Its location in the hillwalking country close to Glen Coe and on the West Highland Way in Scotland may be remote, but The Real Food Cafe is totally switched on to what it needs to do to survive both the cost of living and the staffing crises, as owner Sarah Heward explains
How is business?
In all honesty, it’s complicated and challenging! We are trading very well and in 2022 we had our best year in terms of turnover, which is now approaching £2 million per annum. Not bad for a former derelict Little Chef in the middle of nowhere!
However, as the old saying goes, ‘turnover is vanity, profit is sanity’. When it comes to profit, we’re not making the same percentage margin because we’re being squeezed heavily on costs, despite several price increases. We are now charging over £12 for standard haddock and chips.
We don’t believe, however, that it is purely luck that we’re trading well. It’s a mix of elements which include quality as a core value as well as continuing to invest in the business, our food and team. Now is not the time to cut back on these things if you believe in what you’re doing.
What is your focus for the year ahead?
We are seasonal so from November until the end of March we work on the business rather than in the business. I always say it’s the low season operationally, but it’s the busy season for management so we’ve been planning for 2023 for a while. Just as people start the year by making New Year’s resolutions, we’ve set our stall out by taking the decision to make a big investment in the business, which I have to say is not for the faint-hearted in the current climate.
What are you investing in and why?
We’re making a significant six-figure capital investment in a multi-phase modernisation plan. 2025 will be our 20th anniversary and by then we will have future-proofed the business for the next 20 years.
This month we are closed for 12 days as we start on phase one: improving our whole kitchen and wash-up layout, adding new and more efficient equipment, such as a 10 deck Rationale oven, and creating better workflow throughout. We have always invested in quality, it is at the heart of the business and includes our team, food, suppliers and customer service.
What impact will an improved kitchen have?
It should revolutionise our service, speed it up and allow us to serve more customers whilst improving the team’s working conditions. The improvements will also allow us to add vegan and halal food to our menu free from the risk of cross-contamination. This will give us two new markets to tap into and focus our marketing towards.
The single most important part of the whole refit, over and above the cost savings, is that it will give our team better working conditions by taking some of the stress and strain out of their shifts. We need to buy the best equipment to get the best performance.
It’s great that you are putting an emphasis on better working conditions.
We’re great believers in better benefits and fair pay for hospitality staff. The accusation by a government minister last year that British businesses were drunk on cheap labour was outrageous. However, hospitality has a job to do in terms of making the industry a more attractive career choice if we want to employ the best talent.
What are you doing to attract and retain staff?
We are a Living Wage Employer and have been since 2018 and we offer an attractive and enhanced benefits package. This includes an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) from Hospitality Action which gives our staff access to comprehensive support around issues such as well-being, mental health, addiction and crisis and trauma management. Our staff also have access to a national discounts platform, giving discounts off thousands of brands and shops, and we have set up an in-house wholesale grocery purchasing scheme, so staff can buy their groceries through the company at our wholesale prices.
We also subscribe to a feedback platform called Work in Confidence which gives our team the opportunity to give feedback anonymously and take part in regular ‘temperature check’ surveys.
Is the staffing crisis affecting the Cafe?
Yes, in several different ways. The disadvantage of our beautiful and remote location is that it is especially difficult to hire staff. The fact we offer enhanced benefits and staff accommodation is vital. One of the reasons we’ve been so busy, is probably that a lot of businesses haven’t been able to open their usual hours and days, because they haven’t got enough staff. We had to triage some of our services in the middle of the summer to keep going but we’ve remained open seven days a week from 7.30am till 9pm.
You are a Regional Food Tourism Ambassador, tell me about that.
I’m leading a project, which has just received a significant amount of government funding, to establish a pilot programme in the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. The aim is to create an off-the-shelf welfare, benefits and training package for hospitality businesses which they can tap into at a very affordable price. If it’s successful, it will be rolled out more widely throughout hospitality in Scotland and perhaps within the fish and chip industry in the future.
What would be your top tip to help businesses improve profits?
I would recommend using a concept called Aggregation of Marginal Gains, which focusses on small changes that by themselves don’t mean much but when put together can give a massive gain. Just by improving 1% per day for a year, you’ll be 37 times better off than when you started. It’s one of the most powerful management tools we’ve got and our success has very much been, and will be, dictated by this concept.
What do you think the next 12 months hold?
It’s going to be very challenging on multiple fronts. Any fool can spend money if they’ve got it, it’s another thing using an investment to make money, especially in today’s climate. Being on top of pricing, portion control, and wastage, targeting our marketing, staff efficiencies and performance are all going to be more important than ever..
What advice can you give other operators?
Keep your head in the game and don’t get distracted, stressed or depressed by things that you’ve got no control over. Focus on the things you can change. Build a network and talk to constructive and positive people because running your own business can be very lonely.
Ask questions and always be kind when others ask questions because you don’t know how desperate that person might be.