The WeeCOOK Kitchen, based in the village of Barry in Angus, is punching well above its weight. Brian Stormont pays a visit to discover its recipe for success.
The chef and owner of a popular restaurant based in an Angus village has been recognised with two honours at the Business Women Scotland Awards.
Hayley Wilkes, who runs the WeeCOOK Kitchen at Barry Downs, near Carnoustie, won the top honour of the STV Growth Fund Award and was named the Resilient Woman of the Year, shared jointly with Michelle Milnes, Property Studios, Edinburgh.
Like most hospitality businesses during the coronavirus pandemic, Hayley and her hardworking team at WeeCOOK were busy as the business was completely remodelled to ensure they would still be operational after lockdown.
But they did better than they could have hoped for building their offering with some amazing initiatives.
And winning the awards was deserved recognition – even if they didn’t know they were in the running for the main award!
“We were so happy, but we didn’t realise that the overall award, which is the STV Growth Fund Award, we had won that too,” revealed Hayley.
“We were already on the Prosecco and congratulating the winners and Rachel McTavish, who was announcing the winners, said and the winner is Hayley Wilkes, WeeCOOK, and we just popped up live on the screen. I didn’t know what to say as I didn’t even know we were a contender for that award, so that’s amazing!
“We were like the overall winner and it was just amazing. It’s like a little dream come true. You’re at work and you’re happy that you’re still going and everything that’s happened with the regulations changing and we were wondering ‘What do we do now?’.
“We had had one of the those weeks when things had happened and something had broken in the kitchen, but we thought we have this to look forward to and then we won.
“And just to top it off in the same week the apprentices got the Angus Youth Award from Angus Council for their work as a group and what they are doing and what they are achieving. So we proudly have their certificate on the wall as well.
“What a week, it’s nice to have some really positive news. It gives you a little bit of hope. We have kind of been head down, ploughed on and just kind of got on with it, one foot in front of the other and adapted along the way – and when you have something fun it’s great.
“The only thing is we can’t really celebrate just yet, we can’t have the staff party, because of the restrictions. It’s happening, just a matter of when.”
Adapted to restrictions
It’s an understatement to say that the last seven months have been tough for hospitality businesses but, through innovation and hard work, WeeCOOK has thrived.
Hayley continued: “I think the main thing was how we adapted, and quickly. The business is kind of split two ways between the restaurant and the cafe side of things. We had already done takeaways for residents here (Barry Downs has permanent residents) and just expanded that into the local community.
“We were providing a service for people. We had a lot of customers who had cancelled, for instance on Mother’s Day, at short notice, and we had no other plans, so we started with that.
“We changed the menu and made it more practical. We offered discounts for the NHS and local residents, and free local delivery, just anything to keep people safe but also to keep us ticking over.”
One of WeeCOOK’s specialities is their award-winning homemade pies, with some amazing flavours on offer such as mince and tatties, chicken and bacon, cauliflower vegan bhuna curry and hoisin pork with spring onion and sesame, and they had hoped to expand this side of the business in 2020.
“With our pies this year had kind of been a year of growth planned as part of our business planning,” added Hayley.
“We had plans to take pies to markets in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Linlithgow, Aberdeen and Banchory and that was curtailed too before we even really got started, so we adapted that and we just kind of copy what fishmongers do and as long as they are enough sales in a specific area then we head out.
“We did door drops in Forfar and Arbroath, for instance and we were mobbed. People were using our services through word of mouth so we took that model and went to Perth, Stirling and Glasgow. And now we regularly deliver to Glasgow, Aberdeen and Laurencekirk.”
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Praise for staff
But Hayley also appreciates the key role her staff have played in the WeeCOOK Kitchen as it adapted to change and she is proud to have watched them grow as people in recent months.
“The main thing that has been really helpful for us has been the support we have had from the community and the effort of the staff. They have friends who have lost their jobs or been furloughed, and the summer time would have been a good time to be furloughed with the weather, but they were still working,” she said.
“I felt a bit sorry for them as they had no social life, but they were coming to work and I think it gave them a bit of purpose. It was hard, psychologically, I think it was a bit of a struggle for everyone, but once we got into that they realised that they had each other and that was kind of what got us through and, for me, it’s about helping them do that.
“We are always thinking about the ideas and what we can do next.
“I just look at our Facebook and our photos and what we have done over the last seven months and even how they have changed. It’s amazing, we’re just human beings, but you do that whole thing about adapting and evolving and that’s all we have done.
“I don’t think there’s any magic or luck, we have just adapted. We knew what the rules were and we interpreted them, checked with Food and Drink Scotland and James Withers (CEO of Scotland Food and Drink) for instance, what he was putting out on Twitter was so useful. But rather than wait and see what everyone else was doing we just do it.
“We’ve gone to Tier 3 now, but we had planned to do tapas and now we are going to do it in the daytime, there’s no booze anymore, but we will deliver it to people as well and we have been mobbed. The phone hasn’t stopped ringing, the Facebook has gone crazy. We’re brave I think and it works.”
What does future hold?
Looking to the future, post-lockdown, where does Hayley see the WeeCOOK Kitchen going?
“Through the roof. Last year was our first year since we moved and that was an eye opener. We had a lot of people who moved with us, the golfers (WeeCOOK started life at Broughty Golf Club in Monifieth), visitors from Germany and Denmark who came back.
“We were pretty busy last year and that was before the pies really took off and we have been busy through lockdown. If we have been busy now, and this is what I say to the staff, we are going to be so much busier when the world returns to some sort of normality.
“Even that period between the two lockdowns, if you like, we were having visitors form Perth and Laurencekirk who were getting our pies during lockdown and they were coming from further afield because they want to see us and they were loving it. They could sit outside and that was really nice. When you are in hospitality, you are here to provide a service to make people happy and that’s what we try to do.”
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Going it alone
Hayley, who grew up in Wales, had a varied career before settling in hospitality, even using her last paycheck from a steady job to go it alone.
“I was in army, ended up in Leeds working in a bank, was a holiday rep, came to Scotland and went to college, the Met in Glasgow, where Gary Maclean (Scotland’s national chef) was one of my teachers and that was brilliant.
“Then I got a trial at Gleneagles and ended up getting the job and that was fantastic. It was brilliant. Some of the best training I have ever had in a proper classic kitchen with all the infrastructure, the hierarchy, the discipline and I was like a sponge.
“I worked in a few places in Glasgow and got promoted, but I always wanted my own business, so with my last wage I bought a laptop and some business cards and set it up from there. That was it and here I am now.”
Due to Covid-19 restrictions, this year’s Business Women Scotland Awards were run as a virtual event for the first time. Now in its sixth year, the awards are run by the Business Women Scotland network headed by Lynne Kennedy.
She said: “This year we have all faced the challenges of living with a world pandemic and recent statistics have reported that women-led businesses were impacted more adversely than those of men, seeing their businesses experiencing lower trading volume.
“In this year’s awards we have paid tribute to the incredible achievements of our shortlist of established and rising stars. Every single one of the finalists is an inspiration and a role model – not only to their peers within the sector but also to the next generation who are considering starting a business.”
— BWS – Business Women Scotland (@bws_sco) November 6, 2020