Licensee Interview: Murray Ainslie – on the road to success

Cat Thomson talks to Murray Ainslie about his latest venture

Murray Ainslie recently launched Black Grape, a restaurant and bar on Edinburgh’s Canongate, on the former site of the Pancho Villas restaurant. It is his first endeavour with business partners Stuart Hunter and Cameron Taylor, two multi-award-winning entrepreneurs who founded Advance Global Recruitment. The three close friends wanted to create a relaxed space in the heart of the Capital offering ‘small plates, wine and good times’.

Before this venture, Murray worked as Operations Director for the Compass Group in Edinburgh running White Horse Oyster & Seafood Bar, The Chop House brand, Sygn, Monteiths Restaurant and The West Room.

His first job in hospitality was as a kitchen porter at Marmions Brasserie in Melrose at the age of 16, before heading to University in Edinburgh to study History and while studying he worked in a variety of hospitality roles in both restaurants and bars.

By strange coincidence, his first student flat was located just down the road from Pancho Villas and he admits, “We would find ourselves there rolling about throwing margaritas at ourselves on more than one occasion.”

After completing his degree at Edinburgh University he went travelling for a year with his good friend, now business partner, Stuart Hunter. The two had great adventures, visiting Asia, Australia, and America. He says, “It was a great trip, but we were slumming it.” He jokes, “I went back to Thailand and it’s a very different holiday when you can afford a bed without bedbugs.”

After his first degree Murray went on to study for a postgraduate diploma in Law while working in retail at Cruise and as the marketing manager of Xile clothing. He also began consultancy work for the Compass Group, concentrating on brand development and marketing, while his fellow legal students were applying for traineeships to start their careers properly, but Murray had discovered his passion; “The prospect of filing legal paperwork for eight hours a day didn’t really excite me. In hospitality, there were always events on, which appealed much more than the drier legal route.”


His role at the Compass Group quickly developed and he soon became the full-time operations director and during his time at the group he helped launch The Chop House and White Horse brands, opened four sites, sold another two and navigated a pandemic along the way. At its peak he was running seven venues, so by the end of that period he felt he was ready for a new challenge.

Murray explains, “I had been looking for a site for some time on my own, and missed out on a couple of places. Stuart and Cameron then expressed an interest in getting involved with the venture, which was fantastic.” Murray says, “Having a couple of really successful entrepreneurs involved in growing the business is massively beneficial. They bring a consumer’s perspective, so you get the view of someone that doesn’t work within the industry.”

But the key was always going to be finding the right location and they did have to be patient – but when Panchos Villas came on the market they realised it was perfect for what they had planned, although originally thinking it might be too large.

Murray says, “The thing about the Royal Mile is that they are not building another one, so it is a great address to be trading from. The goal is to have a strong business that’s supplemented by seasonal tourists. There are also some interesting things happening on the Canongate stretch of Edinburgh’s iconic street. It was previously seen as the dogleg, but is now a much more attractive proposition.”

Launching Black Grape was the culmination of Murray’s long held desire to create something on his own terms. While the day-to-day operations are left in his capable hands, the three partners all have the same ambition to grow the business. It is no secret that the trio want to see Black Grape grow within the city, but first, they want to establish the original Black Grape and create a strong foundation to build on.

1FCB2E20-C15E-49DB-AD3C-9211D8B042FESince its launch at the end of November it has been very warmly received. Murray’s mantra is to, “first and foremost make sure that you’re doing it right. I’m a great believer that if you’ve got an excellent product, great service and a warm and welcoming environment then you’re on the road to success, but I also think that these days you need a compelling story and a strong brand.

“Then it is just a case of putting in hard work, and paying attention to the details while focusing to get the best results.”

Murray is extremely proud of the team he has put together. “We’re big believers in a good work-life balance, and making sure everyone has the opportunity to enjoy things outside the workplace as well.” The only caveat to that he tells me is, “It’s my business so I’m living and breathing it 24/7 whether I’m at work or not.”

The stylish interior was designed by award-winning Edinburgh agency, Splintr. Murray was keen to collaborate with designers he hadn’t worked with before to create a look which is quite different from his previous venues and he tasked them with creating a venue with a European feel.

He explains, “If you go to Madrid, Barcelona or Paris and walk down a street, you stumble across beautiful cafés, bars and restaurants where you can get fantastic food that doesn’t feel too stuffy.” To this end they also hired award-winning chef, Owen Morrice.

Murray said, “Owen impressed us with his presentation and his balance of flavours. He’s a real asset to the team.” He adds, “Having the very best produce is central to what we’re doing, when you’re doing small plates there are not a lot of hiding places, so you’ve got to make sure that you have quality suppliers as well as the kitchen being on point.”

29085C5B-542B-4A0E-8178-CF0795129A02Former bartender of the year, Joey Medrington, with whom Murray had worked previously, helped create 16 unique cocktails for the venue. Murray enthuses, “His drinks always brought a real sense of fun. I knew I wanted to work with him on our cocktails.”

And for the wine list, they teamed up with regional wine specialist Nicola Henry, from Hallgarten. Murray says, “They’ve already got an esoteric wine portfolio which is great for us and means we have a lot of exclusive wines that you can’t buy anywhere else in the city.”

They also want to create a business where people want to work. Murray reveals more, “We update the menu every 12 weeks to give the chefs an outlet for their creativity, and we have a monthly wine club for staff, not to push sales but to build on their wine knowledge.” They also are planning regular away days and events. To look after staff well-being they have enlisted the help of Frazer McGlinchey, from Happy Sense, who is passionate about meditation and mindfulness, and how they can be used within the hospitality industry to work with staff.

Murray certainly loves working in the hospitality industry, “It’s an exciting business where you can be really creative. It is like throwing a dinner party every night, where you welcome people in, create the ambience, and the menu.”

Looking back on his long career in hospitality, Murray does not regret giving up on the law. He said, “When we negotiated the legals for Black Grape, I realised that it was definitely a lucky escape. I think I’ll stick to the fun stuff.”


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Tags: Black Grape, Murray Ainslie