Our recent supplement carried a feature on Climate change, and why it was important, and it prompted Steve Macfarlane of The Glenuig Inn to get in touch. He said, “Come and see what I am doing.” So I did. And fortunately for me, I picked the two best days of the year, so far, to travel up the West Coast through Glencoe to just beyond Glenfinnan to Glenuig.
Glenuig Inn is situated in one of the most picturesque areas in Scotland, and it is a haven for walkers, kayakers, divers, motorcyclists and cyclists… but really what sets this business apart is the fact that it is carbon neutral and Steve has not only helped the environment but has saved thousands of pounds too and continues to save, compared to similar businesses without a green ethic.
Glenuig Inn is one of the best examples in the country of a green business that champions renewable energy – and Steve has the awards to prove it. In fact, he calls the Inn ‘Scotland’s exemplar green Inn.’ Steve, who in his previous life was a business consultant, spent 18 months looking for a business that he could turn around. He talks about finding one to explore his ‘proof of concept’. He says, “I had spent years giving advice to people on how to structure and run their businesses and I was looking for an opportunity that would allow me to turn a business around and introduce some of my own energy saving ideas. I wasn’t necessarily looking for a hospitality business, but despite looking at more than 100 buildings I kept coming back to the Glenuig Inn. I had looked at its accounts and I knew it was not trading well as a business, it did, however, have planning permission in situ to expand.” He continues, “It’s always the bottom line that matters, however for me it wasn’t just about finding new markets it was also about making savings. Two of the most uncontrollable costs are energy and waste. I wondered how much we could effect the bottom line by being prudent.” He explains, “The definition of energy poverty is when you spend more than 10% of your income on energy, and in Scotland it is particularly bad, due to the fact that it is colder here. Most businesses do spend more than 10% of their income on energy. I decided to try and come up with innovative ways to control these costs, to see if it made a real difference.” He completed the purchase of the Inn in 2007 and then ran it for a full season. Says Steve, “I ran it for nine months as it was and got to know what happened. I saw the season out and used the time to change my original plans. The renovation was originally just an upgrade without delivering any bonuses. I closed in September, and didn’t get started with the renovation until January 2009 and by June half was done – which included totally rebuilding the dining room wing. The rest of the Inn was completed by Spring 2010.
Along the way, he introduced various energy saving and waste reducing initiatives. He explains, “Being a rural business it costs us more to bring in goods, but it also costs us more to get the waste offsite. Therefore, my goal was to create an infrastructure here that kept removal of waste to an absolute minimum.”
Initially, Steve managed his food waste with three revolving composters. He explains, “We had three rotating, insulated composters for a few years, and they did work, however, I was concerned about the amount of methane that they were outputting. However, one benefit was the fact that midges were attracted to the CO2, that was also created, and they would get into the composters and we found by keeping the lids closed and burying them, we effectively cleared the site of midges.
He continues, “There was also the issue that composting didn’t work all year round. So I began to experiment and I came up with the idea of drying the waste food. Initially, I tried it by piling small quantities into toilet roll holders and leaving it to dry out, and then I put it on the fire. Obviously, this wasn’t a sensible option. But it proved it worked. So I started looking for a commercial food dryer, and it took a while to find one that was small enough.
Meanwhile, Steve also installed a Biomass pellet stove with an integrated boiler which was fed on pellets and which provided the heat and the hot water for the Inn. When he eventually sourced his food dryer which also takes items such as napkins, and cherry stones, nuts etc, he found that the calorific value of dried food waste, due to the fats in it, was 25% greater than that of the pellets. So burning the food waste also helped save money.
Says Steve, “My staff put all the food waste from the kitchen in a container, and take it to the food dryer, which dries the food in around 8 hours, the resulting soil like substance, which is almost odourless, is then added to the bio-mass boiler with the pellets.”
He continues, “We do around 23,000 plates of food a year, and all the food waste is used to provide energy. We can’t recycle bones, but due to this I buy my meat from the butcher already boned and trimmed and ready to go, and I also buy my fish minus the heads… both the butcher and the fishmonger have their own waste disposal methods which are suited to the businesses that they are in. And it means my chef doesn’t have to act like an amateur butcher, and although it does cost a little more, the benefits far outweigh the slight additional cost.”
He adds, “It’s funny I don’t preach to my staff about energy, but they know if they don’t feed the pellet boiler then there is the possibility that there will be no hot water for their showers in the morning!”
The Inn also has its own Smokery – they do all their own smoking. Says Steve, “I buy a side of salmon (minus the head) and dry smoke it and we also smoke our duck.”
He has also actively gone out of his way to source produce with the minimum amount of packaging. He adds, “We have a good system not just financially, but operationally too, and it is sustainable. We couple it with best practice combined with reducing waste. It’s all about re-educating people and really reducing waste in the supply chain.”
I think they would be more easily re-educated when they hear of his savings. Steve has got minimal energy costs. He tells me, “I looked at another place before I bought this place and it had 10% more rooms. I met the guy who bought it four years later and he was lamenting the cost of his energy. He had an annual bill of £20K, while mine was £6.5K, and since then energy costs have really gone up. There are 20/30 businesses this size on the West coast and to earn the £13.5K difference would mean filling every room for a month, taking out VAT, breakfast, and the other extras. It goes to show that when you do invest in making energy savings it really pays off. You get your money back quickly.” It also helps that the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) a UK Government scheme set up to encourage uptake of renewable heat technologies amongst householders, communities and businesses through financial incentive, contributes 90% of the biomass fuel cost. Says Steve “What’s not to like about it?”
The Glenuig Inn is open every day of the year and offers a full menu until 9pm. It is the only place west of Fort William that is always open. Says Steve, people say ‘I know a place that is always open’, and they come here and they bring friends, then the friends come and bring other friends, and so our business has grown. We have regulars who come back all the time and sometimes who eat the very same thing. I daren’t take it off the menu, and even if I did, I’d still make the dish they requested.”
In a previous life he also owned a Sea Kayaking firm, and today his passion for kayaking continues, and he runs a kayaking venture at Glenuig. Steve is also heavily involved in the local Chamber of Commerce.
However, one of his biggest bugbears is the lack of communication that the area has. He has not been able to a landline call for years, he can’t offer customers Wi-fi, the only broadband comes from a satellite, and they are limited to 25GB, which Steve needs to run the business. Says Steve, “It is a nightmare. We have 8,000 guests a year, aged between 11 and 90, and they have very limited phone signals here, and no wi-fi connection, that’s despite the fibre optic line going past the very end of the road.”
However that apart, the Glenuig Inn Steve describes as “probably one of Scotland’s most accessible rural places.” There’s a reasonable road in, and a train station at Fort William that can take you to London in 8 hours. Just as well because Karen, Steve’s partner, has recently joined him at Arisaig, and is running her own PR business, and she has clients all over the UK. Her speciality is doing Environmental and Sustainability PR. She met Steve when she came to Glenuig with friends on a walking holiday and she and Steve discovered they had a lot in common.
Steve may be all about renewable energy, one thing is for certain, he is definitely not short on energy in any aspect but now he has decided to turn his hand to a new project, and has put Glenuig Inn on the market. He says, “ When I bought the Inn nearly 10 years ago, I was looking for a building to test proof of concept’ regarding waste and energy. Having proved it works and created an exciting destination with many repeat customers, it has exceeded my expectations. We’ve recently employed a new Chef to develop our menu to better reflect seasonality and enhance our brand; consequently the Inn is a great growth opportunity… and my plans for the future? I’d like to continue to create sustainable businesses and I’ve yet more interesting concepts I’d like to develop”