Pivoting has been the only means of survival for many bar operators. Iain McPherson of Edinburgh’s Panda & Sons, Nauticus and Hoot the Redeemer has become a master contortionist
Photography: Rod Penn
Like many in our wonderful industry this year, I’ve had to pivot, penché, pirouette, and move continuously to survive. Preparing myself mentally has been key. Rather than hope that each passing week would bring good news, I planned for the worst outcomes and timescales, with the hope I’d be proven wrong. By accepting the situation, I was able to acclimatise quickly and search for positive solutions. In short, I chose the Humble Pie diet. I went from being flown to all four corners of the globe almost on a weekly basis, to jobs I hadn’t done since the beginning of my career. It was a massive shock to the system but it was worth it for my mental outlook. I quite like Humble Pie now— I’ve acquired quite the taste for it. It has reminded me how important all roles are in business.
During the first lockdown, my initial focus was on keeping up the morale of my team. First up, I gave myself a savage bowl haircut, just to amuse them, which was quickly followed by my Spin the Bottle game show on HospoLive. Then I refocused on how to help my bars and the greater bar community at the same time. My ideal business approach is to achieve a win-win. With this in mind, I came up with Edinburgh Booze Delivery (EBD). The business model was designed to enable all local bars, breweries and distilleries that didn’t have an off-licence, the ability to do off-sales. For the other bars that could, it provided another shop window and revenue stream. We marketed each bar’s products and offered a safe collection and delivery service from our bar Nauticus. Bringing all of our respective audiences on to one platform worked really well.
To start this process, I needed to build a website. There were many friendly offers to help with this, but when I followed up, no one had any friendly prices. One replied with a video of how to build a website with Shopify. Basically “good luck, ha ha”. Sometimes this is the exact motivation I need to prove someone wrong. Which I did.
Another ingredient in this Humble Pie was running this city-wide operation with only my business partners Sam Chapman and Kyle Jamieson and some kind delivery volunteers. Getting used to having a much smaller team to share tasks with meant working a lot harder. We also had to sell at reduced prices to be competitive. This meant grafting harder for less money. I found this to be the biggest mental hurdle and one a lot of other operators couldn’t overcome.
When we reopened in August, it was so hard for all of us to keep battling the continuously changing restrictions. Scotland was faced with a ‘no music’ rule, which was quickly followed by the 10pm closing time. Then, in the blink of an eye, we were shut down again. This time around I was ready. I always had a feeling we would close again, although I was forecasting for this to happen in late November. During September we built a service hatch in one of the long bay windows at Nauticus. Everyone thought
I was mad but I wasn’t going to get fooled twice. The hatch would be a service point for our already established takeaway drink offering but also for food. It was another win-win scenario. It helped out different food vendors each week, which in turn helped generate more takeaway drinks sales.
The need to change up menus was something I learnt from the first lockdown. The analytics from our EDB website showed that consumer behaviours in lockdown were very different to before. The main reason being people were bored out of their minds and needed excitement. This meant we had to keep adding new cocktails on to the platform every week or two to continuously whet consumers’ appetites. I calculated that, with the addition of winter and further boredom, consumer behaviour towards the hatch would be very similar. It’s been great watching and helping chefs and I’ve learnt so much from them. I’m also amazed at the diverse amount of food that can be produced with so little equipment and space.
During my daily dance routine of reactive planning, I’ve also been preparing for the longer term. Like many north and south of the border, the “substantial meal” requirement for hospitality venues will prove to be yet another obstacle to be overcome. As it stands, Panda & Sons, Hoot the Redeemer and many other bars not serving food will still remain closed during level 2 (Scotland) or tier 2 (England), but I want to change that outcome. Little to anyone’s knowledge, we purchased our fourth bar – and our first freehold acquisition - at the end of last year, which we haven’t opened yet. I’m currently building a kitchen in this bar to produce food for all our bars, and others, as a solution to the substantial meals hurdle. I’ve been working hard on the food offering since first lockdown and preparing myself to become the head chef once this bar comes to life. The food offering available to all bars when we reach level 2,will be the Scottish dish stovies (with a veggie alternative too). I really want to put a spotlight back on this iconic meal. At the same time, it will enable bars with no food to stay open, even if their drinks offering is the main focus. In the long run the food offering will be delicious sourdough pizzas with a focus on Scottish produce. Food takeaway businesses are busier now more than ever. They are also reaping the extra benefit of paying only 5% VAT (as opposed to the usual 20% VAT) on takeaway food. I want a slice of this action. It will also enable me to create jobs for our staff who have been fully furloughed since March, because my goal is to have zero redundancies.
Financials aside, I have found a massive benefit to maintaining a varied work routine. It keeps me mentally and physically sharp and better able to take on the demands of hospitality work, especially when the time comes for our doors to open again.
Fatigue, I think, has been an issue for our community to deal with – the sudden loss of a working routine can easily lead to inactivity. It’s amazing how exercising a few times a week, eating well and refraining from drinking every day can increase your efficiency. Mine’s gone through the roof. Last year it was easy to wake up some days and want to scream “f*ck off 2020” out of the window, but keep fighting on. I’ll raise a large glass of champagne to you all once Edinburgh reaches level zero – the point at which I’ll allow myself to start drinking again.