The Big Review of 2023

The Big Review of 2023

The year 2023 has passed and it's time to reflect on it and who else would be better for the job than our founder and co-owner, Sarah Heward. So here it is, the highs and lows of the year for our Cafe and the industry.

Highs of 2023

Despite all the gloom, change and instability the customers kept coming and our excellent team and hard working suppliers rose to the occasion.

We achieved our busiest and best performance by all major metrics, working smarter AND harder!

2023, A Year of Big Wins 

In February we won the Field to Fryer Award for the Best Chips in the UK at the National Federation of Fish Friers - National Federation of Fish Friers - NFFF National Fish & Chip Awards 2023.

In May we reached no. 24 in The Caterer list of the 30 Best Places to Work in UK Hospitality.

We held another season of Pick n Chips litterpicks with 95 volunteers, collecting a further 205 sacks of rubbish (total to date +550 sacks/+ 3.5 tonnes).

In November, Imogen Atkinson reached the Top 6 in Drywite Ltd Young Fish Fryer of the Year Competition 2024.

In December we reached the Top 3 in NFFF Training & Development Award at the National F & C Awards 2024.

We raised a further £3050 for Toilet Twinning bringing the total of loos built in schools and communities in Malawi to 170.

We attained another A grade at the annual Accredited Caterer audit by Coeliac UK for the 9th consecutive year and held another successful Gluten Free Fortnight with plans to hold the event twice in 2024.

A Year of Upgrades

We continued investing to upgrade and modernise the café over three years, 2022-2025. We are improving the energy efficiency of the building and our equipment, making sure our team has the tools and tech to do the best job possible.

A Year of Team Development

Team members attended training and industry events at Hospitality Industry Trust Scotland, NFFF frying school in Leeds, Women in Fish & Chips workshop, Isle of Ely Produce Open Day, The Great Sausage Roll Off, The Scottish Parliament for the UN International Day for Disabled People, the launch of the Fish & Chip Awards at Whiteheads Fish & Chips in Hornsea and a magnificent study tour visit to Norway, courtesy of Seafood from Norway.

A Year of Events 

The business supported The Highland Trail 550, The Killin Highland Games Hill Race, the Killin Drama Club The Oban Lorne RFC minis team and provided prizes for numerous local events.

We are delighted that the Highland Fling Race will be back in 2024 and we'll be helping with vital refuelling for runners and marshals in the 'Finishers food tent'.

A Year of Community Involvement

I sat on The Tourism & Hospitality Skills Group, the Parliamentary Cross Party Group on Changing Places Toilets, the NP Destination Group and judged for The Thistle Awards.

The Tyndrum Infrastructure Group (a local charity that we are actively involved in) made tangible and important steps forward with the campaign for a Changing Places UK toilet in Tyndrum.

Working with The Green Welly Stop and the Strathfillan Community Development Trust to identify a suitable site. We carried out a feasibility study, got planning consent and finally have a Shovel Ready scheme. We only need the capital to build it now and we are working hard on securing the funding to start building this vital facility in 2024.


Lows of 2023

Concerning Outlook for the Scottish Hospitality & Tourism Industry

Our concerns about the overall health and sustainability of rural Scottish Hospitality & Tourism only deepened in 2023. The politicians only seemed to get more further removed from the issues and failed even to turn up when they were expected or had promised to do so.

In recent data for our local area, the cohort 0-18 years old has declined by 24% over the last 5 years. This is factual evidence of rural communities dying on their feet. The most serious issues are a chronic lack of housing, local public transport and community & visitor infrastructure.

Hospitality Unlimited, a Lost Opportunity

The shelving of the project Hospitality Unlimited which was universally well received and supported throughout the industry came about after the absence of political appetite to fund phase 2. This was just more evidence of a lack of commitment to Scottish hospitality & tourism, even when it's trying to help itself and involved only a modest investment of £100K. This was a project I led as a Regional Tourism Ambassador, a two year voluntary position with the overall aim of enhancing Scottish food tourism.

Hospitality Unlimited was a pilot project based in the Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park and Stirling Council area, informed by some of the tried and tested practices that have proved so successful for us at the café.

The aim was to create an affordable and accessible tool for small businesses to help them better recruit & retain employees. Sadly, after two years of work and £48K of public money, the funding was unexpectedly pulled. Personally, I think it was a very short-sighted mistake to let the project go. This project had the potential to be a game changer, particularly for hospitality & tourism in fragile rural areas and it's not like there are any alternatives on offer.

The Year The Flexible Workforce Development Fund Ended

Then, just before Christmas Argyll College informed us that the Flexible Workforce Development Fund which was a grant to help businesses train and upskill their workforce, has been withdrawn. We were in the process of setting up three Modern Apprenticeships, using the fund with the College.

The Year Tyndrum Goldmine Closed

Finally, The Tyndrum Goldmine is now officially in administration and has been removed from AIM. I am sorry for all those who have lost their jobs or have unpaid bills. From a community and social point of view, there’s been very little if any of the much hyped ‘high quality’ professional development for locals, no new housing or useful infrastructure and no meaningful monetary contribution for community benefit.  Hopefully, the bond reserved for environmental repair will be enough to do an acceptable job.

I have little doubt that the people who enabled an industrial development to proceed in one of Scotland’s National Parks, will have nothing to say on the matter of its demise. I can't help thinking that we deserve so much better, and wouldn’t it be great if some lessons were learned for the next project through honest and open appraisal, but I’m not holding my breath.

Final Thoughts

Wrapping up, none of the work we've done, achievements we've made or tax we’ve paid at The Real Food Café would be possible without the support of my husband and business partner, Alan McColm and our team led by Charles Mair.

As for myself, it's fortunate that my resilience and enthusiasm for hospitality and our community doesn't fade, it only gets stronger as we work towards our 20 year anniversary in 2025.

Happy New Year, onwards, upwards.