Alan Russell, a member of the SLTA for almost 30 years, talks to Karen Peattie about some of the challenges facing the licensed trade and why it needs a strong trade association to speak on its behalf
EAST Lothian businessman Alan Russell admits to feeling “somewhat weary” after a busy trip to his wholesaler Booker’s catering trade show at Silverstone – home of the Formula 1 British Grand Prix – but believes that taking two days out of his business is well worth the effort.
“It was an excellent networking opportunity and a chance to meet other people in the trade,” says industry stalwart Alan, owner of the popular Longniddry Inn, originally a blacksmith’s forge and cottages, The Coronation Restaurant in Gorebridge and the boutique Adniston Manor B&B in Macmerry.
“Around 40 of us went down to Northamptonshire from Scotland this year and as well as having the chance to speak to each other we met a lot of suppliers and were able to take advantage of special deals – it was tiring but really beneficial for my business.”
Alan, who plays an active role in Edinburgh and was chairman of the Edinburth and South East Licensed Trade Association and both president of the East Lothian Licensed Trade Association and 49 Wine and Spirit Club, likens the networking aspect of his recent trip to that offered by the Scottish Licensed Trade Association.
Involved with the SLTA for around 30 years, Alan has worked in the industry for 43 years and been in business for 35 so he’s speaking from experience. “I support the SLTA because you get to meet like-minded business people who face the same challenges as you,” he explains.
“The SLTA does so much behind the scenes and probably doesn’t get enough credit for it,” he continues. “On the rates issue, for example, the SLTA has been campaigning for years to get a better deal for its members and when you look at all the benefits you get as a member now, why wouldn’t you want to be involved?
“It’s a trade association that’s moved with the times and has changed with the industry – it has its finger on the pulse of all the big issues affecting the licensed trade and works incredibly hard on our behalf and it’s reassuring for me to know that there are passionate and committed people fighting our industry’s corner.”
Alan recalls the days when over 600 people would attend the association’s conference at Coylumbridge. “We don’t do anything on that scale now but I reckon the association is even more relevant and important now than it was back then,” says Alan.
“Legislation is constantly moving so we’re doing a huge amount of work on behalf of members that isn’t always reported – and bear in mind that those who aren’t SLTA members benefit from those efforts. It’s an organisation with a lot of clout these days.”
Alan has invested heavily in his business. “We refurbished the Longniddry Inn last year and The Coronation Restaurant was refurbished earlier this year,” he says.
“My wife Audrey, who runs our non-licensed B&B in Macmerry, has a great eye for design and has created a great look for both premises – business is up at both and at The Coronation Inn we’ve also benefited from the opening of the new Borders Railway.
“You need to look to the future and do what you can to keep people coming back into your premises,” he continues. “I always say it’s a bit like being an actor – you open the doors then take to the stage to make sure people enjoy themselves and have a great experience.
“I’m a very hands-on operator and always have been so regular customers are used to seeing me about the place – I’m not just floating around and will happily roll my sleeves up to do what needs to be done.”
Indeed, Alan’s sleeves have been rolled up perhaps a little bit more than usual in recent months due to staff shortages. “We talk about the high-profile issues affecting the trade like rates and VAT and of course they’re challenges for everyone in the industry,” he says. “However, one my biggest problems this year has been a glut of chefs.
“People move onto new jobs and that happens in every business – you accept that, wish them well and bring in someone else – but in my area there’s a shortage of chefs coming through college and that’s a wider issue we must address.”
With Alan’s kitchens now running with a full staff does he have plans to take his foot off the break? “Not at all,” he confirms.