The Real Food Café in Tyndrum is preparing to celebrate its 12th anniversary next month, and owner Sarah Heward only took over the site after chancing upon an advert for the then-derelict premises while working in the City.
She and her husband decided to snap up the former Little Chef and move up north, seeking a better work-life balance and feeling that they could “do something better than the previous occupiers”. They bought it freehold from Travelodge, which then owned Little Chef and later sold the brand and 235 restaurants to The Peoples Restaurant Group in a £52 million deal as it sought to focus on its budget hotels.
After a “very rudimentary patch-up job”, including filling the holes in the roof, the cafe opened its doors for the first time in April 2005, timed to capitalise on the key summer trading period.
“We did that, and that was really the start of the journey [but] over the years there’s been a huge number of challenges, both personal and professional.” These include the sudden death of her husband, who had planned to work as a consultant in Aberdeen in the oil industry when they moved to Scotland but took an active role in the café.
But she persisted, and the business, which benefits from its location on the West Highland Way, started picking up awards and expects to turn over well in excess of £1m net this year.
Before opening the café, Heward’s background was in hospitality, and her first job out of college was in the Borders, working at a now-defunct shooting lodge. “That started my love affair with Scotland,” she said.
She later worked in London at Corney & Barrow, which had various wine bars in the City and a wine merchant business.
Working her way up the ranks, she was appointed managing director, a role she held for well over ten years.
However, motivated by factors including a boardroom change at the firm and the fact that she and her husband, who was working all over the world, never saw each other, they felt it was time for a change.
“We intuitively felt there was a gap in the market,” she says, perceiving a lack of places catering for outdoorsy people like them “who might be a bit muddy” and have dogs with them, with many rural sites instead geared up for coach parties.
“We felt that there was an opportunity to create something that offered a service and product to people pretty much like ourselves. Actually, in that regard I think we’ve been really successful. Our customer base is a very broad spectrum of people from all over the world.”
And, like so much of the hospitality trade, its staff also come from far and wide, with Heward pointing out that Tyndrum has considerably more jobs than residents, so employers have to import workers.
She says the cafe relies on Eastern European labour, and in fact “just wouldn’t have got off the ground” without it. Now on the books are several Romanians and Bulgarians, with overall headcount split equally between locals and Eastern Europeans.
It therefore almost goes without saying that Heward sees Brexit as challenging. “It’s not a positive move from our point of view as business people here,” she says, also citing her recruiter in Eastern Europe reporting a major drop in applications.
The Real Food Café’s team currently fluctuates in size depending on the time of year, ranging from 18 up to 28 in the peak of the season, and is growing every year, Heward also remarks.
Seasonal variation was one factor she says the firm “dramatically underestimated” at first, but sees the consequent differing in staff numbers as reducing, and she outlines concrete targets, by 2020 aiming to be turning over £1.6m net, boosted by adding a food production unit and manufacturing its cakes.
In addition to a “grab and go” kiosk, work is under way on a mobile unit set to launch at the end of April, and there is also a mooted move into retail, bottling and selling its award-winning tartare sauce.
With an established brand, is a second site something she is considering? It’s a case of never say never, but focusing on the core location and its related activity is evidently providing plenty to do in the meantime. “We’re busy enough,” she says.
Born: 1965, Wolverhampton
Education: Millfield School and then Cordon Bleu College
First job: Working at Sainsbury’s making freshly squeezed orange juice!
Ambition while at school: To be an air hostess and then a dentist!
What car do you drive? Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV
Favourite mode of transport: Legs, bike and train.
Kindle or book? Book
Reading material: Peter May
Can’t live without: My husband-to-be (I’m getting married in September) and my dogs
What makes you angry: Litter
Best thing about your job: Seeing development and progress with people, product and business performance
Best business advice you’ve ever been given: Don’t be afraid to ask for help, admit your weaknesses and vulnerabilities and choose to do something about them