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Global Foodservice: Built on water

Seafood restaurant provides base for Loch-side enterprise

The Crannog Restaurant had humble beginnings as a waterfront bait shed.   - Photos courtesy of The Crannog Restaurant
By Anthony Fletcher
July 01, 2013

Diversifying business interests can be a clever strategy for when times get tough, though it is equally important not to spread yourself too thin. One seafood restaurant in the Scottish Highlands, The Crannog Restaurant, has attempted to strike a balance and forge a little empire on the shores of Loch Linnhe. 

Located in a refurbished bait shed on the Fort William town pier, the restaurant has become the centerpiece of a business that began a quarter of a century ago with fishing. Local fisherman Finlay Finlayson was catching langoustines for sale in London when he came upon the idea of selling fresh seafood in town. He converted the old bait shed into a restaurant, and 24 years later the establishment is still going strong. An eye for an opportunity has continued to serve Finlayson well, for the restaurant now forms an integral part of the Crannog Concept business.

“The population here triples in the summer, so Finlay was aware of the tourism potential in the area,” says Olivia Gemmill, The Crannog Restaurant’s marketing and communication manager. “Lots of customers are now repeat customers, not just from Scotland and England, but from further afield.”

The secrets to the restaurant’s success, says Gemmill, are fairly straightforward: spectacular loch-side location and keeping things simple. The menu changes according to season and availability, while a specials board lists the fresh catch. “Our menu is often dictated by the fishermen,” she says. “But this need for flexibility is both a challenge and an opportunity; our chefs need to be creative!” The head chef at Crannog is local Stuart McLaughlin, who served his apprenticeship at the restaurant before gaining experience abroad.

Appetizers include pan-fried scallops at £9.50 ($14.30), Inverlochy salmon parcels at £7.95 ($12) and steamed clams and mussels for £8.95 ($13.50). Entrées include a seafood platter for two at £70 ($105), sole fillets served with asparagus, spring onion mash and
lemon hollandaise for £17.75 ($26.70) and seared salmon fillet with potato cake, cured salmon cream and a fennel and orange salad for £16.95 ($25.50). 

There is also a set two-course lunch menu for £12.95 ($20.25); diners can choose from a list of appetizers including marinated mackerel with fennel and orange and smoked salmon with a caper salad. The list of entrées includes beer-battered haddock fillet with sautéed potatoes and rémoulade and Crannog fishcakes with salad and hollandaise. 

“We always try and source at a reasonable price, so sourcing is a major issue for us,” says Gemmill. “We are obviously affected by fishing quotas, but not to the same extent as other parts of the country. For example, serving cod is a big issue down south at the moment — it’s seen as a bad thing because of overfishing — but in the deep waters around here, cod is abundant.” 

As the restaurant business began to take off in the early 1990s, Finlayson spotted another golden opportunity: operating cruises around the loch. He bought an old boat, revamped it and turned it into a viable
tourist vessel. This has enabled the business to take further advantage of the natural environment, with visitors on the lookout for porpoises, seals and golden eagles. 

“Our cruise ship is on the national register of historic vessels,” says Gemmill. “It provides something for our customers to do after a meal and fits nicely into the theme of water.” Finlayson has also been able to promote the combination of restaurant and cruise boat to break into the wedding market, offering a seafood wedding menu served on board. A recent wedding menu included smoked salmon roulade and herb-crusted cod. 

The most recent expansion for Crannog Concept was the purchase in 2004 of an underwater training center in Fort William. The center is primarily used for health and safety training; Scotland has a booming offshore oil and gas sector. “We saw this as another excellent business opportunity,” says Gemmill. “The challenge, of course, is that the price of oil influences demand for our services, but unlike much of the rest of the U.K. economy, the oil and gas sector is booming This is certainly one advantage of diversifying our business practices.”

For the moment, the Crannog Concept, built around sustainably exploiting the opportunities provided by Fort William’s Loch-side location, is ticking along nicely. There are no immediate plans for further expansion, though Finlayson and his team always keep an eye out. “In summer we’re always full, so we could double the size of the restaurant; unfortunately it’s on a pier!” says Gemmill. “I think in the near future we’ll focus on more evening cruises, taking guests over to the next loch.” 

Contributing Editor Anthony Fletcher lives in Brussels

      July 2013 - SeaFood Business 

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