Janne Johansson has been a Gulf war hostage, slept out under the stars in Glasgow’s George Square and worked in more countries than I’ve had hot dinners. But Scotland is the place this native Swede calls home and where he runs the Mussel Inn with partners Anthony Walford and Walter Spiers. In fact, they’re celebrating 20 years of operating success, now employ 50 staff, and have a turnover of £2m, split across The Mussel Inn Edinburgh, on Rose Street, and its Glasgow counterpart, on Hope Street.
Welcoming yet self-contained and businesslike, Janne gave off a modesty and a certain reluctance to talk about himself at the start of our interview, yet he soon let me into his well-travelled world during our very relaxed chat tucked away at the back of Glasgow’s Mussel Inn as the lunchtime trade waned.
The first thing I put to Janne was a question about how customer’s appetites have changed over the last 20 years. He told me, “Mussels weren’t at all popular in Scotland when we first started out, but now, with all the health consciousness that’s around, people can’t seem to get enough of them. In one year we sell 65,000 oysters and 40 tonnes of mussels. We’re supplied by the Scottish Shellfish Marketing Group of Mussel Farmers from Oban right up to Shetland, all on the west coast. That’s why we have them all year round. We’ve actually only been without mussels once in 20 years, for two weeks.”
This is also a family business and Janne prides himself on developing family as well as non-family members of staff. Explained Janne, “I have three sons. Matt who’s Food and Beverage Manager and Glasgow GM. Kristian is Executive Chef across both restaurants. My other son Andreas is in Australia.
We like to develop all staff equally – Kristian started off as a kitchen porter and so did Matt and our head chef has been with us for 11 years and he started off as a kitchen porter.” He added, “Seafood is a quick thing to cook and learn. It has its own flavours that are merely enhanced by the cooking process.”
So what first brought Janne to Scotland? He smiled and said, “It was 1976 and I saw an ad in a paper in Sweden saying that McTavish’s in Fort William was looking for a pastry chef. I just phoned up and the owner and he said ‘come over’. I travelled from Felixstowe to Glasgow and there was no connection to Fort William until the next day, and at that time George Square was beautifully carpeted in grass, so I decided to sleep there and catch the train in the morning. A policeman came over to me and I explained what I was doing and he said ‘stay here, I’ll watch over you’ and this is when I fell in love with Scotland.”
Before he came to Scotland Janne also worked on cruise ships as a pastry chef. “I started out working for Swedish-American cruise liners in 1973 as a pastry chef. I spent a year in South America in 1975 travelling around the place. This was such a wonderful time in my life. At that time you were allowed to camp up on Machu Picchu because there were no controls like there are today,” he explained.
In terms of his being schooled in hospitality, Janne had a first-class ‘apprenticeship’ while on-board ship and he brought this ethos with him to dry land and his shellfish restaurant business. “When I worked for Swedish-American cruises, there were 500 crew and 500 passengers, so there was one crew member per passenger, so the customer service really was first-class. We did an eight-day stretch out on the Atlantic and there was nowhere to go – just the cabin or the mess. I work many hours, so always had a little extra to see the world when I was on leave,” he said.
But, as Janne went onto explain, and like all good things, his cruising days came to an end. “The cruise liner was sold to Panama Flag Shipping Company, so 99 per cent of the crew were signed off. Back home in Sweden, I found it very hard to settle down. This was when I went for the Fort William job. The job was seasonal, and so they asked me to carry on at McIntosh’s in Oban. This is where I met my wife Lorna, who is from Oban.”
So how was the Mussel Inn born? “After cruising I was based in Scotland with a young family and worked for a Lebanese company called Abert Abela. They sent me to work in Dhaka in Bangladesh, where I headed up the airport catering.”
He also worked in Iraq and was there when the first Gulf War broke out. He said, “I was effectively held hostage there for six months because I was Production Manager for catering at the airport in Baghdad when war was declared. They kept announcing people’s names over the speakers and Iraqis kept disappearing, then the Germans were sent home, then the Americans. This is when Iraq invaded Kuwait.
He continued, “There were no flights, roadblocks etc. so I couldn’t go anywhere and my movements were severely restricted in other ways. I think that it was much much worse for my family back home though. It wasn’t really all that scary for me because there were too many journalists buzzing about, plus I was staying in The Palestine Hotel where most of them were also staying. It didn’t feel like war at all, although we were stockpiling food just in case things escalated. I was eventually allowed to leave two weeks before Christmas.”
This job also saw him start a new operation in Athens as well as spending time in Romania, China, and Moscow.
He said, “In 1998 two friends of mine, Anthony Walford, a scallop farmer, and Walter Spiers, a mussel farmer, phoned me while
I was in Moscow. They had an idea. Instead of sending seafood to Spain and France they wanted to get Scots to eat it. And that’s where the idea of the Mussel Inn came from.
“We opened Edinburgh’s Mussel Inn on Rose Street first, which was followed by the Glasgow Hope Street restaurant two years later. Anthony and Walter are still sleeping partners in the business.”
I asked Janne if there were any business differences between the Glasgow and Edinburgh operations. He said, “Both businesses are doing very well, but I feel that we are one street removed from where we should be in Glasgow. It is, however, a stunningly beautiful building. Glasgow is fairly steady the whole year round with a peak in August and February for Valentine’s. However, in Edinburgh during the festival, we sell one-tonne-and-a-bit of mussels per week. We can easily do 500 covers in one day, 60 inside and 30 outside when it’s not raining.”
But there are challenges for the Mussel Inn, explained Janne, “Business challenges are forever-rising costs, like ingredients of course. Plus rates are an absolute killer. There are so many empty places as a result of those crippling charges and this doesn’t look good in Glasgow – or anywhere for that matter. I also think that Brexit is going to make it harder to get staff.”
But I’ve got a feeling that, and just like their hardy little namesake with its protective shell, clinging on no matter what and seeing off predators, these restaurants will still be holding their own in the sea of Scottish restaurants for another 20 years.