It’s 25 years since Andy Gemmell began working in his uncle’s pubs in Greenock before moving to Glasgow for a spell in TGI Fridays and its ‘legendary training’ with cousin Scott Gemmell before the pair scrammed to start Scotland’s first bar consultancy, Liquid Assets. Today he’s the force behind The Gate on Glasgow’s Gallowgate and his love for what he does burns brighter than ever.
Andy, who just became a father for the second time with partner Nicola Moir and whose teenage son is signed to Greenock Morton F.C., following in his father’s early footballing footsteps, works out of The Gate and has a team of seven.
“The guys are fantastic. They don’t want a 43-year-old guy that kids on he’s cool hanging about all the time. I come in and say hi and try not to get in the way. I still bartend like it’s the 90s,” he tells me.
And this is a man that has done it all and seen it all. From Liquid Assets he went on to open the ground-breaking epitome-of-cool bartenders’ bar Tonic in Edinburgh, before joining Maxxium UK, leading to a Global Brand Ambassador role at Bacardi before starting drinks consultancy number two, The Drink Cabinet. He returned to the trade in 2019 when he opened The Gate..
So, with a career with that many high points, which bit is he proudest of? (he had to chew this one over).
“I set out to work in every area of hospitality, and looking back, I guess that’s what I did. You could say that I dedicated my career to it. It’s difficult to narrow it down to one thing that I am proudest of because it all and it all led to where I am today, but Liquid Assets was a Scottish first, and that millennium era, and I’m including Tonic in that, really was a golden era for Scotland’s bars and pubs. Without question.
“So many good people came out of that time, the likes of Stuart McCluskey and Mike Aikman, all of whom are at the very top of their game now and deservedly so. There was such a buzz about bars and pubs and the industry as a whole and hopefully, we’ll see the likes of it again in the not too distant future.
“What followed career-wise for me was taking on the role of educator I suppose, and driving home the importance of training, like Maxxium’s ‘Mixxit’ training programme as well as spreading the message about whisky around the world at Bacardi for brands like Dewar’s and Aberfeldy.”
And even though the last few years have been the exact opposite of a golden era for hospitality, Andy remains the eternal optimist.
“I am always optimistic. The pandemic has been frustrating, to put it mildly. But what’s done is done. It’s like losing a goal at football. It’s about taking things forward. It’s been such a tough time lately for everybody but I love hospitality more than ever.
“Working in my family’s pubs is where my fetish for traditional pubs like The Pot Still, the Laurieston first started and I’d love to write a pub book on the tales, myths and legends that start in pubs.”
No book started as yet but he didn’t rest on his laurels either during the last lockdown – he’s been beavering away on a new project.
“The guys knew when lockdown happened I was going to be a nightmare. I am always keeping busy and we’ve been working on a new project for about six months.
“My two business partners and I are launching two shops in Glasgow city centre and Edinburgh George Street plus an e-commerce site. It’s a new generation bottle shop concept with whisky, gins, and events too – with the website launching in September and the shops towards the end of the year.
“We’ll be bringing brands to life and we’re going for the full trade premise licence but it’s not going to be a bar, but we want to have the flexibility to do launches and interactive tastings. We’re already seeing consumers getting more knowledgeable about drinks as has happened with food, and this whole concept targets that trend. There’ll be an educational aspect to the website too.”
And if that wasn’t enough to be going on with, he’s also got his sights on opening a new bar and restaurant.
“I want another bar in the Gallowgate, so we’re looking for premises at the moment and I’d love to open a restaurant here too.
“I was looking in other areas like Broomhill in Partick but I love it here. It’s taken longer than we thought to evolve but I love how real it is in the east end. There’s no gentrification: this is real Glasgow and you get people from all walks of life. You come in here on a Saturday and there are traders, hipsters and whisky geeks and that’s what I love. I’d love to be able to hand that over to the team for their development.”
So how has business been for him since re-opening and have there been any benefits at all to this situation to someone whose brain is hardwired to think sunny side up?
“Business has been really good. We’ve always done table service and by using a booking system and fewer walk-ins and two-deep at the bar, we’ve been able to really step up the service side of things and seen our average price per head and our cocktail sales go through the roof compared to where we were at before.
“In fact, I think that one of our biggest struggles will be going back to the old way of service. I call it subliminal control. When you go in somewhere good there’s a feeling of ease and ‘I’m going to be taken care of here’ and it’s all the little aspects of the service, right from the first second they walk into the moment they leave and hospitality professionals must be tuned into this customer psychology. This has been easier to do lately.“
How is he finding the modifications to level zero including midnight closing?
“Closing at midnight makes a huge difference to us. Around 25% of our weekly income is around those hours so we will be down this. We’re a late-night bar and those last few hours mean a lot to us.
“The various curfews they’ve introduced, like the 10 pm one, have been one of biggest frustrations throughout the pandemic. The government tarred us all with the same brush and didn’t look at hospitality on a business-by-business basis.
“We’ve always been table service here and I would have loved to have brought some of the top people down to the Gallowgate because they might imagine that this is a problematic area, whereas myself and the other pub landlords in the area took it all extremely seriously.
“Curfews in hospitality have never worked throughout the generations. All we saw around here was people going for carry-outs and then going back to each other’s houses.
“If it had been midnight instead of 10 they would have been more likely to have gone home. I don’t know what they thought was going to happen between 10 and midnight. The place goes mental? People start licking each other? Good operators aren’t going to allow any of that to happen.”
He tends to avoid consuming anxiety-inducing rolling news but has a view on vaccine passports.
“I avoid news channels and everything like that. They latch on to something like vaccine passports and causing anxiety and scaremongering without really knowing what is going to happen.
“The commercial/business side of me thinks that if it meant that we could operate at full capacity then it might be welcome. There are so many different aspects to consider but when you look at the way that shops are packed out, I can’t understand how it’s going to help society as a whole.
“We’re already an industry that’s had the wind taken out of our sales. I don’t know exact percentages but there are still those who are massively nervous about coming into the trade and vaccine passports are just going to increase it. “
What about the staffing problems that are blighting so many hospitality businesses? Might this be a wake-up call for certain operators that haven’t always valued staff in the past?
“Staff leaving is perhaps a wake-up call for operators to take care of their teams, develop them, training, focus on their future careers, and this must be a big part of our industry going forward. Every other industry in the world has training before you start the job.
“Not only that we’re dealing alcohol and they must know how to handle it and the licensing stuff is great but there must be personal development for all your staff on top of all that.
“It’s about breaking the cycle of hospitality being a transient trade. It has an element of that to be fair, with students taking part-time jobs, but it’s your core backbone that you must focus on. There are so many full-time hospitality professionals that are hungry for career development and training.
“It’s harder for the bigger companies and Kenny Blair of Buzzworks is a pioneer of how to build that training and morale on that scale. It’s so much easier with a smaller tight-knit team. “
He also thinks that frontline staff will begin to be taken more seriously and, in turn, take the prospect of a career in hospitality more seriously.
“I’ve been hearing stories of chefs negotiating higher wages because of the chef shortage and I don’t see this as a negative. Hospitality staff have been underappreciated for a long time. I have always paid my staff above minimum wage and provided a path they can go on to make more money as well, so if anything positive comes out of this situation, it’s frontline hospitality staff being taken more seriously and get some training and, god forbid, and a career path in hospitality!”
He is feeling his characteristic optimism when he looks beyond the pandemic and its legacy and who will and who won’t flourish.
“Hospitality has had an incredibly tough time but I think that those that are in hospitality for the love of it will continue to prosper. The ones that want to make their customers smile and give them a good time will be the ones that see this through, hopefully.
“Building customer confidence is going to be tricky in the short-term and I think that October and November are going to be hard for us all.
“You have got people that are doing this for the love of the hospitality industry and it’s not just to make money – and there are easier ways to make money than hospitality, believe me. Those who aren’t in for the customer experience only for making cold, hard cash are going to find it extremely hard. The good operators with a passion will see this out.
“A re-set or a refresh can sometimes be a good thing. I don’t know what that’s going to look like. For the first time in a long time. “
Before we wrapped things up I had to ask him about his encounter with David Beckham. Is he really as sound as people say he is?
“I met him before at another Haig whisky event and that’s how the whole thing came about. I didn’t realise he was coming and it’s a great thing for business that kind of promotion, I don’t care what anybody says.
“We went up to Berwick beach and had a drink. He loves an Old Fashioned. I thought he wasn’t going to bother with it but he did. I am a huge football fan so I knew what to hit him with to get him on board and we talked about Alex Ferguson, and he’s just a normal dude. But how he can live with all that attention, I don’t know.
“His crew took up all the parking spaces outside the Barras and the traders told him in no uncertain terms to move around the corner, David Beckham or no David Beckham. Another reason I love being an operator on The Gallowgate.”
I’m optimistic that Andy will be a big noise on the Gallowgate and in Scotland’s wider hospitality industry for many years to come.
By Jason Caddy