BARKING UP THE RIGHT TREE
Sandy Fraser is a bright spark. When his electrical contractor business was struggling in the early 80s, he suggested his wife Lucy open a guest house in Balmaha, Loch Lomond. He saw a gap in the market for a ‘great eatery’ at the Loch, and in 1997 The Oak Tree Inn opened its doors.
Since then the business has gone from strength to strength, and it now turns over some £1.5M.
A DRAM Gastro Pub of the Year award winner, the Frasers have built up a family business, renowned for its locally sourced and home-grown produce.
Sandy comments, “I think we have created a heritage pub here. We offer consistency and quality and the building had to be just right.” An old mill in Fortingall, designed by Charles Rennie MacKintosh’s mentor, James McLaren, was his inspiration for the Oak Tree. He says, “We kind of superimposed it in Balmaha. It’s an amazing building in the Neo-Vernacular, with lots of slate and stone. When I first saw it I thought ‘wow’. The materials came from the quarry at Aberfoyle, which was all cut here on the premises during the build with specialist equipment that we hired. The roof came from the stable block, at Buchanan Castle.”
It’s easy to see why he was a finalist in the Benromach Award for Success category at this year’s DRAM awards, as Sandy has quite a large footprint in the village now. Says Sandy,“The Oak Tree now has nine rooms. I also own the six-acre field to the rear where we grow the produce, and where we built two cottages in early 2000, to extend our accommodation offering. My wife was responsible for all the interiors and soft furnishings. And in June 2010, we bought back the cottage next door to the Oak Tree, which we had sold in 2001, and turned it into the village shop.”
However he still runs the electrical business too. His son David is a director of the electrical business, and his sons Stuart and Sandy are partners in the Oak Tree. His daughter Emma teaches in Thailand, while daughter Nina worked for a charity in South Africa, but they both still occasionally work front of house at the Oak Tree, under the guidance of mum, Lucy. The two youngest children, Holly and Ben, muck in during the school holidays.
His eldest son James was tragically killed in a basement flat fire in Glasgow in 1999, after which Sandy campaigned for a change in the multiple occupancy laws. After garnering a groundswell of support, they were successful in bringing about a change in the law the following year.
I met Sandy at the centre of his operation, at the back of the Oak Tree. He told me,“My electrical contractor business is my core business, I suppose, but the Oak Tree is definitely the more successful of the two. We have 70,000 plus walkers pass by every year. One of my strengths is that I really know my market. I can look around the bar at any one time and pinpoint the type of customer and who they’re in with. Husband and wife, illicit affairs – you name it.”
However, the last 14 years haven’t always been a breeze for the business. Sandy explains, “The right to roam legislation meant the late 90s and early 2000s saw an influx of wild camping, which has now been outlawed in favour of designated camping areas.
“Wild campers intimidated many families who would then refuse to leave their cars and walk. This broke a link going back generations, as this was always considered a safe place for families, and we have now re-established this link. The Oak Tree is very much a destination restaurant, and customers can now safely leave their cars, and then go hillwalking, canoeing etc.”
Sandy is also developing other tourism businesses. He explains, “I have two other developments in the pipeline. A £2.6m development of holiday homes at the old quarry at Buchanan Castle. The proposals are currently with the Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park Planning Authority. I’ve also applied for planning permission with the Park Authority to develop the site facing Balmaha Bay on land I’ve owned for 12 years, into a £1.8m micro-brewery and smoke house. It will employ 15 people.”
Born and bred in the forestry cottages at Rowardennan, Sandy was brought up with a strong sense of family and community. He is therefore passionate about providing jobs for life for local people. “We re-examine what we do on a weekly basis, and although there’s nowhere else in the immediate area doing what we are doing, we are never complacent. I employ 55 to 60 local people, and my passion is to stop the exodus of young people migrating to the city for jobs. If they have started out with me at the age of 14, I want them to know that they have a full time job with me. I’ll be creating more opportunities in the future with my two new projects.”
“The food side is my son Stuart’s domain. I wouldn’t be here now without his passion for it all. He travelled across Australia and worked for Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles, where he worked voluntarily on and off during his summer holidays, and learned a lot about his craft in doing so. He has mixed creativity with industriousness – as this is a busy unit and at peak times we can be doing 500 main meals, plus 300 sandwiches and toasties.”
Sandy continues, “We aren’t fine dining but we are proud of the quality of our operation. We provide quality and consistency and grow all of our fruit and vegetables.
Stuart is also the driving force when it comes to embracing new technology. “He’s responsible for our website, and we now have a heavy social media presence, and people far and wide have learned got to know about our speciality fish dish, Arctic Charr. Some customers travel 100 miles for the fish alone!”
Sandy is incredibly open during our chat and keen for his family to share in the credit for his success. And much of his success he puts down to his roots, “My family are my passion and this is what drives the business,” he says. Sandy’s mother also ran an award-winning guest house in Balmaha – and was considered quite an authority on the subject. Says Sandy, “In 1980, she was chosen to represent ‘Scottish landladies’ on a promotional tour of America, organised by the British Tourist Board, and talked publicly about Scottish hospitality. She was quite a woman.”
There’s not much in the way of ‘down time’ in Sandy Fraser’s world, even when he is on holiday he has his business head on. Says Sandy, “My daughter’s teaching in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, and when we visit her, I’m always on the lookout for new ideas, or products for the shop, so I suppose you could say that I’m always working. I also like cycling and walking. In recent times, I’ve cycled from Paris to London and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.”
The sense of community also extends to his relationship with his neighbouring operators. “My friends are local licensees in the area, and although we are friends, there is still a healthy dose of competition. I do like to stay ahead of the game by eating out as much as possible. We don’t always get it right, so it’s prudent to be out there,” he says.
He’s also looking forward with relish to the challenges that lay ahead. “I spent £430,000 refurbishing the village shop, and didn’t know much about the retail business. Similarly, I don’t know much about micro-breweries, but I’ll learn. It’s a risk, but I like risks.”