Stuart Riddle and wife Joanna Riddle are the couple behind The Woodside in Doune. The couple also own The Riverside in Dunblane and the Allan Park in Stirling. I met Stuart and Joanna Riddle just as they were entering into the last phase of the refurbishment of the Woodside and with only weeks to opening the couple were amazingly calm.
As we chatted over a coffee contractors popped their heads in but all certainly seemed to be going to plan. and I’m delighted to say it opened on time. The investment in The Woodside is £1.4m and internally it has been completely rebuilt.
Customers will be able to enjoy a contemporary take on a modern pub restaurant and an outside terrace as well as 11 letting rooms and a function suite. All in all there are 140 covers but Stuart believes that using the word covers is a bit of an anomaly because everyone turns their tables.
But before we discuss their latest venture, I wanted to find out more about the couple and their background. Certainly, they make a good team. Joanna is very much front facing when it comes to customers but Stuart is the planner and with his chef’s background he is passionate about every bite they serve and this comes across in spades. Or should that be ladels? He is also meticulous when it comes to planning – a skill he has honed since his early days as a chef.
Stuart tells me “I started going to France when I was two and I can remember bouncing around France with my parents and eating out. Since then, I have always been interested in food so much so that I asked for a Wok for Christmas when I was 13.”
Food may have been a passion, but school wasn’t despite his parents being teachers. After leaving school his first job was at the Golf View in Nairn where he hails from and where he met Joanna – in fact the two married at the hotel after meeting at school.
But he could quite easily have been a butcher as at the time he applied for two jobs and luckily the job at the Golf View came in before the butcher responded. At the Golf View it was Head Chef George McKay who took Stuart under his wing.
Says Stuart, “He looked a bit like a wider version of Obi-Wan Kenobi but with a taste for Chablis. If it hadn’t been for George none of this would have happened.”
From Commis at the Golf View Stuart then went to the Newton Hotel also in Nairn as sous-chef. The hotel gained one Rosette when he was there and over the next few years he worked his way up through the ranks at various establishments, but it was at the Dunain Park In Inverness when he was 25 that he got his first role as Head Chef.
As well as being his first it was also his last. Within a few years he was ready for a change, and he wanted an easier life. Food sales beckoned and his new career took him to Chester where he got involved in product development. He then joined Punch Taverns/ Spirit Group where he also did product development – all of the time moving up the ladder.
After Punch Stuart took a job with Belhaven Pubs having been lured there by then boss Jeff Myers and when Greene King bought it he was lured back down South and worked in Bury St Edmunds looking after the company’s premium division Metropolitan pubs (which now own the Ubiquitous Chip).
But, says Stuart “By 2013 I knew my days would be numbered at Greene King. It was almost inevitable, but Joanne and I had already decided that we would rather be masters of our own destinies and had already started planning our own business. So I was delighted when I got offered a redundancy package. The timing was just perfect. Instead of having to move to London as Head of Innovation, we got to move back to Scotland.
“Just before getting the package we had started thinking about leasing and saw that the Old Bridge Inn in Linlithgow was up for sale. At the same time I saw an advert for a company called Cairn Leisure a property business which said ‘we buy pubs and will rent them out to you’. I checked the company out and found they had just bought the Stirling Arms in Dunblane so we asked them to look at Linlithgow. But we ended up renting the Stirling Arms.
“Originally three parties owned the property business – but after about six months one wanted out and we bought their share. This means we are our own landlords because we have a third of the share in the business. It has worked out really well.”
The Stirling Arms was rebranded as The Riverside – a pub kitchen & coffee house. Says Stuart, “When we started on the Riverside we only had a small overdraft. I remember going into the Royal Bank of Scotland and showing them a plan which said, ‘We are going to do 40 lunches on a Saturday maybe 35 dinners and I gave them a figure of £345K as projected income because I knew if I had given them what I thought it would actually do they would have laughed at us.”
He continues, “Back then it was about keeping costs as low as possible, and we did a lot of the work ourselves although we still haven’t done the rooms!”
Until that point Stuart and Joanna had never worked together. Joanna had kept the home fires burning and had various jobs, but not in hospitality. Joanna smiles, “To be honest being Stuart’s wife is a full-time job! I’ve moved house ten times!
“That changed when we opened The Riverside. Stuart spent all of his time in the kitchen at the start and I spent my time in the bar looking after customers. I pulled the shifts – I was there from 9 am – 3 pm every day and worked nine months without a day off.”
Joanna became the face of The Riverside and remained so until Richard McMullan their Operations Manager joined in October 2016. The Riverside is still Stuart’s favourite venue out of the three they own.
He says, “I get a big big kick when I am sitting in The Riverside when it is busy, and everything is perfect – and no one has a clue who I am. The Riverside, to me, is the best pub in the whole world by a country mile. I always get a warm fuzzy feeling there.”
”We do the small things well – the lighting is right, the fire is burning and the candles are lit – and we do a great dishes like fish and chips.”
In 2018, five years after opening The Riverside, they followed its success by opening The Allan Park in Stirling which was also their first foray into rooms. It has four in the basement and four up top. They moved a few rooms around as well as a few walls and redecorated.
The Allan Park originally had the same menu as The Riverside, and the same pricing, as well as a similar decor. The aim was to replicated the Riverside. Stuart comments, “Unfortunately we don’t have the luxury of deciding what customer’s perceptions are.” Inexplicably the customers didn’t treat the new Allan Park the same way as The Riverside.
Explains Joanna, “At The Riverside we attracted mums and dads, kids and dogs – everyone is comfortable there. But Allan Park does not attract the same people. Our customers there get dressed up. It’s probably because it is a Georgian building, and they perceive it as being more premium. So now we have rebranded it – it has got a different menu and logo – the whole kaboodle.
“Everything is more premium although there are some dishes that are the same the menu differs considerably. The good news is that both venues do equally well.
“When I look at the sales spread – by close of play Thursday The Riverside is ahead, but by close of play Sunday it is 50/50,” Stuart reveals.
The public areas are not recognisable for its previoius incarnation. The couple wanted The Woodside to land somewhere between their two other venues. So they have created different zones – a more casual area, an area which they think the customers would gravitate towards if they are more dressed up, as well as a bar area and a large terrace which overlooks the river.
They have defined the areas with different décor including fabrics and seating areas. “We think people who have been mountain biking or out for a dog walk will naturally gravitate to where they feel comfortable. I think people will instinctively end up in the right area.” says Joanne.
The hotel also has 11 beautifully decorated bedrooms and there will be a function suite too. Stuart thinks the location of The Woodside is perfect. He tells me, “Ten thousand cars go past here during the summer. We will need that business. Although people in Doune are very excited we are opening, because the town has been dry for a while, they alone couldn’t pay back the money we have invested.”
But he has been left a bit frustrated by certain stipulations from building control regarding the lowering of his bar to allow wheelchair access. It’s not that Stuart is against making the business accessible for disabled people he is in a wheelchair himself due to being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis just as the couple completed The Riverside. However, he believes some of the rules created by able-bodied people are just nonsense.
“They wanted me to lower part of the bar so that people in wheelchairs can order at the bar – but even if they can order two pints they can’t wheel it back to their tables as they couldn’t carry them! Instead we prefer to meet people at the door, take them to the table, and allow them to pay when we bring the card machine to the table.”
Stuart may be in a wheelchair which means he can’t spend as much time in the kitchen as he would like but the only concession to his illness appears to be some wider corridors and wider areas in the kitchen. He has learned through the years to adapt and he now uses technology to control things literally from his fingertips. Stuart reckons there can’t be that many hospitality entrepreneurs with as much focus on technology as him. From controlling the lighting in his venues through his phone to managing rotas, changing prices, re-doing menus and ordering. His venues operate with only one till screen.
He says,“We only have one till screen in the building because everything else is done on mobile phones. It is very efficient. “ In days gone by the check was written on a pad and the waitress walked to the till and typed the order in – all in all it took about 4 minutes. Now the kitchen gets the order as soon as it is taken.
“When it comes to pricing if I have to put up 300 prices on the drinks menu, I just have to hit one button on the till system, do the formula and it is done. We don’t even spend time looking at invoices our supplier’s email in their bills and Hubdoc reads them. It is effortless and we no longer have piles of bills or invoices on the table.
“That’s not all Rotacloud does our rotas – our staff can only clock in and out on their phones they have to be on our wi-fi and we don’t start paying until the rota starts. When it comes to payroll, I click one button and it all goes to the accountant to work out the numbers.
“I have spent the last eight years working out what annoys me. Let’s face it no one gets excited about payroll or invoices but by utilising technology there is more time to do the things I enjoy like working out how to make the best pizza! He can also check at a glance how many hours staff have worked and he like everyone else in hospitality is conscious that you don’t want employees who are doing too many hours because they get tired out. So that is closely monitored.
“We run a completely different beast from when I was cooking. Then there was still an acceptance of physical violence. You worked 60/70 hours a week and the notion of overtime was an alien concept.
“Today, in our kitchens, there are no raised voices. There might still be a bit of swearing, but there are no tempers. There is still terrible music but, generally, it is a happy jokey atmosphere.”
In fact the Riddles managed to maintain all their team over the pandemic.” Stuart feels they are lucky, “It feels like we have the monopoly on great staff. We have 18 chefs over the three venues and a great management team. Richard does the recruiting, and he has just completed recruiting for The Woodside.
“When we first started we never thought we would be able to attract someone like Richard who has spent time in St Andrews and at The Glasshouse restaurant. He is at a different level and makes everyone who walks in the door feel like a member of the family. You only have to look at TripAdvisor – we have 5 stars all the way.”
Since the pandemic they have looked at the operation and tweaked it.. Stuart explains “Things have certainly changed. For instance, people now don’t all want a booking for 8 pm. It’s not a thing anymore. People come out to eat from 6pm onwards. So we now shut at 11 pm every night of the week, whereas we used to trade to midnight through the week and at the weekend, and yet we still have had our most successful year ever.”
Why am I not surprised to hear that? I am sure The Woodside will be just as successful and that the duo will continue to impress.