One of the licensed trade’s most enthusiastic characters is surely Graham Blaikie. As Karen Peattie discovers, he never stops trying to improve the experience for customers at his East Lothian bar and restaurant, the Mercat Grill – and dogs are welcome too
FOR Graham Blaikie, owner of the award-winning Mercat Grill bar and restaurant in East Lothian, having an active role within the SLTA has never been more important.
“When I was starting out on my own I remember reading an article about someone who said that the best advice he’d ever been given was to join a trade association and get involved,” he explains.
“At that time I didn’t know much about the SLTA but I thought to myself that it would be good to get involved and meet like-minded people.”
Currently chairman of the South East Scottish Licensed Trade Association, Graham is passionate about working with colleagues and the wider industry to help operators make the most of their businesses. “A successful licensed trade helps everyone involved in it and I think we all have a duty to support our trade association,” he suggests.
He’s certainly got plenty of experience. Graham, from Penicuik, was a bar manager with JD Wetherspoon before leasing his first pub, The Sportsman’s Bar in Musselburgh, from Belhaven. From there, he took on The Mercat bar near Edinburgh’s Haymarket Station – also leased from Belhaven – and turned it into a huge success, picking up several awards along the way.
However, the former JD Wetherspoon pub manager was keen to have a place of his own and in 2011 decided to take over the Mercat Grill in Whitecraig, near Musselburgh. “I went from managing The Standing Order in George Street to a small pub in Musselburgh so there was quite a contrast,” says Graham.
“I really wanted to push myself, though, and get involved in an operation that served food,” he continues. “That opportunity was The Mercat at Haymarket so when I felt I’d done all I could there I started looking for a business to buy and that brought me back to Musselburgh.”
Today, the Mercat Grill is very much the focus of the local community although business at that time was struggling and it would take two years for the purchase to be completed.
“I worked in bars when I was at college, I’ve lived in the States and I was four years with Wetherspoon’s so nothing really fazes me,” he laughs. “I learned pretty quickly in life that you only get out what you put in – it’s certainly true of the licensed trade and you also need to look ahead, keep abreast of what’s happening in your industry and make plans for the future.
“Do something different that makes you different from everyone else, provide your customers with added-value services and give them the best possible customer service – that’s how you have to do it when there are so many challenges facing our industry nowadays.”
For example, earlier this year the Mercat became the first in Scotland to install a tracker screen to make sure customers don’t miss their bus. Created by South East of Scotland transport (SEStran), the real-time bus tracker system keeps people up to date with local services displaying when they will arrive at local stops.
Graham, a past-president of the 49 Wine and Spirit Club, also has his own 16-seater minibus to take customers home. “It’s a well-used service and I have a fantastic driver who’s worth his weight in gold,” he points out.
He also took being a dog-friendly pub to an entirely new level after introducing canine beer and dog treats. Snuffle is a non-fizzy, non-alcoholic Belgian beer, made from beef or chicken and malt barley extracts.
“I wouldn’t say I’m reinventing the wheel but I’m always thinking about what I can do to attract new customers and encourage existing ones to come in more often,” says Graham. “We’re a family-friendly one so why not be a dog-friendly one too?
“A lot of customers live alone and only have their dog for company so it’s good for them to be able to bring their best friend to the pub with them.”