Cru Holdings MD Scott Murray feels that government has treated Scottish hospitality appallingly during the COVID Crisis. He met with Jason Caddy recently to also discuss what the new restrictions have meant for his seven Inverness pubs, how he has lost respect for Nicola Sturgeon, and how the numbers and the evidence just don’t add up to the closing down of pubs and restaurants.
Scott Murray’s opinions are as strong as his drive for maintaining excellence during these tough times across his seven-strong Inverness pub portfolio that employs 100 people. But out of Bar One, Angels Share, Scotch & Rye, The Keg, Prime Steak & Seafood, The Classroom, and Mix’d, three are closed with the rest operating a hugely reduced service. Most of his staff are furloughed.
The Saturday before we spoke also saw the biggest downturn in his numbers since March – achieving just 12% to 15% of what they would normally expect to take on a Saturday in October, but he still wants to maintain a presence for the sake of his loyal customers and staff morale. They will also be lucky to cover staff costs in the venues that remain open, despite continual investments like a 30-capacity beer garden, blankets, and hot water bottles for customers in Prime Steak & Seafood.
Scott admits that he doesn’t tend to get too emotional about business and comes across as controlled, professional and well read. He prefers to channel any negative energy into finding solutions but this situation is nevertheless testing even his limits. And while acknowledging it’s tough at the top, he’s lost all respect for Nicola Sturgeon and her government’s treatment of hospitality businesses during the COVID crisis.
He said, “First of all, I have to say that she has a very difficult job and it’s very easy to sit here and say this is what you should have done and I’ll be honest, I would have done the same as she did up until very recently, except for tougher penalties for those who breach the lockdown restrictions perhaps.
“But now it appears that common sense and evidence are no longer playing a role and this is where she and the Scottish government has gone wrong lately. If the evidence is pointing in one way don’t ignore it, and this is where she’s lost my respect as a leader.
“We are the most regulated licensed industry in the world – there’s no safer place to be and I think the restrictions are misguided. The numbers speak for themselves and I don’t know where she’s getting her data. They’ve basically agreed with everything the hospitality industry has said and then done the opposite – like household gatherings being a much bigger problem than pubs. Right OK, so what are you going to do about it? I tell you what we’re going to shut pubs. Where’s the sense in that?”
“Hospitality opened in July, no major surge in cases. August no major surge in cases. There’s been no reduction in cases since the 10 pm curfew or the other restrictions like the ban on background music. What did happen before the surge? Schools and universities opened. Yet they still bring it all back to pubs. I just think that this opens the door to what the agenda really is.”
Scott says that the numbers just don’t add up where the £40 million pot for struggling pubs is concerned either. He said, “What also stuck in my throat is when she said that she didn’t have the resource to police rogue operators, and while she acknowledged that the majority of us had spent tens of thousands of pounds making safe our venues, she then told us that she was going to shut us down anyway – oh and that they’d found £40 million to do it. This money will put 16,00 police on the street for a year but she doesn’t have the resource to police house parties either. I feel she’s lost control. “
Scott feels that more and more regulations being piled on top of what is already a highly regulated industry smack of the nanny state and will only serve to drive alcohol sales underground and encourage a free-for-all.
He explained, “You can go into a supermarket and pick up some bananas that someone else has just picked up, no track and trace, go on public transport, go to gyms, but I can’t have a glass of wine with my lunch.
“It’s treating us and customers like school children. It’s like prohibition all over again and if you look at prohibition, it was 13 years of the violent crime rate increasing because of the opportunity handed to organised crime because of the rules of supply and demand that have been around since the Romans. People want to drink, and you take it away, they will find it somewhere, and if you take it away from the licensed, then the unlicensed come in to fill that gap. If they don’t have the resource to deal with house parties how are they going to deal with organised crime? Sounds far fetched I know, but this is the road that we are on and people are already selling alcohol to houses and I don’t like the way this is heading.”
He hasn’t always lacked optimism during the whole COVID crisis though – and while admitting that lockdown was a roller coaster for him personally, he nevertheless had hope back then.
He said, “I started out with a very positive outlook trying to see what the opportunities were and when we knew that it was going to be three months and you could make a plan around that.
“But now it’s harder and harder to keep that positive hue on things because you don’t know what’s next. It’s completely outwith your own control as well. I have always said, ‘live and die by my own mistakes’ and when decision making is taken away from me it’s quite hard to be beholden to somebody else.
“We have a 100 staff that rely on us to pay their mortgages and rents and as much as through lockdown we were able to post videos and give them updates, you can’t do that now because as soon as you’ve given them the update it’s probably out of date.”
Scott started the business in 2009 and brother Grant whose role has just changed is also involved, as is lifelong friend Ken Loades.
He said, “Grant was multi-site manager looking after Scotch and Rye and Bar One and then he moved into a more managerial role, overseeing purchasing until recently. Since lockdown he’s running Mix’d full time because it’s become such a big beast and needs this level of concentration. You can’t just dip in and out of it. Ken Loades was my first ever head chef, with me since day one, and is invaluable in helping me look after the day to day operation of the business.”
Scott’s customer service ethos is strong and he has been strongly influenced by what has seen on his frequent travels to Asia with wife Sarah and the couple also have a home in Thailand. He’s also a big scuba diving fan.
“We took a lot of customer service from our travels in Asia and brought it back to our businesses. It’s a different class of service over there. Nothing is too much trouble. If the waiter sees a customer is running low on cigarettes, for example, they will go and get them some more. They just know how to get it right without a fuss. We have tried to bring this ethos back to the business.
“I’ve always said ‘look after the customer first and profit will follow’. Even if you make a loss on something, if you make that customer happy the returns will be three-fold. If someone had a bad time and the right thing is to spend money to fix it then that’s what you do. Happy customers tell other people and there’s nothing clever about this, but it’s true. It’s the same with our staff. We have an open-door policy and during lockdown, we set up a hardship fund and we stepped in with a no-strings grant for a few of them that struggled to pay rent and bills.”
So how did it all start for Scott who is originally from Morayshire and whose father was in the RAF?
“I left school and started my first hospitality job at the age of 14 as a kitchen porter and loved it. That’s when I first got the bug for cheffing – at The Kimberley Inn, Findhorn. The same guy still has it now, John Hessel, and he had it long before I worked there.
“Then John opened a café bar and I worked there once I left school. It had the first proper coffee machine in Forres and during the opening week I remember everybody being hyped up on espresso because they were so used to instant coffee. We were all very proud of it and it got cleaned down and serviced better than our houses did.
“Following a spot in banking, I went to work for Hilton Hotels as a training and development manager for a cluster of its hotels. After I was made redundant I moved into operations and loved it. In my first fortnight, I made sure I spent a day in every department to see how it was done and fell back in love with the hospitality industry really – apart from housekeeping. I wasn’t very good at that. I don’t know how they do it. It’s an art. I did this job for three years.
“Then I met a guy in a pub, as you do, and he happened to be a business development manager for a Pubco and he asked me if I’d be interested in taking on The Aberlour Hotel on a short term lease that they were struggling to find a tenant for just to see them through, so I did that. I wouldn’t say that I made a great success of it but I learned a lot of lessons very quickly before they eventually found a permanent tenant.”
It was then that Scott moved to Inverness and after a few short-term pub leases for breweries, he came across the site in 2008 of what would eventually become his first outlet, Bar One.
Back to the future and when does Scott see the COVID situation ending and would an expansion of the business beyond the confines of Inverness be on his radar once this is all behind us?
“We’ll be out of this in March, and I don’t know if this is because this is the end of the financial year and we all want to believe it won’t go beyond this point. I think we’ll have another big spike after which it will level out and we will learn to live with it like we always do. I don’ see COVID ever truly going away if I’m honest.
“As for expanding beyond Inverness, we tried it once before and we made mistakes. We were probably too consumed with the idea of moving outside Inverness and becoming more than just a Highland operator and were so focussed on this that we didn’t actually focus on what the opportunity was. Ultimately, we’d like to do something with Scotch & Rye brand and open more of them across Scotland but right now it’s all about consolidation, and ensuring the survival of our business and our teams.”