Ask What The Market Wants And Then Deliver It

It’s 6am, the sun is just rising over the harbour at St. Margaret’s Hope and Storm Gareth passed through last night battering the hotel, the winds howled past and I really thought I’d be stuck here.

St. Margaret’s Hope is the gateway to the Orkney Islands; an hour ferry crossing from Gills Bay, not far from the UK mainland’s most northerly town, John O’Groats. Well hardly a town; it’s got a tourist shop, although not open in March, and a small harbour for sightseers, but at least I can now say I’ve been to John O’Groats.

I was in Orkney to deliver and install one of my Commercial Wood/Gas Combination Pizza Ovens into a cafe in the north of the island. I won’t say that the journey here wasn’t a difficult one, battling through sleet and snow was no fun and at times I thought I’d have to abandon my attempt, but with a pressing schedule preseason, I wouldn’t have time to come back and in any case, one of the conditions of sale was that I installed it in this particular week.

Philippa and Ian Porritt had invested in one of my ovens because they saw a great future. They bought the Eviedale Café, Self-Catering Cottages and Campsite 2 years ago and had been renovating it. The Café was originally opened 20 years ago by the previous owner’s wife but due to her failing health, had been closed for a long time. Ian is a time served Luthier, guitar maker to you and me. On buying the place it had been his intention to turn the café into his workshops, but the farmer who sold the site wanted them to open the café in memory of his late wife, and the locals in the village hoped they would.

To be honest on arrival late in the night, I seriously wondered about the selection of oven; after all they are far from cheap and I questioned Ian and Philippa on the choice. Considering the location and, as far as I could see on my drive there, seemingly complete absence of any housing locally with only the occasional glimpse of a farm light and therefore potential custom, I assumed that the reason for getting it in so early in the season was due to the tourist season about to start.

How wrong could I be?

Ian and Philippa had done their homework; the previous year they had bought an electric pizza oven to try out the model, but found it couldn’t cope with the demand for the sourdough pizza base that Ian lovingly makes every day. Even while I was there, they treated me to copious quantities of his delicious homemade bread.

It’s quite clear that they had thought long and hard about the investment, they had trialed the model and then purchased the right bit of equipment to grow the business.

Driving across the Orkney Islands this morning on the way back to the ferry, the one thing that stood out was the lack of trees, which does explain why Ian chose a wood/gas combo.

The two real revelations however were:-

  1. The café had proved such a success that Ian abandoned the idea of turning it into a workshop and instead will continue to develop and grow it.
  2. The tourist trade accounted for only a small portion of the income, “We are so far off the tourist trail that it almost accounts for nothing” Ian admitted.

In the first year they had tried to run the shop all day, but after analysis, realised that all day was not viable and that 80% of revenues came during a 2-hour lunch period and a 2-hour dinner service.

So that’s exactly what they are doing: just the 2 services and a takeaway, the idea of farmers being able to pick up and run is an appealing side of the business.

Whilst we sat there chatting, the sourdough for the next day’s bread was proving in a big stainless-steel bowl on the kitchen table, across the counter a Kilner jar of sourdough starter gently bubbled away, and when opened that heady aroma filled my nose.

A call came in from a woman on the other side of the island:

“Hi Philippa, are you coming to town tomorrow? If you are could you bring a loaf of bread with you? I’m happy to pay a bit extra for the driving.”

My hopes soared when I heard that. There are around 15,000 people who live on mainland Orkney, all within a 45 min drive, and 22,000 on all the islands. The dough is delightful and the bread that Ian makes, golden to dark brown with a crust on it to die for, I have no doubt that people will travel.

But the real joy of The Eviedale Café is not its bread or pizza (which are fabulous) or the far-flung remoteness; it’s the 2 passionate people who run the place.

I have no doubt that the pizza side is going to boom and, as Ian said, it’s the pizza that is going to provide the revenue, it’s the dough that provides the passion and, in a couple of years, people will be driving across the island to pick up the sourdough loaves that he’ll be producing thus feeding his passion.

I worked late into the night setting the gas controls on the burners to ensure an even and constant burn so that Ian can achieve any temperature he demands. The wood/gas combo was a good choice,

the larger oven, whilst not necessary for the 28-seat café as a pizzeria on its own, it will be essential for the bread baking side of things.

Sitting here on the return ferry I’m confident that in this seemingly remote destination, the UK’s most northerly wood fired pizzeria is going to be just fine. The locals will delight at the idea of a real pizzeria, and the lady who once dreamed of a café will rest peacefully knowing that the right people carried on her dream and made it a reality.

There are so many lessons to be learned from this story.

Ian and Philippa are both resilient people with passion and drive. They have a successful business in a location that seems impossible and yet they do well.

They trialed the model to test the market, asked what the market wanted and now deliver on that promise.

Ian also made me exceptional coffee; there is a local coffee roastery that everyone on the island uses but for Ian it’s a little bitter. I won’t argue; if the local stuff is better then use it but don’t compromise if it’s not.

They both love food and it’s clear.

On our last evening together, Philippa said she could throw a meal together. Well if that was thrown together, I’m really excited; the BBQ chicken was so tasty I wanted the recipe.

“Arggh” Philippa said, “It’s hardly a recipe. It’s amazing what you can do with chicken thighs, a bit of ketchup, a tablespoon of tomato purée, some honey, Worcestershire sauce and soy, and that’s it. Roasted in an oven for 20 min”.

It’s a long way to drive from Birmingham to Evie, Orkney and I truly hope I don’t have to make that journey again in a hurry. But if I do it’ll be a pleasure not to drive, but to hook up with Ian and Philippa again and to see how their business has grown.

The sun is shining in Orkney as I pull into the Gills Bay Harbour. The radio talks of road closures in the Scottish Highlands, high winds on the bridges, and speed restrictions.

Island life!

Maybe that’s the future!