We talk about this trade being resilient and one person, in my view, who epitomises this is David Davidson. I would give him the title ‘the bounce back king’. He is a perfect example of how you can come back from adversity and thrive.
I have propped quite a few bars up over the years with David, but our interview this time is over zoom, but it was great to catch up, and talk about how his business the ‘Yes to All Group’, established in 2019, is adapting to the current situation, and his plans for the future.
Even if you are not familiar with David, no doubt you will be familiar with some of the pubs he has owned in the past, from Brunswick Cellars to the Budda Group; The Institute in Paisley to Rab Ha’s and the Velvet Rooms in Glasgow. It has certainly been a journey.
He tells me, “I’ve always been a glass-half-full kind of guy. The challenges over the years have made me look a bit more inward, but both of my parents taught me not to give up. Certainly, this has given us all time to reflect on how we deliver hospitality and I think we will come back out of it a better industry. There will be casualties, people that don’t make it through. If you were struggling before the pandemic, it certainly won’t be any easier post-pandemic.”
However, he continues, “The people I am talking to are trying to stay positive, although I have to admit Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement regarding her roadmap didn’t help.”
When hospitality does open David will be introducing a couple of new places The Urbanist in Kilmarnock and a still to be named Dumbarton venue on the site of the former Clipper. They join Barga in Paisley (which did open just before lockdown but which has since had a revamp) and The Cardross Inn, with got very involved with the local community over lockdown with Operation Steak Pie– which was crowd funded and which provided food to vulnerable people in community.
To give you an idea of the sort of man he is, you only have to look at just some of the guys that have worked for him over the years – Fergus McVicar, Mark Lappin, Mal Spence and James Rusk, all of whom have gone to become very successful licensed trade movers and shakers. I hesitated there – if I had used the word entrepreneur no doubt Fergus would have thought that very ‘bourgeois!’
David admits he has lots of Fergus stories, but they are mainly unprintable! He says, “Fergus worked for me for about 7 years. He worked at The Institute in Paisley before managing Brunswick Cellars for several years. He then opened Budda in Helensburgh for me. Even back then he was fantastic.” He is just as complimentary about the others.
David, a Paisley Buddie, opened a nightclub in the town in 1993 called The Institute. He says, “I was quite lucky because I managed to buy the freehold. At the time I thought it was huge, it had a 1,000 capacity. But I remember James Mortimer coming to see it and saying, ‘nice wee place.’ My life savings were in it!”
In 1995 he cashed in and sold to Daso Nicholas. Then he bought Brunswick Cellars, which he had for seven years.
From 1999 David embarked on an expansion plan and over the next few years grew his business to a point where it had 28 units. At the heart of his business were his Budda Bars. In fact, I first met David as he opened his Glasgow Budda in St Vincent Street but he admits the Group grew too quickly. Says David, “I made so many mistakes, and got too big – the brewers were throwing money around and the valuations were very high. and I got carried away. I loved the journey and I loved what we did, and I don’t have bad memories I just wish we had done things differently.”
The Budda Group ended up being sold to Dark Star, out of administration. Says David, “It was one of the stressful times in my life. I had worked so hard, but I now realise that if I had let go a little, and hadn’t been so in the middle of things, that it might have worked out a little differently. But RBS pulled in our overdraft and gave us 72 hours to repay it. Many folk were having similar problems with their banks at the time.”
The next few years were very challenging. He says, “Things got very difficult. I still had a couple of restaurants, including one in Paisley, I lost my dad to cancer in 2007 then in the years after the recession of 2008 and 2009 I lost my house, my relationship broke up and I certainly got very disillusioned. However, I realised that the biggest loser out of the whole thing was my family – I have six kids – five girls and a boy. On a positive side, the crisis meant I spent a lot of time with them and a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to do. One thing I absolutely knew was that I wasn’t about to give up.”
He then went to work for Colin Beattie. “I worked for Colin for a year and a half, and I really respect what he has done. He has some beautiful units and it was a unique place to work. It also made me realise I still had something to offer and still loved the trade.
“My core values were always the same: looking after people and building a good team. That is what hospitality is all about so I worked like hell to get some money behind me. I also vowed I would never be beholden to a brewer or bank again.”
Today, David heads up the ‘Yes to All Group’, with some “understanding” investors who he says know the industry well, and he has also built a good team. He says, “Yes to All is a positive message. We don’t say no, we try to say ‘Yes’, to people. I don’t think standing still is the right thing to do but you have to be careful and selective about what you do.”
One of the first venues to open under the banner of ‘Yes to All’ was Barga in Paisley on the site of the former Cafe Borgia. Says David, “We refurbished Barga spending some £300K out of our own resources. We stripped it back, everyone in Paisley knows the site so I felt we had to do it right. The people of Paisley have great links to the Italian town. In fact the last time I was there my wee girl was having ice cream and the girl serving was talking to her in Italian and the she turned to me and said in a broad Paisley accent, “How are you doing Davie, you still got pubs in Paisley?” We opened it at the start of 2020 and had a brilliant first six weeks, then we had to close, and since then I have tweaked the design so that we are ready to reopen. I have to say the landlord has been great. We also rent from Iona and they have been great too.”
David has some advice for anyone having difficulties with their landlord. He says, “Go and sit down with them – and explain what your issues are. The last thing a landlord wants is an exodus and a whole pile of empty units. But you have to explain where you are and be well prepared with all your figures. And for those looking for new opportunities be sure you get a good rent-free period and get some protections written into the lease in case this happens again. Landlords are a bit more realistic about things now than before the pandemic and you can cut yourself a good deal. Be bold as they need the money as much as you do and they want long term tenants.”
He has a lot of sympathy for suppliers to the industry. “I really feel for them,” he says. “They have had so little support. We made a decision 18 months ago to buy as locally as we can, so we are buying a lot from the wee guys and they have been amazing. The majority of suppliers have been brilliant – we all just want to get through this together.”
Although most of his staff are currently furloughed, “Thank god for furlough”, he says. “There would have been carnage without it.” He has got a good team all ready to go to. The group has appointed Mark Wilson as Creative Director, long time ally Paul Bonomi as Executive Chef and Nigel Lister will be heading up training. David also has his lifelong friend and successful businessman Danny McIntyre on hand for strategic advice. “We see this as a great opportunity to bring good people on board the only issue is keeping everyone motivated until we open. The first time around we painted and redecorated, but now it just feels like a waiting game,” he says.
Adding, “I can’t help feeling this is not going to go away this year and that we may have little snaps of lockdown in the winter. I hope I am wrong but I have factored this into our business planning”
As to the future of the trade, “I still think there are great opportunities for people but have to go into this industry with experience. People expect a certain standard and you need experience to be able to deliver that. Funding a business through turnover won’t happen – you need funds of your own your own or investors with a bit of money, as you will probably lose money the first year so you need to be prepared for the pain, and the long hours. You need to be 100% committed. The trade needs new operators but they need to go in with their eyes open.”
“The failure rate is huge and take it from me there is a fine margin between success and failure. Having said that I have learned more from failures than success!
As to future trends, He says, “I think people will stay local and support their local pub and especially if they supported the community over the pandemic. People will remember that stuff. Outside areas are also much more important, and most people are investing in them.”
He also has no plans to retire but plans instead to keep surrounding himself with the right people. Although, for now, not his daughter Lisa, who has been working for Michael Bergson for the last 5 years. “I am so proud of what Lisa has already achieved in our industry. She started working for me when she was 15 and did so for many years but as she shares my stubborn nature it led to the odd falling out! Who knows, maybe one day we will get the band back together again however Lisa may have her own thoughts on that! Michael has been incredible over the last year. He has really looked after Lisa and his team as well as being an excellent spokesman for our industry. It really does all start with your team, if you keep them close and look after them, it translates into good customer service, which in turn keeps your customers happy and ultimately your investors too”
He concludes, “My dad used to say when I went greeting to him, “Life is not a dress rehearsal. This is the real thing – get on with it. Take the hit, get back on it, learn from it, and move on.”
That bit of advice has certainly stood David in good stead and it is a lesson to us all.