MacGochan’s on the Isle of Mull picked up the Tennent’s Quality Award at this year’s DRAM Awards Susan Young caught up with Mull-born licensee Neil Morrison to find out the secret of his success.
When myself and fellow judge Stevie Dickson snuck into MacGochans on the Isle of Mull one rainy evening in May it was a real haven. The bustling bar and restaurant immediately lifted our spirits. It wasn’t the only bar that we visited that night on Mull, but it was evidently the most popular, and the service, food and the quality of the outlet were spot on. What struck us immediately was how professionally run the business was, and it was one of the few bars on the island that we could actually see working on the mainland too. Owner Neil Morrison is of a similar opinion.
I caught up with Neil at the Ben Nevis Bar in Glasgow and he told me that he was actively looking for other premises either in Edinburgh or Glasgow. In fact he had only that morning been busy helping Paul Sloan clear out a pub in Oban. Says Neil, “Paul offered me some furniture and fittings but I had to get my hands dirty… that’s why I have blisters. I’m not used to manual labour!”
But let’s rewind… Neil’s first job in the pub trade was in the Mishnish, on Mull, in fact that is where he first met Calum McLachlainn who is his now landlord and friend. Neil explains, ‘Calum owns MacGochans (and I now lease it from him) but back when I first met him I was working in the Mishnish and he came in and asked for a free pint. I said no, and that’s when he first offered me a job at MacGochans. I took him up on his offer and worked in MacGochans during the holidays and at Christmas when I was off college.”
He left the island for Glasgow and attended Stow College where he studied music. Although he did managed to combine this with door stewarding before taking the helm at one of the Student Union bars. By this time he had the licensed trade bug and when he graduated he headed to Campbeltown to open a bar for friend Calum Maclauchlain. This eventually led to a colleague’s mum suggesting Neil would be good at running his own pub and before you knew it he was working for MDP Leisure which was a management company that looked after distressed pubs. Neil comments, “My first role for them was managing the Crosskeys in Renfrew.”
His next role at MDP saw him head to Elgin to manage High Spirits where he stayed for two years. Says Neil, “Basically I bullshitted my way into the job at MDP and did most of my training on the job. I got sent to every type of pub you could imagine including a few in Glasgow – The Old Toll, the New Regent and a few in Edinburgh including the Cougar Lounge in Leith. I had a few interesting nights there!”
He continues, “I dealt with so many different types of customers over the 15 years that I can handle just about anyone. I also gained a lot of experience with regard to what makes a pub work especially when dealing with distressed pubs – the main issues were always the clientele and the difficulties in getting the target audience in.”
After leaving MDP eight years ago he went to work for Rab Orr in Edinburgh, but an ill-fated trip to Sweden severed that working relationship. Says Neil, “Don’t ask!” He continues, “Then I heard that the guy that was running MacGochans in Tobermory was looking for a new manager. I was reluctant because I didn’t really want to go back to Mull at that time. But I decided to give it a go for six months and ended up working for him for four years before taking the lease on myself.”
He continues, “I was nervous about taking the leap and working for myself. But I knew the business inside out before I took it on, and I knew what it could do. It had been rebuilt in 1998 after a landslide by the owners Calum McLachlainn and his business partner Allan ‘Winker’ MacLean, but by the time I took over it was in need of a refurbishment. Nearly three years ago I did just that, totally gutting it. Obviously I funded it and Calum and Allan gave me a hand. This is when I got renowned Scottish designer Ranald McColl in. The bar had originally been on the left of the building and we turned this into a restaurant that locals and families could use, and the public bar on the right evolved from that. We put in a nice fire and Ranald gave the restaurant and bar a modern Scottish look. He even had me out fishing for wood! We had to borrow a local scallop dredger to tow this massive lump of Greenhart wood out of the sea. It is the hardest wearing wood we could find and weathered over thousands of years to give it a perfect rustic finish. We used it on the surrounds, to create the bar front, and used the remainder as seat barriers for the booths. I was really pleased with the finished look and we re-opened in February 2012. Now we have just completed stage two and have refreshed the upstairs function area and created a large balcony and a new bar. We already do a lot of functions but I wanted it to be a nicer area. I kept finding myself apologising for the look of it. So I decided to do something about it and brought back Ranald to add his touch.”
Neil continues, “We are just about to extend our dining time from 10pm to 11pm to make the most of the dining opportunity. You now need to do good food, and we use, when we can, locally-sourced produce. We are part of the Oban Bay Buying Group but all our seafood/fish comes straight off the boat and we don’t like to freeze. During the season we can be doing 300/400 meals a day. It used to be that pubs threw cheap food in to get folk in to drink, now it is exactly the opposite.”
As well as being passionate about buying locally Neil also owns, with Calum Maclean, the Isle of Mull whisky brand and gets heavily involved with local events too; from the Isle of Mull Music Festival to the Mull Car Rally. Says Neil, “It’s good to be involved in events which get people to pull together. I have taken over the marketing and PR for the Mull Music Festival. The budget is small but we used social media to promote it to make the most of the budget.”
Neil is also one of the Mull Car Rally guardians – this is a group put together to ensure the rally goes ahead every year. Says Neil, “This year my lovely job is to find a mainline sponsor for the 2015 event.”
When he is not promoting the music festival and rally he is busy motivating his team. Last year he blew the pubs budget when he took two of his staff to New York. Explains Neil, “Every year all the MacGochans staff vote for their two hardest working colleagues to win an end of season trip to the states, these votes are done in a secret ballot. Last year Mikey Macdonald and Steven Higson were treated to a long weekend, flights and accommodation to New York including dinner at one of Danny Meyer’s top restaurants.” Neil continues, “This was a fantastic training experience and I wanted them to experience American service for themselves without me preaching about it.”
Certainly keeping his staff happy is one of his priorities. Says Neil, “It is difficult getting good staff, and we do employ a lot of students during the season, but during April and May and towards the end of the season the students are not around, and it is more challenging to keep the continuity of the service. But we do try very hard.”
So what is next for this island dynamo? Says Neil, “I would like to have at least five or six, even seven places. I’m torn because although I know that the mainland is the way forward for the business, I would like to see my son, who was born ten months ago, grow up on Mull.” But he adds, “When I am on Mull I can’t relax. I am always on call.” However he did get his first motor bike a few months back and now can take off on it when he needs to get away. I’m sure that with the success of MacGochan’s, Tobermory, it won’t be long before he achieves his ambition of opening a second venture. I’m sure his pals will be spurring him on.