Chef Yes Chef (54 years and still Counting)


Chapter Twenty Three

SCOTLAND

Blackaddie House Hotel

Monday 24th September 2007, a day and a date forever etched deeply on my mind, one never to be forgotten. The day prior, Sunday the 23rd was my wife’s birthday, the day I had the car packed to the gunnels complete with two dogs and set off for Scotland, nope timing wasn’t great but hey you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do! 

We had agreed to buy Blackaddie House Hotel in the small town of Sanquhar in the north of Dumfries & Galloway, South West Scotland, an area I knew fairly well having worked just down the road as it were in Dumfries, although I had only ever travelled through Sanquhar, I had never actually stopped in it before.

Blackaddie House, accessed via a drive way about 80 yards or so along from the road, was surrounded by fields. Built in 1540 it was once the manse to the local church, was now in essence a small local hotel set in around 2 acres of grounds with the river Nith forming one of its borders and sited on the outskirts of the town. It had 9 bedrooms and three self-catering cottages. We were looking for something with around 10 bedrooms so this was a perfect size. 

It had a good size car park out front with a very large lawn and pretty, well planted colourful flower beds as well as another car park, almost as big at the back of the house too. The 3 holiday cottages were accessed via the back yard and overlooked the river with a bit of a lawn in front of them and a dry-stone wall.

Downstairs it had a lovely porch entrance, bar, a lounge, more like a TV room than anything, the restaurant spread over two rooms, one of these being a conservatory and a small thin room to the side, in total seating about 22. The conservatory looked out onto a pretty area of garden and the river beyond. Then there was another room between the restaurant and the kitchen, when we took over it was used, it seemed almost solely, as the ironing room. Two ironing boards set up, it seemed permanently! A smallish but big enough kitchen, separate still room with dishwasher, a dry store, another store room that held a chest freezer and three or four domestic refrigerators and a dehumidifier (to keep the room cool to help the fridges work). Then a biggish room used for storage and laundry.

While it boasted 3 Visit Scotland Stars as a Country House hotel it was in fact a very run-down property in need of some very serious love and attention (and money). It was catering almost exclusively for locals for food and drink but with very little trade in the way of rooms. Its clientele pretty much came from a radius of about 5 miles. So, what did we see in it that made us want to buy it? Well, we could see potential. 30 miles from Dumfries, 32 miles to Ayr, a similar distance to Kilmarnock, 45 miles or so to Glasgow, 55 to Edinburgh, 60 to Carlisle, on the route of the Southern Upland Way, with a salmon river at the bottom of the garden, only 9 miles from the highest village in Scotland and set in what is essentially a beautiful part of the world. It also had a separate 2-bedroom bungalow, where the owners and their son lived. All extremely well laid out and it had only been completed a few years. It consisted of a huge kitchen with large French doors out to the garden, a large living room also with large French doors onto the garden, and a good-sized bathroom with bath and separate shower, all of which meant we would not have to live in either the attic or the basement as so many hoteliers do, something neither of us never wanted to do, hence it taking so long to find somewhere suitable. It also had the benefit of a two-story flat at the back of the building occupied by the mother of one of the owners along with her partner. This consisted of a very decent size kitchen diner, a good size living room and upstairs a bedroom, dressing area and bathroom. This would suit Jane’s father perfectly. He lived by himself in Mansfield, not just round the corner even when we were in Norfolk never mind in Scotland.  Jane worried about him, into his eighties he needed someone to keep an eye on him so having somewhere like this that he could move into and have Jane there on hand all the time to make sure he was okay was a real boon. What was not to like? Read on!

Drive                                                                  Hall                                                                Lounge

The sale was due to go through on the 24th so I had to be there for that to happen. For at least 3 days prior I had been picking lots of apples, and we had lots of apples that year on our trees hat year. I didn’t want to waste them so I took as many as I could get in the car with me which meant picking them then, individually wrapping them and filling boxes, as I say along with 2 dogs, all their paraphernalia as well as with all of my own of course and drove the 5-6 hours it took to get up there.

I stayed in one of the rooms in the hotel on the Sunday night and early Monday morning things started to happen, the first was the valuer who was there to value the stock as we were also purchasing all the stock. This took quite a while to go through and the actual sale took place almost bang on 12 noon. At which point the owners, there were 4 of them working in the business, the two main ones were husband and wife along with their 4-year-old son, her mother and mothers’ partner also lived there and both worked in the business, immediately headed for the door, he literally threw the hotel keys at me saying, take them, I’m glad to be out of here, as she was saying thank you and goodbye. I guessed he was happy to be gone.

Within minutes I found out we had no telephone lines. Turns out the departing owners had cancelled the telephone & internet contract, not as you would think transferred it, but cancelled it so as of noon on our 1st day we had no telephones or access to the internet. This meant I spent the first 2 hours of our tenure on the phone to BT trying to get the lines back on again, in the end it took 5 days, it was the Friday before we got them back and once again could contact the outside world, not a great way to start a business!

We inherited all the staff as you do when buying an ongoing business. We had three in the kitchen, Gordon (the head chef), Jazzer and a lady who only worked on breakfasts and lunch Monday to Friday, apparently the outgoing owner had been a chef, I did say apparently, you’ll notice. Four I think it was in housekeeping. Mags the mainstay and two others, a mother and daughter and a casual for week-ends. Then there was Linda front of house, only one out front as Mrs owner worked front of house along with her mother and her mother’s partner, apparently he had once been a publican. Then we also had Willie, the gardener. They all thought, the owners and staff, that the food was the bees’ knees and apparently someone had once told them they had the best restaurant for many many miles around. That someone sadly hadn’t got any more of an idea about food than the owners or the so called chefs. I always find it difficult to call people chefs when they so clearly aren’t and I certainly had that problem here.

 

                        Our House                                  The Old Greenhouse                     View of the river from one of the rooms

So there I was, the proud (supposedly) owner of this hotel in Sanquhar. I was here by myself although I had two of our dogs with me but I had left my wife and our son back in Norfolk. I had taken over from the 4 working owners while jane packed up the house in Norfolk. I also had no telephones or internet either which made things difficult. It was to be 3 weeks before she could come up, Connor was at school and was the main reason why we had not all come up together, he did not break up for half term until mid-October and there was no point in him missing those 3 weeks.

That very first day at around 4.30 in the afternoon our very first customers turned up, a lovely couple, Mike & Jackie, who had not booked but were looking for a room. It’s hard to believe that from that day this couple came back the same week every year for the next 14 years that we owned Blackaddie. We became and still are now good friends, and we looked forward to seeing them every year since.

The first few days went as well as could be expected, the staff all mucked in and got me through it, I had already decided before taking over that I would not alter anything until Jane had been here for at least 2 or 3 weeks, we needed to get the lie of the land first. To be honest I had a pretty good idea of what I was going to be faced with before getting there and the first few days did nothing more than confirm that I was right. bar three staff the rest were a nightmare and the customers were no better.

My first Friday night, day 5 of our tenure, it was around 6pm, I was stood at the end of the bar, no customers in and I was talking to Jane on the telephone, we had been reconnected only about an hour prior. Two people walked into the bar, a man and a woman, both probably early 20’s. she came up to the bar while he hung back, we found this was the way of locals, the woman came to the bar to place the first drink and food order while the male hung back looking shifty. As they walked in the door I said to Jane, dear God, you’ll never believe what’s just walked in! 

He had a baseball cap on – backwards, dirty, low-slung jeans so half his underwear were showing above them and I swear his knuckles were dragging on the ground, she wasn’t much better. She ordered two cokes and two fish & chips. I very nearly put the place straight back on the market again there and then. I just left Linda to take care of them and I continued to talk to Jane. I knew I couldn’t possibly deal with them without being rude as a minimum so I walked away. Between them they spent less than £20.00. There was no way I was going to serve people like that and charge so little too, my plan had to change.

On the first Saturday we had a booking for around 19 people I think it was for 2 nights DBB, I think they were a walking group so our first real test. 

We got through that week-end without too many incidents and with me hanging back, watching more than anything else, trying not to get involved until I had my ducks in a row. We limped through the following weeks until Jane and Connor arrived just letting the place run as it always had, I worked the bar and stayed away from the kitchen, food and service. I might have killed someone had I not. We kept on buying everything they had bought previously, frozen breaded fish and frozen chips both from cash & carry. Actually, the majority of what was used came from C&C, the only real suppliers they had were the laundry, a really crappy butcher, a wine supplier and the brewery, that was it. The wines were virtually all the same and the list very small. The menu, well that ran to 4 A4 pages, it was ridiculous as the majority of what they sold was fish & chips anyway.

When Jane arrived with Connor and our furniture, we first of all had to settle into the house and get Connor settled in too as he was due to start School the following week. We had him enrolled in the primary school in the town and he was our priority before we could tackle the hotel properly.

Once Connor was at school the real work could begin. I never took the place on with the thought of going for awards, all I wanted was a good quality welcoming hotel that served the sort of food people would come flooding back for. Good well sourced ingredients, cooked properly and served with a smile. Yes, the place needed work and money spending on it, all the rooms needed upgrading (seriously), the public spaces were tired, dated and scruffy, the food was dire, the service no better. The reputation was poor and trade worse. We had a really steep uphill climb ahead of us, but one we could and would surmount, we knew what needed doing and how to do it but where to start?

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