How friendship drives the Crabshakk


What better way to interview John Macleod than sitting in the sun outside his newest venture, the Crabshakk Botanics, in Vinicombe Street. We first met when he launched the Crabshakk in Finnieston, or as John calls it the ‘wee shakk’. Wee it certainly is, unlike his newest eatery here in the iconic Botanics Garage which no doubt will be nicknamed the ‘big Shakk’.

The original Crabshakk opened in 2009, and for the first six months it didn’t even have a sign on the door. But when you described it to anyone you just said “It’s across from the Ben Nevis.” In fact the Ben Nevis had the restaurant’s menu behind the bar – as it also was the waiting room for a table. It was a success from day one. Says John, “The wee shakk always had a bit of fairy dust.”

It certainly did, and soon became a favourite with seafood lovers, including myself.  John and wife Lynn’s Crabshakk was central in the creation of the ‘Finnieston Strip’.

Their newest incarnation John says “is a child of the pandemic.” He explains, “If it hadn’t been for the pandemic we wouldn’t be here. About a month into the pandemic I had the Finnieston Green idea thing going on (an idea to pedestrianise part of Argyll Street and cover with a roofed glasshouse.) Looking back it was a lot of fun working on the idea. For six or seven weeks I messed about with it, none of us knew what was going to happen next, and it all felt a bit weird, but this kept me amused. We were all at home and friends gave me hi-level consulting advice for nothing… and the advice came from all over the world. However the idea inevitably failed.”

He continues, “Then I was walking in the West End one day and I saw this unit was empty. Initially I just thought about doing a pop-up for six months because, at that time, I didn’t know when, or if , the Crabshakk was ever going to open again. My idea was to put a food wagon on the ramp and put in 20/30 covers in the window.

“I called the agent, and we got talking, and then being an architect I suppose I could see all the possibilities… and one thing led to another. However, if I had known then how well the Finnieston Crabshakk was going to bounce back, I wouldn’t have done it.

“It has definitely been very challenging, but we are over that now, and I am very happy with the way it has turned out. The new Shaak really did come out of necessity rather than desire. I don’t think we would have done a restaurant of this size, had the pandemic not happened and this opportunity hadn’t presented itself. But it is a great site and the West End continues to thrive.”

He also believes that the pandemic has reinforced the importance of hospitality to the public. Says John, “The public have fallen back in love with it. They want to have coffee with their friends, and meet up for expensive and inexpensive meals. I think this two year period, when we couldn’t go out, has reminded people what they missed. I’m surprised at how busy we have been since we re-opened.”

John, as he said, is an architect and he first came to Glasgow to study at the School of Art some 45 years ago, from his home on Lewis. He still retains many of his friends from these days and one is Peter McGurn, whose artist wife Rita created the scribble that now adorns the entrance wall of the Crabshakk Botanics. John explains, “We were on holiday in France and she just scribbled the picture on a piece of paper, and when we came back I used it at Table 11, which was next to the Crabshakk. She died six years ago, but her daughter Rosie, also a well-known artist, has now curated the scribble for us in neon. A further connection is that Rita’s granddaughter Lily Brown is also the General Manager.

There is also a connection between Head Chef David Scott and Manager Tom Jukes. The two met as babies – Tom’s parents Peter

and Vivien Jukes took on the The Cellar in Anstruther 40 years ago, and invited David’s grandparents, who owned The Ship in Elie, to the launch along with daughter Elspeth Scott. Soon after Vivien and Elspeth both had sons – Tom and David, and throughout the ladies remained friends and their boys grew up together.

David went to work at The Cellar when he was in his teens and it was Peter, Tom’s dad, from whom he learnt his fish cookery. At the same time Tom was honing his front of house skills at The Cellar too. The two boys then left to work in Glasgow. first for Ronnie Clydesdale at the Ubiquitous Chip and then David went to Brian Maule’s before joining the Crabshakk 13 years ago.

Says John, “David was my very first signing.”

Tom also joined the wee Crabshakk and his remit now covers both venues, with colleague Nancy Simpson holding the fort on a day-to-day basis..

Says John, “I know who has made our business a success and that’s the team. Lynn and I love having the Crabshakk. Seafood is our thing. It is all we know, but it is the staffing, resourcing and the treatment of staff that’s the bit we really enjoy. And one of the things that Lynn and myself have always been keen on is to encourage the next generation into the business, and that is what this is all about.”

“We have a very strong core team and on our opening trial night we got a great compliment – one person said , ‘It feels like it has been running for years.’ That is down to the fact that the team Lily, Tom, David and the supervisors, have been working on this project for months.

I caught up with John the day after the first opening and as the team came in to work, Lily, Tom and David. Each and every one was grinning from ear to ear. They may have been slightly tired, but every one was buoyed up by the success of the previous night. John said, “That didn’t happen because we got lucky. Lily interviewed 17 staff initially and then a further 10 and the staff she took on had three days of intensive training before the soft openings.”

The team certainly pulled it off and it t was actually a privilege to be there when they came in for their shift and greeted each other, because you could just see how much the success of the previous night meant to them all.

Said Lily, “Having a good team is everything. The core team here is built on friendship and we all get what we are trying to do and we are all loosely connected in some way. I think it also helps that we are all a bit older and have been in hospitality a long time.

“During the pandemic loads of people in hospitality reconsidered their career. Because we were targetted, and had to close, the security of the job disappeared. In a way though it has been a positive because employers across the board have had to look at how they are treating staff and their pay. John and Lynn didn’t need a pandemic to do that – they already had that ethos, which is why we retain staff, and why people want to come and work with us.”

Said John, “The team – David and Tom, Lily here and Nancy Simpson at the wee Shakk, reinforce the opportunities there are in hospitality. There is a lot of money coming across the counter, it is a serious business and I think people shouldn’t underestimate what a great quality work opportunity it is compared to working in many other work environments.

“I am an architect, but I believe nothing can beat the experience of hospitality. You can work with great pals and no day is the same, and you can have great craic and share the ups and downs of a busy night. Here I am in my mid-60’s and I realise the workplace basically spins your life out. It makes other things possible ,and a happy workplace gets people engaged, and it is a good thing when you can’t wait to get to work. That is everything.”

Certainly the team at the Crabshakk are genuinely enthused. Says Lily, “We manage to retain staff and we get quality staff because they are looked after, and are part of the family and that is down to John and Lynn.”

She added, “I have been part of opening restaurants before but not from a shell. It was great to work through the process and to be able to work with John. We wanted to create a space that would work for service, and it does. If you could have seen it last night – it was just buzzing and so smooth. That’s what we wanted to achieve.”

Head Chef David also arrived during our chat. He too was smiling. John teased him, “I don’t know why you have been so worried for the past six months.” David smiled, “I know. It went so smoothly but when you have this to work with it is just great and the fact that the kitchen is the size of the wee Crabshakk is also amazing. The pressure was delivering when you have given us so much. I wanted to show you that it was worth it.”

David has also extended the menu slightly from the wee Shakk, he says, “There are a few additions to the menu here. We have added Lobster Risotto and Lobster Thermidor, we didn’t have this on the menu before but people always asked for it, and we have promoted Lemon Sole off the specials menu after 13 years! We also have a wee section that is non-fish and a vegan section too.”

The ‘big’ Shakk has 100 covers, a long pewter bar where you can sit at, a south facing front room, and a back area, seating 80, which has more of a moody restaurant feel.

John collaborated on the design with Jim Hamilton of Graven. Says John, “He is my kind of guy. Both of us have spent a lot of time travelling and we have done our fair share of sitting scribbling ideas on pads in bars and restaurants. He was very respectful, and very encouraging, very empathetic to what I wanted to do.” (See design feature for more).

As to the future, John smiles, “I always expect us to have a share of Crabshakk Finnieston and the Botanics but we will now see how all this develops. But Lynn and I will still be coming in even when we have zimmers! I would hope that people think we have done a good job at establishing two really good fish restaurants. I just want people to say ‘if you are in Glasgow pop into the Crabshakk and when you are there you will have a great time!’

They certainly will. I can vouch for that.

Category: Editors' Picks, Interviews
Tags: John MacLeod, Lily Brown, Rita McGurn, The Crabshakk