Licensee interview: Emma and Andy MacSween

IMG 0494

Emma and Andy MacSween head up Glasgow’s Ralph & Finns bar and restaurant. Jason Caddy caught up with the married couple as they digested the news that City of Glasgow was about to go into tier four lockdown.


Glasgow’s Ralph & Finns is close to the hearts of co-managers Emma and Andy MacSween. Not only were they married there in 2018 during its former life as Urban Brasserie but Emma’s dad Alan Tomkins, winner of this year’s Scottish Bar & Pub awards Lifetime Achievement, owns it as well as another four venues in the city so it truly is a family affair. Emma and Andy are now also making an equally as long-term commitment to the newly refurbished St Vincent Street venue and looking forward to a post-Covid future when eleventh-hour closures are no longer a thing.

Said Emma, “Finding out on a Tuesday that they are closing you on a Friday has all sorts of implications, plus we were starting to get a glimpse of good things to come.  Saturday was busy and full of atmosphere. It was just a shame that we to chuck them all out the door at 6 pm – and here we go again with another lockdown and having to close down at the drop of a hat as we’re moved to tier four.”

Said Andy, “I wouldn’t fancy being in Nicola Sturgeon’s shoes but she hasn’t been very clear on where we’re going next. We had a really clear roadmap in the summer, like opening up in stages, but we are not sure what is happening tomorrow and that fills us with anxiety over what food to order and whether the staff are going to have shifts this weekend. But it’s nothing the government has come across before so it’s been really good work done, but I also think that sometimes the planning and the sharing with businesses could have been better.

“We have decided to take the long-term view here and this is a 10 to 15-year commitment for both of us and we are optimistic about the future of the business.  Family life is so important for us all, Alan included, and that was part of the process behind working together, that it would make family life easier.”

Emma added, “In a few years we’ll have something else to talk about so I’m remaining upbeat. Life is so short.”

Emma and Andy have also been managing customer confusion on top of all the demands of what is effectively a new business with a brand new layout and aesthetic.

Said Emma, “We’re facing a full tier-four closure but even tier three is very challenging and you can see that in the city centre most venues haven’t even bothered to open. It’s like you can open, but you can’t really, and that’s quite sad.

“It has all trickled on a bit what with the café/restaurant confusion and then the tiers and I think that the customer has every right to be confused unless they are living and breathing this stuff. Can we come in at night? Can we have a drink?  These are the questions we’ve been hit with and the average customer doesn’t go to a pub between 12 and 6 for a soft drink with a meal either.”

And all this begs the question, what made them decide on a complete refurbishment of an established Glasgow institution AND during a pandemic?

Said Emma, “We are aware that we have opened a new restaurant at a bizarre time but we didn’t open for Covid, we opened for our future and I think that deep down we knew that we needed to make some changes plus there are so many new kids on the block opening up all the time that you’ve got to keep up.

Said Andy, “We did debate whether we should open or not, and what came out of the discussion was that we had to get going and remain positive and we deal with what is thrown at us.

“When else are we going to get five months to make changes like these? This was the right time to develop it into Ralph & Finns and even though some might say that this is a crazy time to open a restaurant, we know that we are not going to be able to hit the ground running, we are thinking about what position are we going to be in next year and working together is going to make family life easier for us next year.

“Customers are seeing the same faces because we were able to bring nearly all our staff back from furlough and so already there’s that sense of familiarity that you don’t usually get from a new restaurant when it first opens.  Regulars feel relaxed immediately when they get recognised. Urban was a special occasion venue but we want to make this a lot more casual and drop in with a bar focus.”

“Urban Brasserie was busy and there were so many loyal customers and at times like Christmas it had such a great atmosphere and I think that the big push was that we were shut anyway so this was our chance being closed for all this time to make the changes.“

The fact that all of their staff came back bar one also sped up the process for the couple.

Andy explained, “A lot of our staff are as emotionally invested in the place as we are. They have been here for so long, like Mick Cooper our kitchen manager – he’s been here since day one. Head chef John Paul Lappin has also worked for Alan since he was a teenager – nearly 20 years now.

It was only one manager that went to work elsewhere and every single other member of the team came back through the door after furlough.

Said Andy, “It was really good to have them all back and they were all super-excited. This meant they all fell into working with one another with only two days of training.

Emma added, “That’s the biggest stress when you open a restaurant. You have got a whole new team and no one knows each other and so not having this to deal with and organise was great.”

Alan Tomkins’ portfolio also includes Glasgow wine bar Vroni’s, which was closed when we spoke, and Ollie’s, which was offering a takeaway service, and Emma has managed both outlets – as well as online wine shop

Said Emma, “All of my dad’s other pubs were closed in tier three and it’s a shame because at this time of year Vroni’s would normally be heating up, dark nights, coming in after shopping, works nights out, so I feel quite sad. That bar was always about three-deep at Christmas and that now seems so long ago.”

Emma started working for her father in Vroni’s before opening Ollie’s on the city’s Nithsdale Road in 2014 and she also runs, while Andy worked for Alan a decade ago and following working with Jonathan MacDonald at Glasgow’s Ox and Finch and Ka Pao in the interim, returning to the family business last month.

Continued Emma, “My dad had wineorama in 1999 during the dot-com boom and we brought it back in lockdown because we had stock on the shelves and that went quite quickly so we brought in more stock. It was quite good fun and crazily busy at the beginning and when we went live my sister Lara and I made the website and did the costings and sent out an email blast and we had all these wine orders the next morning. It was really busy for the first few months and then we got into a regular rhythm with lots of loyal customers. We are just about to go UK delivery wide this week, and this takes the heat off me, mum Hazel and dad delivering all the wine.  It was all hands to the pumps, apart from the five family dogs of course.

And Andy enjoyed it too. He said, “It was a great lockdown project because we got to drive all around Glasgow for five hours at a time and got to know people. In the early stated they hadn’t seen anyone so we were stood at the door for 15 minutes chatting.

Said Emma, “ We also opened Ollie’s for takeaways during lockdown and I think that this was wonderful for the community who could come in for a coffee and chat and some cake and we sold the wine through there too, so we tried to make the most of our time off and it was a bit of a shock when they said, okay, you can reopen now. Ollie’s is my baby.”

How did they meet and how are they finding living and working together?

Explained Emma, “Andy worked at Urban over ten years ago and so we sort of knew each other then, plus I was always trying to get a table at the Ox and Finch – the place you could never get a table at. And we ended up permanently bumping into one another at work-related events.

Said Andy, “I didn’t think that when I worked here ten years ago that I’d come full circle and be married to the owner’s daughter.”

What is their working dynamic like and how do they complement one another?

“We get on very well and come in together and go home together and we also cover each other’s days off so we have our own space as well,” said Emma.

“I like to be under tremendous pressure and make it up as I go along which I don’t think Andy enjoys that much because he is very organised.  I think that’s when you perform at your best.  Andy remembers a lot about customers. He’ll remember they were gluten-free and people love it. But we both love speaking to people and don’t want to be stuck behind a desk.”

The couple also feel that there’ll be a surge in interest in hospitality because customers will be champing at the bit to get out again once Covid is behind us. Said Emma, “We do feel optimistic about it because as much as it’s been a challenge, everybody we are speaking to is missing going out to the pub, missing dining out more than ever and I think this was all taken for granted and once this Covid wall has been broken down, there’ll be a flurry of demand and making up for last year and so we just need to get there.

“At the beginning of lockdown we had the end of the year to look forward to but now I don’t think people are making any plans until they know so when that starts to kick back in and people can start to look forward to the end of the month and planning, it will be a very good thing. Customers are missing hospitality, whether it’s where they buy their coffee or go to the pub on a Monday night after work.  All these things are so important.

Said Andy, “Yes, cancelled weddings and birthday celebrations.  There’s a lot of making up to do.”

Emma also hopes that this situation might also result in a change in people’s perceptions of hospitality.  She said, “I hope there’ll be a shift in perceptions and see it as skilled work. The term unskilled that I have heard bandied about is horrible. Every job requires skill.

Said Andy, “There’s been a real drive of small independents that have done well in Glasgow like Café Strange Brew and Julie’s Kopitiam. These people got small units, worked hard, and now they are looking for bigger places to meet the demand. That shows people can flourish even when times are hard.

Said Emma,  “That being said, chains provide a lot of the jobs so we don’t want them to go. There’s room for everyone in this trade.”

Away from the job, Andy, who is originally from Inverness is a keen cyclist while Emma loves horses.

“I love cycling. I spent my whole lockdown cycling. Sometimes I can’t be bothered and then five hours later, I’ve had the best day and it’s free,” said Andy.

Emma added, “I’ve not found my love for cycling yet. I’m a very keen horse rider and I have been riding since I was 5 or 6. Then took a break from it and then got back into it. Nothing too crazy. Competing at any level is extremely time-consuming and we are both now really focussed on the business.”