Here at The Pier, we make the most of the wonderful natural larder that the North of Scotland has to offer us. This is why fresh, great quality, local produce is at the heart of our inspiration and what we plate up is home made with the attention and love it deserves. We ensure the freshest food is put on your plate by following seasonality and changing our menu regularly.
Whether it is a cold winter’s evening or a sweltering Summer afternoon, The Pier is always welcoming. Get cosy by the log burner while enjoying your hearty homemade evening meal or cool off with a glass of Pimm’s and a summer salad by the Loch whilst contemplating going for a swim. Booking a table is recommended at busy times, please call us to reserve.
Why not browse our craft area where we sell a wide selection of excellent quality, locally produced crafts, pottery, Harris Tweed accessories, local books, maps, jewellery, all reasonably priced.
- Local produce
- Outdoor seating
- Disabled access
- Special dietary options
- Baby changing facilities
- Free wifi
- Seasonal specials
- Evening meals
- Lunch served all day
- Homemade ice cream
- Freshly ground coffee
- Home baking
- Child friendly
- Craft shop
The Pier- 10 years on
Trials and tribulations from behind the scenes
Many people have asked “how did the Pier start?” and I always feel like I’m doing the story an injustice by giving an extremely short version of it. It’s mainly because when people ask me, I am holding 23 plates, have 4 food orders in my head and have just remembered that I have a cake in the oven that needs my attention. For our 10th year in operation, I thought it would be nice to share with you the wonderful, exciting (and sometimes turbulent) story of The Pier so far. From very humble beginnings to what we are today, it’s been a rollercoaster. For the most part, a very fun rollercoaster, if there is such a thing.
It started back in 2010 when I had returned from 6 months travelling (I had to come home early because I had run out of money and now it was time to get a real job!). I had graduated from my teaching degree the year before but when I returned to the UK there were no jobs available anywhere, and I mean ANYWHERE! Jobs were attracting up to 500 applicants and although I was getting the odd shift here and there as a supply teacher, I was itching to do something else to help me get by. Cue my Dad, the handiest man I’ve ever met. He had (very luckily for me) just casually built a wee place (singlehandedly might I add, and he’s not even a builder!) down by the Loch in Lairg in 1973, with the intention of someday opening it up as a bakery (up until 7 years ago there was a bread oven the size of our current kitchen in the back. We had to take a wall down to remove it. I mean, unless I was making 5000 loaves a day, I just had no use for it!). I’m not sure how he ever thought he would have the time to have a bakery given that he was probably the busiest man on Earth back then (potter, art teacher, crofter, owner of 3 hairdressing businesses and self catering cottages). There’s always room for more I suppose.
I’ve always had an interest in cooking and baking, I blame my Mum for that. She is a fantastic home cook and baker. She makes the best gingerbread I’ve ever tasted. Between 1978 and 1999 she had a wee tearoom alongside my Dad’s pottery showroom, joined on to our house. It was basically like coming to someone’s house for tea and cake and those who came always left happy. From a very young age, I helped out. I loved it -I was playing real life shops with real life money. We didn’t serve lattes or cappuccinos, it was instant coffee frothed up using a tiny battery operated whisk and endearingly called ‘frothy coffee’. Mum and Dad would leave me in charge from the age of about 12 (what are the laws on child slavery these days?) and they would let me have some of the money that we brought in. They even let me type up and price the menus. It gave me a sense of enormous responsibility. That was, until I discovered the joys of underage drinking and boys and the last thing I wanted to do was get up early to serve customers in what was basically our house. One summer’s day I went to the garden to sunbathe while there were no customers about. Bad idea when I’d been at a birthday party the night before. I fell asleep for hours, starshaped and woke to Mum and Dad absolutely livid because there had been customers in and had to leave because there was nobody to serve them. I felt terrible and never stepped out of line after that.
My interest in food was pretty much quashed when I went to university and lived off cheap cider and pasta doused in shop bought tomato sauce. My interest was soon reignited when I went travelling and spent some time in Melbourne. If you’ve ever been, you’ll know how amazing the little cafes and cake shops are. Having always worked in restaurants, cafes and hotels to fund my Lambrini habit while at Uni, I would dream about having my own wee cafe.
It was around May and supply work was thin. I sat down with a big sheet of paper and started brainstorming. It was basically a spidergram. I had drawn out how I wanted the layout of the cafe and what I wanted to serve etc. I tentatively approached my big brother, Rob, with the idea to get a feel for what he thought. Rob is one of those people who just has this worldly wise knowledge about anything and everything (and he always had my back) so I thought he’d be the best bet. He seemed less than enthusiastic about the idea but when he said “you really need to have a good business plan”, I whipped out my SPIDERGRAM “I have a business plan”.
After a long conversation about what is required in an ACTUAL business plan, I felt disheartened and pretty naive. At 24, maybe I wasn’t ready. How would I fund the start up costs? How do I get a phone line put in? How do I do the accounts? What about insurance? How do I pay tax? Will the building pass current safety regulations? All these questions I hadn’t thought of and I had no idea of the answers but I decided that I was determined to do it and I knew my family would be supportive. After many conversations with other family members, my sister decided she wanted to be part of it too. She wanted a shop area as part of the business which was great news (Rietta shops like a pro, it’s a real skill). Now the whole family were on board.
The discussion of what it would be called was a fun one. I was veering towards ‘the jetty’ as that’s what local people referred to it as but if you know what Sutherland folk talk like, myself included, we’d be dropping the ‘t’s and calling it the jeh-ee. Not ideal. Also, when I looked up the official meaning of the word “jetty’, it wasn’t exactly what we have. It’s a pier. And you know how pedantic some people can be. So ‘The Pier’ it became.
The next few months were stressful. The actual business plan never came to fruition. I didn’t think it was necessary to apply for funding (don’t take that advice) as I figured I could make do, at least until it became clear whether it would work out or not. Not to mention that I am the most impatient person in the world and I wanted everything done immediately so waiting around for funding wasn’t an option. An overdraft will have to suffice. The whole family chipped in money here, there and everywhere. Curtains were put up, tables were sanded and varnished, reps were met (they tried to get me to buy in the baking. Ehh, not an option!), many trips to IKEA were had, recipes were tested, menus were printed, my brother bought a coffee machine. An ex costa(lot) machine and it was a beast! A friend of my brother’s who had been a barista came to show me how to work it the night before opening. Nothing like a bit of last minute pressure. We were ready to go!
Honestly, I don’t think I slept a wink that night before opening. Poor Mum had to go and get the bread from Invergordon first thing in the morning while I was frantically trying to get last minute prep done. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her look so tired and stressed when she arrived back! I genuinely thought I might serve around 20 customers all day so I was prepared to do everything myself. Serving, cooking, making coffees, baking. And then the customers came in droves. It soon became clear that I was not super woman and I desperately needed help. Thankfully Mum hung about and then phoned a friend for more back up. Luckily everyone who came in knew it was the first day so were extremely supportive and I was just about keeping it together until the ex-costa beast decided to explode and start spraying out boiling water right in the path of where the customers walk in. Great. A quick phone call to brother and he was there in a flash, wearing a boiler suit covered in oil. Just as I thought it couldn’t possibly get any worse, the next person to walk in the door was wearing a suit, carrying a briefcase, looking very official and introduced himself as “Sandy Fraser, food safety officer”. Wonderful. He just so happened to be passing and saw that we were open. With all the stresses of the previous few weeks, I had forgotten to get back in touch with him to let him come and check that the food I would be serving was all fit for human consumption. I wanted to cry. Luckily he was very nice and saw that I was about to have a meltdown so agreed to call in later. Thank you Sandy. Forever grateful.
Putting the closed sign up on that first day was a good feeling. We got through it and we’re still alive and nobody seemed to leave unhappy. Quite the contrary actually. Now it was time to clean the restaurant and start baking and cooking for the next day. Oh yes and try and find some staff! I posted on Facebook and was delighted to have lots of interest. Now to figure out how to pay said staff. I didn’t even have a business bank account. Talk about winging it! The first few months were completely mentally and physically draining and after a few months I decided I needed to have a day off. Mainly so I could get to Inverness to buy supplies! I had so much family help so I was very lucky but I knew that wasn’t sustainable. My sister was coming home from her job as a nurse and would help bake cakes, my brother was fixing anything and everything that broke down, my Dad would help on the dishes and even peeling veg for the soup (something which I don’t think he’d ever done before) and my Mum was doing anything that needed done to help out.
That same year, we had really bad snow to the point where we had to shut up shop in December. We decided it was best to stay closed until March. That gave me a chance to re-evaluate the business and freshen things up.
The next year went pretty well. Money wise though, I had no idea if I was doing well because I didn’t know how to do my accounts. I would leave them all until October and blast through them all at once. It was genuinely the worst 3 weeks ever, typing in receipts all day long. All I knew was that I had money in the till at the end of the day. A quick accounting course and I felt confident. Silly me. My first tax bill was a real shock. All the money I had worked so hard to make suddenly felt non-existent. I’m sure if I’d had an accountant at the time, they would have told me to cease trading so maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t. I tried not to think about not making enough money because I loved my job so much and so long as I had enough money to get by, I could be happy. Thankfully now, I pay the professionals to do all the sums for me. Maths was NEVER a strong point of mine.
The same year brought some more trials. I accidentally fed ham to a vegan. Really. It was a case of miscommunication. When she realised, all hell broke loose. I managed to take her aside and successfully managed to calm her down after explaining that it was a genuine mistake and I apologised profusely. Unfortunately, my Dad was in the kitchen, helping with dishes that day. When he heard what had happened he came out to the lady who was getting ready to leave and said, with a smirk on his face “I’m sure you enjoyed it, it’s very good for you, great sustenance” Those words are engrained in my brain. Possibly the worst thing you could say to a vegan who has just accidentally eaten an animal. The words BULL TO A RED RAG come to mind. I didn’t think my Dad would make it out of the debacle alive but he somehow managed to escape the raging vegan and sauntered casually back into the kitchen to continue with the dishes. There just so happened to be a group of ministers in for lunch at that exact time. I’m sure they hadn’t expected such entertainment while eating their lentil and HAM soup. I don’t know who I was more mad with. My Dad for being the worst person to have in a situation like that or myself for making the stupid mistake in the first place. Lesson learned….always check that the menu board states exactly what we are serving. Sometimes you learn lessons the hard way. Note to all vegans- my Dad’s unsympathetic attitude is not one shared by me or anyone at The Pier.
Another memorable moment was the realisation that I had been unnecessarily travelling to Inverness to get supplies from Booker every Monday (my only day off). Lugging the big cases of juice, flour, sugar, you name it, filling up the car, back home to unload. It probably took a total of 6 hours. I had been doing this for years when one day I saw a Booker lorry pulling up beside another local establishment. Surely not. Surely they don’t deliver. I was, of course, hoping that they did deliver to make my life significantly easier but secretly hoping they didn’t so I wouldn’t feel like the biggest idiot on Earth. Yes, they deliver. Every Thursday, always have. Nooooooo! *sobs into flour covered hands*.
The high point of the last 10 years though has to be the introduction of Gregor. Gregor and I met in Glasgow 7 years ago (although he’s a Gollach through and through). I would spend my winter’s off from The Pier in Glasgow with my friends to make up for not having a social life for so long. I don’t know how many weddings, engagements and birthdays I missed the first few years of The Pier being open but it was definitely a lot. When I met Gregor, it seemed too good to be true. Could I really have met someone amazing who also wanted to move up to Lairg and work at The Pier? Yes. And he did. Gregor, like me, worked in the restaurant industry all through his studying years and was latterly the manager in a really fantastic Glasgow restaurant. He was desperate to do something new so this was the perfect opportunity for us to put our heads together and figure out a way to make The Pier support us both. I had always wanted it to be a restaurant serving dinner in the evening but I thought that was a long way in the future as our tiny kitchen was the size of a matchbox. Long discussions, mostly drunken discussions with Gregor and we decided we had the same vision for what we wanted it to be but we had to get a new kitchen. The world’s biggest bread oven had to go. When my brother found a restaurant in Glasgow which had gone into liquidation and was selling off all their commercial kitchen units, cookers, dishwashers etc, it was too good an opportunity to miss. I put down all the money I had made and all my savings, (hello again overdraft), hired a transit van for the day, borrowed a few strong men (Dad and Rob) and pretty much cleared out the St Vincent St restaurant’s kitchen. The restaurant had closed with no warning so there was still food sitting in the kitchen. It was quite bittersweet to be honest because I knew I was getting a bargain through someone else’s misfortune. It was a chain though and they still had other restaurants so my guilt was short lived. The units were so filthy and thick with years worth of grease that I wondered did they ever give their kitchen a deep clean. I had to blast wash them with a power hose before they got anywhere near our soon to be brand spanking new (ish) kitchen.
In November 2013, we started renovations on the new kitchen. We did everything ourselves (by ourselves, I mean Rob and Dad did pretty much everything). Gregor and I faffed about, measuring random things and painting the odd wall. We did however, cook potential menu meals every day. We perfected our burger recipe along with a few other recipes which would become staples on the new menu. We also really enjoyed sampling the potential wines for the wine list (perks). It was an exciting time for us. It was like starting from scratch again but we were doing it together so it felt a lot less daunting but still pretty nerve wracking. With our new chef, Lance, in tow, we successfully fed 15 people on the first evening. With Gregor running front of house and myself and Lance behind the cook line, we made a good team. The first few months of being open in the evenings were even more exhausting as the very early days. I remember passing out on shift with sheer exhaustion, the 16 hours shifts without a second to sit down were taking their toll. I now laugh at how stressed we were feeding just 15 people. A few months later we were doing 50 covers in an evening and would only break a tiny sweat. You have to start somewhere though.
Something we weren’t prepared for, or so I though, was a power cut. It was a typically cold, stormy November evening and we were having a relatively quiet evening. We had fed around 10 for dinner and then we had a 7pm rush of tables. Orders were coming in and we were midway through serving the next 20 or so customers. And then everything went black. The silence that ensued immediately afterwards was eerie. You forget how noisy a kitchen environment actually is, the noise of half a dozen fridges alone is pretty loud. The realisation that everything had gone out/off was pretty stressful but I had just figured we would have to explain to everyone that we can’t cook anymore and they would have to leave. Gregor had other ideas. He came into the kitchen, not that I could see him, only hear him. It was bloody pitch black. He appeared with a head torch and a hand held torch, 3 order checks and said we just had to get on with it. WHAAAAAT!! IS THIS A JOKE!? Lance and I reluctantly put on the head torches and started cooking everything we could in the fryers before they cooled down. Luckily we had gas hobs so there were still a few things we were able to cook. All the candles were taken out of the cupboards and were in use. Our car headlights were shone through the kitchen window. We even had a portable music system. Phone in mug. Full blast. The customers were very understanding and were actually surprised that we hadn’t told them to leave. The biggest problem was when it came to people paying. Whoops, you hadn’t thought about that eh Gregor. We couldn’t open the till so we had to scavenge all the money from the staff to use as change. The power didn’t return until around 10pm after everyone had gone home so you can imagine how much of a panic we were in in case we lost all the food from the fridges. Luckily all was fine and we only had to dispose of a few items. Now we always keep extra candles and head torches but at least now we know we can get by in adverse circumstances.
When Lance left in 2014 (he was finding it hard to travel up and down from Thurso so regularly), Gregor and I had no option but to take over the cooking ourselves. This was a struggle but we did it for around 4 months. It was through the summer too so we were doing around 60 covers an evening. The hardest thing was coming up with a new menu every week. We’d been doing it for years but suddenly when we had to cook everything ourselves, it seemed much more difficult. With neither of us having real chef training, we were very much out of our comfort zone. But we ploughed through. And then James got in touch.
We’d had quite a few people getting in touch regarding the head chef position but nobody who seemed to fit the bill. I was desperate to get a chef in but Gregor was adamant we should wait for the right person. James seemed perfect. We met with him and liked him straight away. He shared the same vision and was driven by using fresh ingredients, showcasing seasonality, good quality local produce and creativity. It’s all very well having the talk but you never really know how good a chef is until you taste their cooking. The first few things James made, we were more than impressed. It was like a massive weight had been lifted off our shoulders; now we could focus on actually running the business and not just cooking all day every day. It also gave us time to do what we loved best – eating out in nice restaurants. All in the name of research.
James never fails to come up with delicious dishes every month using fresh produce, always accounting for seasonality. He really comes into his own during dinner service.
During the Summer months, we take coach tours, sometimes 5 times a week and while they are there, it’s all hands on deck. We have a good system in place because we’ve done it for so long but having 50 thirsty, tired and sometimes grumpy (why are you grumpy on holiday?) tourists descend on you all at once, it can be a strain. The most memorable coach tour was the one where I had switched the coffee machine off instead of on the morning that we had 2 coaches booked in. 100 people looking for a double shot mocha chocca extra hot decaf skinny latte and all we could offer was tea, 5 cups at a time from a household kettle. Gregor will never forgive me for that. I think he still has nightmares about it!
Grand tours – this was an exciting day. It was a normal Wednesday morning except I’d turned up to work with no makeup on, wearing a dreadful fleece and bad trainers (long story). I had a mountain of baking to do that morning so was pretty snowed under. The phone rang and I reluctantly answered it. “We’re a film crew filming in the area and we are hoping to be with you in about 15 minutes. Is that okay?” It was 9am and we don’t open until 10. “Of course, see you soon” I replied and hung up the phone. AHHHHHH! I looked around and then in the mirror. Nothing was ready and I looked a state. What if the camera caught a glimpse of me and the Pier was represented by someone wearing an oversized Bergaus fleece and no eyebrows. I had 10 minutes to get home, get a uniform on and draw on some features. The 30mph speed limit would just have to ignore me for a minute. Quick phone call to Gregor to say he had to come in (it was his day off and I’m surprised he was even up!) because I think the ‘top gear’ guys might be coming. “I’ll be there in a minute”. And he was. He arrived just as the vintage cars were arriving and the crew tried to stop him coming into the car park. “Ehm, I work here”, replied he. I still didn’t know it would be them but I’d seen a few things on Facebook about them being in the area so I put 2 and 2 together.
It was them. The crew couldn’t have been nicer. They ordered about 15 teas and 15 coffees and helped themselves to cakes that I’d put on a big table for them. We didn’t get to chat with James, Jeremy or Richard. They were working and were probably under a fair bit of stress with filming schedules etc. We forget that celebrities aren’t obliged to talk to everyone. Just because we want to talk to them, sometimes they’re just too busy. They were in and out in about 45 minutes and we carried on the rest of the day as normal.
The dreaded COVID-19. 2020 was supposed to be our best year yet. We took 5 weeks off in January to refurbish the inside and to build a new covered decking area at the side. When we reopened in February, we were all so excited to have a really busy year with the extra covers that the deck would lend us. Then March came and the onslaught of Coronavirus. Being forced to close wasn’t the worst thing- it was the unknown beforehand. Should we close? Should we stay open if people are still coming? What will happen if we make the decision to close? Having that decision taken out of our hands was actually a huge relief, devastating as it was. At least we could now relax knowing that our team were able to stay home and stay safe. The announcement from the Government that they would pay our staff on the furlough scheme was music to our ears and I’m not going to lie, there were tears. The build up of pressure with all the unknowns in the weeks before the closure was unbearable and I was really struggling, not to mention just finding out I was pregnant so hormones may have played a part in my emotional rollercoaster. Gregor was his usual self, not letting anything bother him or stress him out which, in hindsight, may have been a good thing but at the time was infuriating because I couldn’t understand why I was dealing with all this stress and he was cool as a cucumber. Some things never change. I guess 2 stressed out people are no support for each other and having one level headed person helps to diffuse a difficult situation.
The weeks following the closure were pretty heavy with money worries but once we found out we were entitled to grants, things got better. We spent so much family time together that we ALMOST felt like we were on holiday. The decision to start doing takeaway was something we figured we could do ourselves with Heidi in tow. It was also a way to get focus back into our lives. Once you’ve cleared out the cupboards, done the odd bit of painting and done the garden, the days get a bit tedious. The takeaway was an immediate hit and we soon realised we would have to unfurlough some staff to continue. This wasn’t a problem as we’d already had offers from some to come back to work. Cue Anais and Tilly and we had our takeaway team for the foreseeable future.
Reopening our doors after the lockdown was a challenge. With all the new safety measures in place and all the new systems, it was like opening a brand new business, not to mention, our staff had been away for almost 4 months so we were all a bit rusty and anxious. It didn’t help that we have been thrown into mid July with no warm up! But as always, we’ll keep on keeping on and it’ll take more than a global pandemic to bring us down.
If anyone is reading this and had previously thought they would like to open a cafe/restaurant or any other food type business, don’t be put off by my story. I would say though, don’t do it the way I did it. Do the business plan, get the funding (if you can), know how to do your accounts, do the research, know you’re not superman/woman. However, you do have to be prepared to work harder than you’ve ever worked in your life, wave goodbye to your social life for the first few years and if you’re not going to bed completely exhausted then you’re doing something wrong. But most of all, do it for the passion. If there’s no passion there then there won’t be a business there. If you want to make millions, you most likely won’t in this industry and there are much easier ways to turn a buck.
We are not perfect but we are doing our best and I think the key is never to become complacent. In our eyes, complacency equals failure. We are constantly evolving, improving, listening to our customers, keeping up with trends and trying out new menu ideas.
We must say a huge thank you to our lovely customers, our ever supportive family, friends and our amazing, hard working team over the past 10 years. Without you all, The Pier wouldn’t exist and for you all, we are eternally grateful. As the famous phrase goes, you’re only as good as your team.
Cheers to the next 10 years!