COLIN CLYDESDALE AND CAROL WRIGHT ARE CELEBRATING 25 YEARS OF MAKING STRAVAIGIN ONE OF GLASGOW’S BEST-LOVED BAR-RESTAURANTS. JASON CADDY MARKED THE OCCASION BY MEETING THEM FOR A CONVERSATION THAT TOUCHED ON THE BUSINESS, BEING FOREVER FOODIES, AND RHODODENDRONS.
Jogging Colin Clydesdale’s memory about the first time I interviewed him back in the days when he and wife Carol Wright owned The Liquid Ship on Great Western Road prompted the response “is that before I started dying my hair and beard silver?’ And his setting a silver tone to the interview is synchronicity showing off, this being Stravaigin’s 25th (silver) anniversary. As well as this Gibson Street institution, Colin and Carol are also the combined force behind The Ubiquitous Chip on Ashton Lane and The Hanoi Bike Shop on Ruthven Lane.
We chatted on the mezzanine in Stravaigin and it was all very relaxed and friendly, and after a few reminiscences about when Stravaigin was The Spaghetti Factory, I got down to business by asking them how they were planning to mark the occasion. Said Colin, “We’re having a small party downstairs to celebrate with some of the people that have helped shape Stravaigin over the years, staff and customers.”
He continued, “Stravaigin has been self-fulfilling. When we opened it, it was a space in which we felt comfortable, and other people shared this vision and came back again and again and the business grew. “When people say ‘what’s your demographic?’, I say, ‘adults that are comfortable with themselves and, possibly, like us, aren’t interested in fads or fashions’.”
Will they be raising the bunting and the banners and trumpeting the 25th, apart from in this interview of course? “No”, said Colin. “Mainly in case we offend anybody that we’ve forgotten.”
I had to ask the obvious question: Does it feel like 25 years or has it whizzed by? Said Carol, “Once I start remembering then, yes, it does, then again, when I think back to finishing a 16-hour shift and then having to paint some stairs with gold Hammerite, then, no, it doesn’t.
“We were both working 16-hour days, in fact, until our son Ruaraidh was born (who’s off to university shortly) and then we just couldn’t carry on working at this pace any longer. Plus The Liquid Ship happened. Stravaigin 2 happened.”
Colin added, “I have been exposed to millions of customers and staff and got to know a lot of faces, and the weird thing is that I see people on the street that look like how a particular customer did 25 years ago and find myself nearly going up to them to say ‘hello’, when of course it’s not them.”
They say that practice makes perfect, so have things in the hospitality industry got any easier now that they’ve been doing it for a quarter of a century? Said Colin, “It hasn’t got easier – but it’s become more difficult for good reason: quality competition. Keeping yourself ahead of the pack is trickier now. There are many small, independent operators out there that are full of energy and enthusiasm in a way that just wasn’t the case 25 years ago. We’re not as hands-on as we were, but, having said that, I was piping butter 25 minutes ago.
“I was also very aware of when my father (Ronnie Clydesdale) was building up The Ubiquitous Chip, that as kids we didn’t see him very often and I didn’t want that with Ruaraidh. We are still involved in the minutiae, though, as well as the broader stuff.”
They are, rightly, proud of what they have achieved. Said Colin, “I was having dinner in Stravaigin a few months ago with friends on a very busy evening, and it was a lovely evening, I might add. I looked around and I thought if I were to find another Stravaigin in, say, Barcelona or New York I would think that I had found a place that fitted me like a glove. Why? Because that night there were people who were 18 and 72 and everything in between. From all different backgrounds. In that moment I thought to myself that we haven’t done too bad.”
What about more and more bureaucracy getting in the way of doing the job, detracting from why they got into hospitality in the first place?
Does this ring true for the two of them?
Said Carol, “The more people you employ the more the business takes away from why we got into hospitality in the first place – our love of food. It also seems ridiculous to me that we are subject to a rates system that works on the basis of the better your operation the more you are penalised financially.”
Added Colin, “Yes – we didn’t get into this business to talk to the bank, BT, or deliver health and safety briefings. Not only is our sector hammered for rates but there are also things like parking restrictions to consider, too. Customers might think that they can park for free near to Stravaigin after 8 pm when it’s metered right up until 10 pm.”
“But there are some rules and restrictions for the right reasons, too, of course. Like recycling. We are both absolutely pro it but it can be difficult to get the bins out on time,” added Carol.
They also have great staff retention. I recognised a guy that has been with the business for years as soon as I walked in. “That’s Andy. He started with us in Back Alley (the former Stravaigin 2, now the Hanoi Bike Shop). He’s been with us for about 15 years,” explained Carol.
Said Colin, “We also employ students, too, obviously, and I always think that that staff will be with is for six weeks or six years on average.”
What about social media? Do they have much time for it? Said Colin, “It seems to me that it doesn’t matter how many likes we have if it doesn’t correlate to bums on seats. We employ people to do it. I look at my phone first thing in the morning but don’t have time to do all that stuff.” Carol said, “I often can’t even find my phone. Or my glasses.”
Despite this interview being about Stravaigin, we couldn’t not talk about their other concerns, starting with The Chip, the mere mention of which caused Colin to beam. “We’ve been featured in the Good Food Guide every year since The Chip opened in 1971 but this year’s entry was particularly pleasing because it was described as ‘legendary’. It feels good to be a legend like Jimi Hendrix.”
Seven years ago they decided to pull the plug on Stravaigin 2 and open The Hanoi Bike Shop in its place. Why? Carol explained, “We always has an inkling to open a Vietnamese restaurant and one day we were sitting around and it suddenly occurred to us, why are we doing the same food in Stravaigin 2 that we’re doing in Stravaigin? What do we want to do instead? We changed it over a summer and Emily, who works at Stravaigin, began making Vietnamese food in our kitchen.”
Said Colin, “I said to Emily, make it as beautifully scabby as it can be, and she got it. And once we got the menu right as well as the concept, we opened it. We also had a lot of stuff that we had acquired on our travels that didn’t fit the Stravaigin interiors and it just so happened that a lot of it did fit The Hanoi Bike Shop – like a Sri Lankan picture of a woman on a motorcycle carrying oranges.
“We have a warehouse full of treasures that would look bloody good somewhere. We just haven’t worked out where yet.”
What about working together and living together? Are the demarcation lines drawn at work? What’s it like running three units between the two of them?
Said Carol, “I don’t know what it is but all the different units never seem to be able to all work together. Two can be working perfectly well, but one will need to be chivvied along. Finding the right managers and chefs so you can let your business be true to itself (and we can be on a beach in St Tropez 50 weeks of the year!) isn’t easy.”
Colin added, “Carol is more front of house focussed and I’m more kitchen. But there is a crossover at times. And there’s only been one occasion when Carol made me rein in my horns when she threw a jar of catering mustard at me, that missed and hit the wall. But the key is not to bear grudges or dwell on stuff.”
Do they socialise much with other operators? “We came up through the Chip, which was fairly stand-alone. We didn’t bum around working in lots of bars and then get the cash behind us to open a bar. So we don’t know many people in the trade socially.”
Carol and Colin have more than upheld the legacy that was passed to them by Colin’s father, Ronnie Clydesdale, who passed away in 2010 and was arguably Scotland’s first foodie. He was certainly at the front-line when it came to changing the way we eat out.
What do they do to switch off from the business? Colin said, “We don’t really. We were out with Ruaraidh and his girlfriend Sophie on a boat trip and the tide was right to go and harvest seaweed and we fetched back builder’s tubs full of the stuff that all ended up being processed in different ways in the restaurant kitchens. So we’re always thinking about the business, you see.
“We’ve got a place up the west coast which must have a million rhododendrons which I chop down and burn. This is fantastic therapy and beats lying on a beach in St Tropez. Who doesn’t love a bonfire!”
Said Carol, “I did a degree in archaeology when we were still building Straviagin plus I also play the cello. But we both have a passion for cooking that has never faded.”
It’s obvious that Colin and Carol also still have an enthusiasm for hospitality and people, judging by how they both lit up when they bumped into customers as they were showing me out. It was also plain to see how they’ve made the triumph of the last 25 years look so easy.