By Susan Young
When I heard that Fraser McIlwraith and Michael Robertson were teaming up to launch a recruitment company for hospitality called HOSPO I was not really surprised. The two of them have a pedigree in hospitality that stretches back more than 20 years. They have probably interviewed more people than I have … and have worked for most of the key operators in the business, but most of all they both believe that there is no point putting a round peg in a square hole.
So why are the two so suited? To find out you have to delve into their history. First up is Fraser. His CV is impressive – he has worked for some of the most successful businesses in the country from Caledonian Heritable, to Buzzworks, DRG to G1. While Michael has worked for Tiger Tiger, Living Ventures and Lynnet Leisure to name but a few – next month we have a full interview with Michael, but this month we concentrate on Fraser.
It was actually his father’s friendship with Ricky Agnew and Alan Tomkins that brought this privately schooled sportsman into the hospitality industry.
Fraser explains, “My dad went into business with Ricky and Alan to open Vodka Wodka in Paisley in the early 1990’s. I was still teenager and became an honorary glass collector at weekends. They had recruited a team of guys who knew how to create a party atmosphere in a bar and that team included Mel Barr and Jamie Wray. It was definitely a real eye-opener for me – particularly since Rangers had their training ground next door so we had Paul Gascoigne, Ali McCoist and Five Bellies in the bar every night. I was encouraged to get involved and participate mainly because if I didn’t the team were scared I would tell my dad. It was a real initiation into how a bar atmosphere can create a party, but also how it can pull you into drinking too much.”
His experience at Vodka Wodka taught him how a bar operated but nevertheless it wasn’t until he went to University in Edinburgh to study Physiology that he considered working in a bar full-time. He says, “One of my flat mates Chris Miles (aka Chico) had a job at Ryan’s Bar in the West End of Edinburgh and one day I was waiting for him after work when the manager, Hamish Mair, came out to talk to me. He said, “I hear you have bar experience, we are looking for staff. So I started working there and before long they told me they liked the look of what I did and asked me to work full-time. I took the job, continued with my studies, and they put me onto a managers training programme. I was introduced to Sean and Kevin Doyle although at the time I didn’t realise how influential they were. I spent four years there, going to University occasionally!”
Fraser even helped out part-time at The International – a rather traditional pub beside the Meadows – so old school its cellar was across the road! It remains one of his most memorable experiences ever due to the fact that on his first shift, the boss left him in charge, and it was the regulars who told him who drank what, and what to charge. Says Fraser, “It was a unique experience.”
After graduating he considered three options – continue in Physiology, join the management team at Ryans Bar or head back to Glasgow to work with his dad and Alan Tomkins to open a new Vodka Wodka in Ashton Lane. He chose the latter and brought a team with him from Edinburgh. (Even then he was recruiting!)
At the tender age of 21, with the keys to an “amazing” West End bar, Fraser and his crew had a mission to create a similar bar to the Paisley Vodka Wodka with the same vibe, and this they did. They didn’t just create the party, they were the party! Says Fraser, “We got away with it because we were so successful and making a decent turnover.”
In fact Fraser is the first to admit he always does everything to the max whether it was his education, “I was a straight A student and Head boy” or sport. “I represented Scotland at Athletics and Glasgow at Rugby,” And by the time he got to Ashton Lane it was socialising, “Alcohol and chasing girls became my activity!” In fact it was such an enjoyable time that many of the original team were still there four years on. Fraser smiles, “Many of them are married to people they met in the bar, and we have double digit Vodka Wodka babies.”
However, like all good things boredom was starting to creep in a fact recognised by his father who, again with Alan Tomkins, decided to turn an Indian restaurant on Vinicombe Street into an upmarket cocktail bar called Bouly Mardy’s aimed at the slightly older BBC crowd who frequented the West End due to the fact the BBC studios were then in Queen Margaret Drive.
Fraser explains, “We did high volume party cocktails at Vodka Wodka but we wanted to create a proper cocktail bar at Bouly Mardy’s. A good cocktail comes from not just the good drinks list, but the design of the bar, and the efficiencies the way it is set up and I was lucky to be able to design the bar so that it was geared up to serve cocktails as quickly and efficiently as possible and yet make them taste great. We were doing batch cocktails early on.”
Once again, the bar became the place to go in the West End. It was stowed out (I can vouch for that!). So Fraser, and a DJ from Vodka Wodka, reckoned they had it cracked when it came to running successful outlets and branched out on their own, and invested their own money, and opened Club V-Dub in Hope Street. He smiles wryly, “unfortunately it didn’t last very long and ended badly. We were partying too much. I ended up having to sell my flat to pay for some of the losses.”
He admits it was a reset point in his life. “I asked myself is this really what I should be doing – working and drinking every day?”
Fraser decided to head across the Atlantic to New York where he spent three months – playing rugby with the New York Athletic Club, and although his intention was to stay, a visa eluded him which in a way was lucky. Because it was his next job was one of his most favourite. He joined Mark Warner as a Restaurant Manager in Corsica. Says Fraser, “I wished I had done it earlier in my life. I had to serve guests two out of three meals a day, I got to use all the guest facilities and was able to play volleyball, windsurf and other sports. I then did the winter season in the French Alps – all I had to do was run the bar and I skied or boarded every day. The bar was called Scotty’s and was renowned but after a year of that I was falling back into my old ways. I was offered a job at the Hilton in Glasgow and came back. It meant starting again from scratch in Glasgow, but it gave me more stability.”
It did indeed because it was at the Hilton in William Street, as Bars Manager, that he met his wife-to-be Lauren. Although he didn’t meet her right away as she was off sick – it may have been love at first sight! Fraser first set eyes on Lauren when she came in to work on crutches having had a foot operation and proceeded to speak French to a waiter. A date quickly followed… but although the romance lasted the job didn’t. Says Fraser, “I realised it wasn’t for me, I was too much of an entrepreneurial spirt to enjoy the corporate approach and when Ryan Barrie approached me to help open Citation I left. It was an amazing opening and a great venue. Actually I would have stayed there but Ryan and I were very alike – and I wanted more responsibility.”
It was the next job that Fraser credits with changing his life. “I discovered Buzzworks and that was a gamechanger. I heard about the company bar manager job available, but I had reservations. It was in Ayrshire and having travelled the world and work in Glasgow bars, I really wasn’t sure. Then I went for the interview and it was a bizarre experience. Kenny Blair asked the questions and Colin Blair sat close and examined me. It was like no interview I had ever had. They were looking for someone with a natural instinct for hospitality. A year later Kenny told me that they recognised I had all the skills they wanted to teach people at Buzzworks but I didn’t know I had them. I think the phrase he used was “unconsciously competent”. I was amazed by their venues. I was amazed to find people who thought about the minutia of hospitality. I had found a kindred spirit with Kenny. I spent six years there and I like to think I carved my own role. I started as Bars Manager, opened venues, did all the liquor buying. In fact, I would probably still be there today if it wasn’t for starting a family. Buzzworks are very good at making their employees happy to work for them. I even tried living in Stewarton, and when we moved back to Glasgow I drove 45 minutes every day. The hours were long but enjoyable. But then I got a job offer I had always wanted – to join G1 as buyer. David Tracey had left to join Brewdog and there was a vacancy. My hours reduced to 50 hours a week, it was based at head office in Glasgow and it was fascinating the amount of brands I had to work with. A couple of years later, I joined DRG, they were highly recommended, and we did a wee joint venture with taking over Prep Fitness Kitchen. I think I might have been two years ahead of my time. And although I knew about drinks, and I was into healthy eating, when it came to running it I admit I did wing it. Turnover for the site was good but it was not easy to make a profit – the ingredients and the chef costs were high. I also looked after the entire drinks side of things for the other 23 sites as well as helping open the Citizen, improve the bar offering at Anchor Line and helped open Cafe Andaluz on George IV Bridge.”
It was around this time that Fraser realised that he could actually be an entrepreneur himself and Dark Art Drinks was born. He couldn’t, he tells me, have done it without the support of Lauren who didn’t just offer to fund his first three months, but gave him the mental support too. “I couldn’t have made the leap without her. We decided to try it for three months, and if it wasn’t working, I would be a full-time dad.”
The risk paid off. Pre-pandemic Dark Art Drinks had 95 clients on its books, today it has shrunk by one-third, but Fraser expects that to return to the original figure within three months. He is thankful that his first client the MSW buying group was so supportive. In fact, founder Stephen White helped him develop his role. “We had a few disagreements, but he was always fair, he coached me and mentored me too.”
Fraser quickly realised that he was on to something with Dark Art Drinks. Having worked for some of the biggest companies in the business, he knew what the prices looked like and sales reps couldn’t pull the wool over his eyes. However he also worked out that he had to be fair and realised that his strengths were in the reciprocal zone advising clients what they had to do to ensure they got their money. He engaged Adam Strang as his Brand Activation Manager. He explains, “Adam was an extra pair of eyes on the ground. I could say to the brand owners, you have to invest properly in this, give cash support, retro and physical things our clients need for their business and we will ensure our clients deliver on the agreement.”
Then came Covid. Fraser didn’t falter and wrote to every single brand owner that he knew and asked them to pay bars cash due, and money accrued, and he didn’t take a penny. “A lot of brands were responsive,” says Fraser. “But then after a month we realised it was more serious than we originally thought and that we would be here for longer – and then we realised we wouldn’t make any money for the foreseeable future. There was no furlough for Adam and no furlough for me. We were dead in the water and we didn’t qualify for grants. I thought what can we do to make money?”
He continues, “It was the Easter weekend and we were in Vodka Wodka when the phone rang and someone asked us if we could deliver a Jolly Rancher… (the bars most famous cocktail) that weekend we sold 800! The phone started ringing off the hook. It includes vodka, Midori, coconut rum, cranberry juice and lime – for some reason people go crazy for it because it tastes like holidays – we literally sell it by the litre and by the five litre! and also have a ten litre version. We couldn’t operate the bar, but we rented the space, and split the profit – we didn’t make much, but it meant we could pay our wages, and keep the brand alive. We came up with the idea of the Cocktail Collective – we offered to make cocktails for other bars and market them and deliver them. Bars have come and gone, but to this day we still operate it and will continue to do so as we have invested in a unit in the Southside at the end of Park Lane market.
“We have also started wholesaling cocktails and our first was Panther Milk. In September last year Paul Crawford approached us to make it in large batches. Up until then he was making it himself. His immediate requirement was for someone who can make it and distribute 100 litres a week – we were doing up to 300 litres of Jolly Rancher on a sunny day in Ashton Lane. The first thing I did was take a bottle home and drink it – then Adam and I played around with it. We wanted to make it using vegan milk– and now we have perfected the recipe. It has made Panther Milk more drinkable and it has been flying off the shelf. It’s more sustainable and eco-friendly too. It has been a good move and we now have a year’s agreement to make and distribute it for Paul. Following this, we have done a deal with Dunn’s Food and Drinks who will exclusively wholesale it throughout Scotland. In fact we are also looking at doing a deal with them to sell our other delivered cocktails as well.”
But that’s not all, Fraser and Adam have also developed a new brand in the shape of a whisky and Oat Milk liqueur. Watch this space.
And if that is not enough … back to where we began Recruitment. “It was so obvious,” says Fraser, “In the two years prior to Covid all my Dark Art Drinks clients have asked at some point if I could find them a good bar manager. A recruitment agency does that and gets paid, but I was doing it for free. The elephant in the room is perhaps the stigma around recruitment consultancies. When I have mentioned what we are doing to my friends they have said “that is interesting”. I don’t need you to find people but there are people who do need our help and will be happy to pay the going rate.
“Michael and I talked about it, we don’t want to charge over the odds, and we want the people we recruit to have our own high standards. We also intend to follow through with the entire process. Michael has certainly been underwhelmed by the poor quality of candidates some recruitment agencies send out. We know we both have an eye for reading a CV and talking to a person and can quickly work out whether they have the experience required or not. We want to put forward people who are right for the job. It may be a long slow process establishing HOSPO but we are not here to make a quick buck.
“We want to grow this and still have this going in five year’s time. This was the right opportunity and moment to start it. We understand hospitality. Over the next month or two people will start to panic and we are ready and waiting with candidates to put forward. It was an absolute no brainer because we were doing it already. I tend to do front of house and bar – and Michael does the chef side of things. He has interviewed more chefs than I have – and we also have the sales and marketing expertise of David. It is a good dynamic.”
It certainly is – but then again Fraser is dynamic – he gets up at 5am, goes for a run, does some cross-fit, feeds his daughters… and then gets ready to take his business empire on. I was lost at 5am!