Licensee Interview: Emma and Andy MacSween

When wine and Negroni bar Malo opened earlier this year in Glasgow’s Bothwell Street, it was a dream come true for couple Emma and Andy MacSween.

It was the first bar that the two considered their own baby, and it was the perfect venture for Andy. He smiles, “Wine and Negroni’s are two of my favourite things – what better than to dedicate a 120-seater bar to them!”

Emma explains, “We wanted to open something that had a strong identity, and we wanted to let people know exactly what we do. Malo has over 100 different wines on offer, plus we have wine on draft and wine to take away. As well as Negroni’s, a Negroni Sbagliato Spritz and a non-alcoholic ‘NOgroni’, there is also draft beer and a wide range of spirits available too.”

ADF3DD2A-8C9A-4896-825A-2C6FCE8C07D7Emma, the daughter of hospitality entrepreneur Alan Tomkins, has been running the family business with her husband Andy for the past few years, as her father tries to “creep out”. However, Emma tells me that, with 40 years in the trade under his belt, he isn’t finding that easy, and to be honest the two are happy to have him there to call on.

Says Emma, ‘I know I can call him at any time, and it is great to be able to tap into his mentorship. The good news is, although I sometimes run things by him, I am naturally making the right decisions, and just need someone to reassure me.”

The portfolio today includes Vroni’s, Ralph & Finns and Cafe Fish (which was formerly Ollie’s).

The couple, both hospitality diehards, met at various industry do’s before Andy moved to the Southside. His flat was not far from Ollie’s, now Cafe Fish, and he started popping in on a more regular basis. At the time, he was working with Jonathan MacDonald at Ox and Finch and Scoop Events, and Emma returned the compliment by calling on his good nature to get her a table at the popular Westend restaurant. Romance blossomed and the two married five years ago at Urban, which they have since transformed into Ralph & Finns.

The transformation of the Urban Brasserie & Grill into Ralph & Finns was the first projects the two of them worked on together and, it opened in November 2020, at the tail end of the pandemic. It was a difficult start. Says Emma, “When we opened you couldn’t sell booze for the first six months. Then we shut for four months. Luckily, we had a great team of core urban staff who stayed with us through Covid and then came back.”

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Emma started out in hospitality when she was still at school, working for Fifi and Ally in Wellington Street. She says, “The glamourous Sex and the City thing was going on and afternoon teas were very popular. I picked up as many shifts as I could and ended up working there for five years – I also opened a shop in Kilmacolm for them.

“Then, unfortunately Alan Lang, who was the well-loved manager at Vroni’s for 15 years, took ill and I stepped in to help out. Vroni’s remains one of my favourite places. I remember when I worked there early on – we knew all our regulars, what seats they sat at, their drinks and their history. It was like a family.”

Meanwhile, Andy did a hospitality management degree at Strathclyde and that’s where he met his old boss and good friend Jonathan (Jonny). He worked in various restaurants including the Big Slope, Roccoco, Urban and Gamba and then he and Jonny worked together with Scoop Events, Ox & Finch and Ka Pao.

Says Andy, “We got married five years ago and at first, I resisted coming into the family business. Then Covid hit, and it made sense to come over. It was also exciting working together and opening Ralph & Finns.

“I never thought I would marry the boss’s daughter. But Alan likes the fact that we are in it together, as a family. We luckily get on very well, he is the founder and always will be, but we are now looking after the operational side of the business. I have 25 years’ experience in hospitality and Emma has 11 years under her belt – so I think it is in good hands.

“I’ve been lucky enough to work in some great restaurants and working with Jonny was fabulous. I am now putting all that experience to very good use.”

Emma smiles, “I’ve learned that there is nothing that Andy likes better than knowing the name of as many customers as possible. We can even be walking along the street, he spots someone, and before you know it – I know where they like to go, their favourite drink and where they like to sit. Says Andy, “When I worked at Urban with Gerry Boyle, he drummed into me that the best thing you can do is remember your regulars. I am good at it. I think it makes your customer’s experience so much better if you remember who they are.” They also keep their booking system updated to note customers’ preferences.

3AA5FE7B-A780-4559-BA79-9360C59E809BI asked if the two of them ever clashed and the answer was definitely “no”. Says Andy, “We are not together all the time. We leave Evan to get on with Vroni’s, I currently look after Malo and Ralph & Finns, and Emma has taken on all our social media. She is really good and we like doing it ourselves because it gives us a voice – we wanted to sound like us on social media, and we do now.”

The two also have a different approach to work. Emma explains, “I like it when it is really busy, when it could go really wrong… that Christmas vibe, with people everywhere. That gives me a real buzz. I thrive on the stress – it’s when I am on my A-game. I’ve realised I like a bit of risk, while Andy is more organised and more operational.” Andy chimes in, “However, if something needs to be done immediately, Emma is great at getting it across the line.”

One of the reasons that Emma is not on the floor as much, is that the two of them are expecting an imminent arrival in the shape of baby number two. Their first, Harris, was born during the pandemic. His arrival also meant that the two workaholics had to re-arrange and re-evaluate their work-life balance.

Says Andy, “I take every Thursday off without fail. That is the day that Harris and I spend together. I don’t want to miss him growing up.”

Emma has found that she misses not being at the very heart of everything going on. “I do miss the buzz, but luckily I have good help with grandparents and nursery.”

However, she really enjoyed sinking her teeth into getting Malo off the ground. Having been involved in the opening of Ollie’s in 2014, and the creation of Ralph & Finns in 2020, and now Malo, Emma has taken more of a lead on the design. She has worked with, and learned from, designers including Michael Dunn and Mark Brunjes. She says, “Both are great, and Michael is also very good at bringing the right people together to do the job.”

Andy continues, “Emma is better at visualising things. For instance, she described to me how she wanted the bar to look, and now I see it, I totally get it -but I was keen to have a space where we could have a tasting room.”

Certainly, Malo is a lovely looking bar. It was formerly a gym, so the two were able to start from scratch. It has a fabulous 10-metre bar, 120 seats and a private tasting room for up to 20 people. The décor has a nod to the Art Deco era, with a stunning stone-topped bar, walls of wine racks and cosy corners to relax in.

Says Andy, “We like the bar side of things, and we enjoyed the whole process here from the design, right through to the execution.” Emma adds, “I lean towards Art Deco, that’s what inspired the bar, but we had industrial features that we couldn’t get away from. In other projects we have done, you have an outline of where things are, as previously they were restaurants or bars – here we had to decide where everything went. It did all come together, although we nearly missed Christmas – we didn’t open until the 17th of December, and we were literally pushing the builders out of the door.”

It’s not just the design that has been a success, the team they have put together also gels. “We like to have staff who want to have a career in hospitality, and we try to keep them in the industry by incentivising them. For instance, we are helping put them through their WSET levels. We also try to keep their jobs interesting. In Ralph & Finns, all the managers have progressed through the business as all our management positions have come from inside the company.

“Hospitality has been negatively impacted by many factors over the past few years but we have been extremely fortunate to have worked with such loyal and hard working staff. Our staff are our business, they are the front line that interact with our customers and without them we could not operate successfully. We also feel that having no experience should not be a barrier to progressing in the industry.”

“For instance, a friend suggested his son, who was starting university, might be interested in a job, but had no experience. Sometimes people get rejected because they have no experience. When he turned up, he was polite and had learned our whole wine list. Every task we give him he does well. He is a very intelligent boy and now hospitality has taught him social skills. He is no longer afraid to talk to customers, he can hold his own, and it has been great seeing him come on. Of course, sometimes it doesn’t work out, but sometimes you have to take a leap of faith.”

Malo is now open, and it is doing well, although Emma admits, “We have had a good start, although we do miss out a bit when the weather is sunny, because we are not on the sunny side of the street. Now we have a threepiece jazz band on a Sunday from 4pm till 7pm and we are doing wine-tasting nights on the first Thursday of every month. They have been very popular – our GM Nada is great at taking people through the wine tasting and we can accommodate 25 people.”

Andy adds, “Everyone leaves in good spirits with many enjoying a drink at the bar after the tasting.”

Business does have its challenges, which they both recognise, but Emma adds, “My dad always says when there are challenges you just have to remain positive. You can blame prices, the weather, the football, etc but you do just have to get on with it. We are certainly seeing more people come out for drinks and our office customers are coming back after work too. One of the reasons we did Malo was because we were always knocking people back at Ralph & Finns at the weekend – we had lots of people who just wanted to come in for a drink.”

Meanwhile, the two have also helped rebrand Ollie’s as a fish restaurant. Says Emma, “My dad saw an opportunity to rebrand Ollie’s – he felt that the Southside did not have a reasonably priced fish restaurant. Ollie’s had already been refreshed and the colours were blue and white, which fit in with the idea of doing fish – so we changed the name to Cafe Fish. It’s a mid-market offering – you can come in for Fish and Chips or something more special.”

So, what next for the duo – baby aside? Says Andy, “We are going to have a lot on our plates over the next few months. We are launching our in-house wine shop at Malo – people will be able to order a bottle online and come in 10 minutes later and pick it up. We will also be selling Negroni’s in bottles.”

There is certainly plenty to talk about, Emma says “My mum is known to hold her hands up at the dinner table and say ‘Enough is enough, no more work talk!’” There is no mistaking the passion that both Emma and Andy have for hospitality – they are a chip off the old block and making their own mark on the family business.

 

Category: News
Tags: Alan Tomkins, Andy MacSween, Cafe Fish, Emma MacSween, Malo, Ralph & Finns, Vroni’s