Talking to Cafe Gandolfi’s Seumas MacInnes makes you smile more than frown. He’s the effervescent personality that’s been the energy, single driving force and face of this Glasgow institution on the city’s Candleriggs for over two decades, ever since he bought out former partner Iain Mackenzie 23 years ago. Seumas also runs Gandolfi Fish a couple of doors down, which he opened in 2007.
The two of us caught up in Cafe Gandolfi on a bank holiday Monday afternoon to discuss a diverse range of topics like business rates, a South American crispy ant delicacy, and Canada. The 58-year-old was busying himself making all his customers feel like the most important person in the room before we got down to business.
We kicked things off by discussing a topic that’s close to Seumas’s heart – rates. More pointedly the unfair discrimination against licensees by rates assessors. He’s been a vocal supporter of the Fairer Rates for All movement, and all in his typical upbeat fashion because he is ever-hopeful that the movement will stimulate a groundswell of support from within the industry to affect change that results in a fairer rates assessment procedure for Scottish licensees and restaurateurs.
For those of you that are unfamiliar with the Fairer Rates For All movement, it’s a collective made up from Scotland’s hospitality industry including industry bodies, licensees and restaurateurs who all came together at a meeting in Glasgow recently to agitate for change. So far the collective has agreed to launch a crowdfunding campaign in order to bring pressure to bear upon the rates assessor to devise a fairer rates system before hospitality businesses start folding in a climate where no appeals are being upheld.
Said Seumas, “Scotland has just been voted the world’s most beautiful country for a second time and we need to feed the tourists. It’s in nobody’s interest that my business closes, likewise other businesses that are feeling the pinch. The whole thing is a slow process and this fight for fairer rates is not a Glasgow problem, it’s nationwide. Historically this industry isn’t known as one that pulls together, but with margins getting smaller, things are getting a lot tougher and now is the time for the whole trade to throw its weight behind this.”
He continued, “My restaurants are in my DNA and I’m happy to work six days a week, but for the first time in 40 years I have considered selling because all I do is collect taxes. My rates have increased by £75,000, so who the hell is going to buy me if I did decide that I wanted out.”
“That’s why it’s so important that we group together, which is why this crowdfunding idea is so important.”
This is all a far cry from when he first started out at the restaurant as a kitchen porter in 1979, but as he was peeling potatoes and washing pots, aged just 18, he always harboured one burning ambition.
He explained, “I always wanted to own my own restaurant and suddenly got caught up in the industry. After two years I applied for the manager’s role and got it.
“About six years later I remortgaged my flat and became a junior partner with Iain Mackenzie. Iain is a photographer (Gandolfi is an Italian make of camera and there’s one on display in the restaurant). He is from Arran and I am from Barra, so we were two Hebrideans working in an Italian-sounding restaurant.
“Another six years passed before Iain allowed me to buy him out. And I still maintain that the only reason he allowed me to take on the business is that he knew how passionate I was about it 23 years ago, and I am still that passionate about it today.”
He continued, “ I went straight into the kitchen after Iain left but it soon became clear that I was needed front of house. Customers like to see the owner, so I don’t chef nowadays. I also input on the menus – I couldn’t bear not to.”
I felt compelled to ask Seumas for his view on what makes a good restaurateur because he is such a Mine Host, as well as any shifts in customers’ habits and expectations that he may have observed. He said, “Nowadays it entails a lot of fire-fighting and following your intuition of course, and especially when it comes to knowing when to talk to customers and when not to talk. Luckily I’m helped in all of this by the fact that we have a large repeat customer base, so I establish a real rapport with our guests over time.”
He continued, “I think that customer’s appetites and eating and drinking habits have changed. Younger people are drinking less and smoking less and are of course a lot more health conscious.”
And is there anybody from the industry that Seumas admires and would like to meet? “I’d say Chef Anton Mosimann because he always fascinates me. But there are loads of new chefs doing brilliant stuff in Scotland’s kitchens, as well as terrific operators of course. Take Mhairi Taylor at Delizique. She’s doing a fabulous job and has so much energy.
Likewise John MacLeod at the Crabshakk, Giovanna Eusebi, Ryan James at Two Fat Ladies and Jonathan MacDonald at the Ox and Finch. Over in Edinburgh I really enjoy 21212 and Timber Yard. I’ve also got to hand it to Paul Stevenson at Paesano Pizza because he’s made such a success of such a simple idea and executed it with so much style.”
Cafe Gandolfi is very much a family-run business and he’s not the only member of the MacInnes family working their magic in the restaurants. Said Seumas, “ My son Alasdair chefs in Cafe Gandolfi while my other son Donald is the manager of Gandolfi Fish. In one sense they are under more pressure because they’re my kids, but I think it’s great that this is still a family-run business and this is very important to me.”
I was lucky to catch Seumas for this interview because he was jetting off to Toronto the next day.
He explained, “I’m off to Toronto to see my daughter, Sileas. She’s working at Soho House in Toronto, a members’ club. We also hope to visit Quebec and Ontario while we’re there.”
Seumas is used to travelling quite extensively when he’s not working because he was also enthusing about a recent trip to Sao Paulo in Brazil, to visit another family member. He explained, “I visited my older sister in Sao Paolo in November and she took us to a restaurant there called D.O.M. Oh my god. I don’t necessarily want to always to eat at this level but this place really blew me away. The theatre of it all. The whole experience really fed my love of food.”
. I had to ask if he brought any of it back with him by way of inspiration. “No really. It’s impressive but I couldn’t replicate it here. I can’t get supplies from the Amazon for starters, plus I’m not quite sure how well crispy ants would go down with my guests. They kind of don’t really taste of anything incidentally. It’s best described as a crunch”
Is cooking in Seumas’s blood? “My mum was very interested in food but we were also lucky enough to live next door to a couple that had no kids, so they used to take me and my siblings (he’s one of five and I am the middle child, but not sure whether or not I exhibit that syndrome) out to eat.
“From about the age of 12 I was treated to dinner out in all these fabulous Glasgow restaurants like Malmaison and Le Fouquet, which was part of Central Station. They also took us to The Colonial and La Bonne Auberge. I suppose as one of five it was never gonna happen that my parents would’ve taken us.”
As we parted company Seamus went back to what he was born to do – welcome another surge of Bank Holiday customers into the restaurant, followed by finishing off packing for his Canada trip.