as "an inspiring model for what could be a new wave of democratically priced, sustainable fish enterprises".

Before it was bought by the Lewises two years ago and kitted up, Mhor-style, with slick interiors and fresh produce, Mhorfish was the Ben Ledi Café, a run-of-the-mill greasy spoon-cum-chippy-cum-newsagent. Now, alongside the traditional Scottish café staples of battered sausage, chips, battered pizza - but not like you'd have elsewhere there's sparkling water in the batter and beef dripping in the fryer - there is a fresh fish display from which the chef will fillet and grill, fry or bake one of the day's catches, or pack you off home with the fish and some Mhorbread-made breadcrumbs for a bout of home-cooking.

Oysters, mussels, red mullet, monkfish, sea bass, trout and salmon are all laid shiny and bright-eyed on the counter's ice. How eager are local customers for this kind of cuisine? "Well," says Lewis, "three big burly guys walked in here a few weeks ago and saw the scallop display. They asked the chef to prepare them all. They didn't ask how much they'd cost, just sat down and tucked into £40 of scallops. If you know when food's at its best, you recognise it."

A daily white fish is available over the next-door chippy counter, with Lewis increasingly eager to make this a sustainable option. Pollack and coley often fill the space once reserved for haddock in Scottish hearts.

All the take-aways come in compostable packaging, and used cooking oil powers the delivery vans. Imagine Tom's Place but modestly priced (fish suppers for £5.75), or Acorn House without the overt eco-centricism.

The next step for Mhorfish? Cooking demonstrations upstairs for paying locals, as the Lewis bandwagon continues to roll on.

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