Licensee Interview: Iain & Fiona Dempster

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JASON CADDY IN CONVERSATION WITH IAIN AND FIONA DEMPSTER OF THE HORSESHOE INN, PEEBLES – A FINALIST IN THE CRITICS’ CHOICE CASUAL DINING AWARD CATEGORY AT THIS YEAR’S SCOTTISH BAR AND PUB AWARDS.

 

Iain and Fiona Dempster acquired the lease on The Horseshoe Inn, Peebles, in May 2018. They’ve spent just shy of £100K on a refurbishment, including upgrading its eight rooms.

And you might say that this couple was destined for success. They first met 25 years ago when Iain was licensee at Bar Sirius in Leith. Fiona was a regular but they were both in relationships so the stars weren’t aligned and it just wasn’t their time to come together either personally or in business. Fast forward 15 years and after meeting at a gig they married two years ago. They now live on-site at The Horseshoe as part of the lease-purchase agreement with freeholder, Borders Steel Works.

Iain is originally from Penicuik, Fiona from Joppa, Edinburgh, and the pub is actually in a wee village called Eddleston, just outside Peebles. We chatted over a coffee, and right from the get-go Iain and Fiona were charming, funny, and professional right down to their fingertips.
Fiona brings with her over 25 years hospitality and retail experience, while Iain also has fellow Edinburgh bars The Beau Brummel, The Stage Door, and Finlays under his licensee belt. He also worked as Operations Manager for backpacking hostel company, Beds & Bars, which then gave way to leasing The Leadburn Inn – immediately before Peebles beckoned.

Said Iain, “The Horseshoe opportunity came up when we were ready to move on from The Leadburn, so the timing was perfect. We’ve worked hard to build up the business at The Horseshoe in the last couple of years and, touch wood we have been received very favourably in the village. We have priced ourselves very favourably and inclusively as a Scottish country pub. Take today. We have 50 booked in for lunch and that’s not unusual.”

He continued, “It was operating as a fine dining restaurant, for 15 years – and we are talking £100 per head and most people needed a chippie afterwards. But back in the day it was a great pub and that’s what we have taken it back to and people have been beating down our door since we opened. The village was effectively without a pub because customers weren’t allowed in for just a drink, so I guess that they’re glad to have an accessible Horseshoe back again”

So what changes have they made? Said Iain, “Inside, we have added a lot of reclaimed furniture from the likes of eBay, like the pews from a place in London called Toad Hall and into which are carved some of the characters from the books. It’s all quite quirky.”

Were they in agreement about The Horseshoe being the right move for them? Said Fiona, “We just knew as soon as we walked into the place that it was the right place we were looking for – what we had been looking for for some time in fact. Once we got the keys, we decorated the bar and the rooms and the next stage of the refurbishment is the bathrooms. We did think at the time, ‘are we doing the right thing?’ and ‘who’s going to come and stay?’ But it’s worked out so much better than we ever could have hoped for. Business clients, couples – we get a wide range of guests, and from as far-flung places as Australia and New Zealand. And they usually always come in for dinner and a few pints.
“We also get a lot of business from the nearby Barony Castle. Oftentimes they’re staying there but prefer the bar here, and then the next time they come to stay in the area they choose to stay with us.”

As for Fiona’s background, she also has a wealth of customer-facing experience on her CV. She explained, “I worked on cruise ships in my 20s, for Cunard on the QE2 and on Tall Ships in the Caribbean, primarily on the bars. It was a great way to see the world but I couldn’t do it now. Then I worked in retail for 20 years, running a clothes shop in Edinburgh. I know the value of good staff and we have 20 of them at The Horseshoe, many of whom have been with us a long time, plus returning students at holidays.”

Iain has been in the trade since the age of 22 and lays claim to being somewhat of a trail-blazer back in the day. He explained, “I started at Tennent’s back in 1989, and back then I was Tennent’s Taverns’ youngest licensee when I managed pubs for them.”

What has been the biggest change in the trade in all the time that he’s been operating pubs? Said Iain, “In this village, we’re it. We have to make it work for the locals as well as being a destination for food. Things have changed a lot since my Beau Brummel days. All I had to do then was open the door, put the signs out and it was busy. Nowadays it’s very much a case of pub-bad. And it’s up to us to turn this perception around. Fiona is more front of house and she makes it look so easy, yet there’s such a skill to it, and whatever ‘it’ is she has it in spades.

“And it’s so important that everybody feels looked after because there’s been too much demonisation of the trade in recent years. Supermarkets were using alcohol as a loss leader and then people would pre-load and then go out with the licensee getting it in the neck.”
“Plus our costs go up and up, and it’s hard to retain margins without alienating the customer. We use local suppliers and our meat and veg can be traced back to the field.”

But there have also been some constants from his career that he still employs to this day. Said Iain, “The Beau Brummel was my first pub. It was a Tennent’s managed house and this was a great learning curve and I got fantastic support from the likes of Karen Forrester, who I believe is now MD of TGI Fridays, and Paul Burns our area manager, who’s since retired. I was the doorman for three years before becoming a licensee.”

“It was more of a coaching environment rather than a classroom one and I carried this on over the years in my pubs. The Stage Door and Finlays, both were incredibly busy venues. I was sent to The Stage Door to clean it up even though I wasn’t all that keen on it at the time. It was what I call an ‘old school’ clean up. I had an ex-SAS doorman who could talk the hind leg of a donkey.”

He continued, “Then, in 1995, I opened Bar Sirius in Leith with head chef James Harrison, who I worked with until I sold it in 2005. He went away and did his own thing. After I sold Sirius I worked for Beds and Bars as Ops Manager across Europe.
Then, when I took on the lease at The Leadburn Inn, West Linton in 2013, I phoned him up and said ‘what you up to?’ and he said ‘when do I start? James controls the engine room (kitchen) at The Horseshoe now. The plan had always been to buy when The Horseshoe lease came up for grabs.”

He continued, “The locals are delighted with what we have done. One member of the community council said, ‘a village needs three things: a school, a kirk, and a pub and now we have all three.”

They’re also very hands-on when it comes to social media, and, incidentally, they were very popular the last time they graced the DRAM’s Facebook page, with a great many of you liking and commenting on the post.

Said Iain, “The tills report directly to my phone and we also both do our social media. I likewise know the importance of good publicity.”

What do they do away from the job and the glare of the trade press? Said Iain, “We spend seven days here and have to go away to get away. We are just back from a cruise that took in Vancouver, Victoria, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and L.A.”

Said Fiona, “We like going to the Bakehouse restaurant in West Linton. We also like to just grab something to eat when we go to a gig. I also really like The Grill on the Corner in Glasgow. We’re off to see Rod Stewart at the end of the month, which I’m looking forward to.”

And speaking of music, Iain is also the bass player in a heavy metal band called Medusa Touch – and they were signed by a record label last year and Fiona shares this passion for music too. Crikey, if it wasn’t for that gig they wouldn’t have found each other again and the trade would be one great bar-restaurant down.

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