Walking the Dogs – Part 2: David Ramsden on The Dogs, Amore Dogs, Seadogs and The Fat Pony
- David Ramsden
- 30 August 2019
Edinburgh restaurateur reflects on his time in the capital's dining scene in this four-part series
With restaurants such as Fitz(Henry), Rogue and The Dogs, David Ramsden has been the most distinctive and driven restaurateur in Edinburgh over the last two decades. In the second of an honest and often revealing four-part series, he writes about the rise and fall of The Dogs collection of restaurants.
After Rogue shut, it took a good while to recover, if I actually did; but life goes on, and I found work around the city for the next while, including two years working for Malcolm Innes of Outsider fame. A complex and intelligent man, hard to understand at times, but with a deft touch.
After leaving Malcolm, I was scouting for possible locations to launch one more attempt at establishing a restaurant in the city. This time, my plan was to go right back to basics, and create a venue with as few frills as possible, a place that served simple classic British food in as straightforward a way as possible, and at an accessible price.
Then one day the property agent Scott Mitchell informed me of the death of an Edinburgh legend, Yatz, who left an upstairs unit vacant at 110 Hanover Street. Knowing the site, and wanting to bring it back to life, I pretty much bit his hand off to sign up.
The unit was fairly run down, but with some appropriate TLC, it was clear a small, simple gem could be created. It was, with the financial help of Roz's father, and my old friend and advisor, David Hughes, and it was named 'the dogs', with gratitude to the pups who had put up with all my vicissitudes along our journey.
It took only six weeks and we were ready. I gained and lost two chefs in that time, but at the eleventh hour I met James Scott who came on board to manage the kitchen. He brought his friend Jamie in as his sous and they made a very talented pair. They handled the brief perfectly, with great menus, executed with confidence.
The vision I had was to offer an honest menu of well-cooked British classics, leaning hard on offal, less common cuts of meat, and more unusual seafood. The strongest influences came from Mark Hix and Fergus Henderson, both of whom came to The Dogs over the next few years.
The opening was in May 2008, just as the financial climate was becoming stormy, but the die were cast, and off we went. The first few weeks were a bit tense, but soon word spread, and The Dogs was flying. The service was quick and efficient, with no faffing. Servers had to get round a busy room quickly, but professionally, attending to needs, not wants. At the price point, it was the only way to remain ahead, and there were very few naysayers.
This unit became the first real success I had had, and for a while, I revelled in it. I remember how hard everyone worked to make that success, and I salute you all. The old me was there, determined to make it the best it could be, which demanded a bunch of energy, focus, and discipline.
A year or so later, the unit underneath The Dogs fell vacant overnight, and Scott, again, offered it to me. It was another large unit on two floors, with bar and seating on the ground, and kitchen plus an open space and toilets in the basement. It was discussed, and James and Jamie agreed we could take it on, creating an Italian version of The Dogs, 'amore dogs', where all the principles applying upstairs would be replicated, but this time with Italian food: pizza to bullito misto, pastas and so on.
I look back at this time with incredulity, to be honest. It was a big beast, and again, it would consume considerable amounts of energy. But all proceeded well, Amore picked up quickly, and like The Dogs, paid back investment in a mercifully short time. I have to say that I was swept along, not having the time or inclination to look too deeply at this progress.
I agreed to take on another unit in Rose Street: Seadogs, a mainly seafood menu very much in The Dogs style, with Jamie heading up the kitchen while James went between Amore and The Dogs. I also decided to make the unused space beneath amore dogs into a comfy, table service bar: this was 'underdogs'.
Looking back, I would say the biggest challenge to any restauranteur is the choosing, and keeping of, good staff, particularly chefs – although these are the hardest to retain. Most successful restaurants are chef /owner operated, because, at the end of the day, people are coming for the food, not the chat. In most of my ventures, the most successful periods were when the original chef was still there.
Was it too much too quickly? All the units were opened within a four-year period, so maybe, but it all felt solid. Each stuck to the core principles of quality and value, while offering distinctly varied menus. Seadogs paid back most of its opening costs in the first year. Could they all survive and thrive? I believed so, as long as a diligent eye was kept on them, and support given where needed.
After three years, however, the strain began to show. Seadogs was not really profitable any more, so it was put on the market, and sold fairly fast. The business was consolidated back in Hanover Street. By this time both James and Jamie had left, and there were no chefs as capable left in the company. It soon became clear that Amore Dogs was struggling also, despite attempting a minor rebranding to create more of a New York-Italian style of dining with Rubens, sliders and burgers.
But it wasn't to be, and the unit slipped into insolvency. The next two years were spent pulling and pushing The Dogs into shape. I felt that the quality of labour had changed so much in the recent years, and I sensed that The Dogs was no longer held in such esteem. It seemed to demand a lot more focus to keep it all together.
It was now the endgame: I sought another, smaller site. The plan was to put in place a wine bar, as it was apparent that with increasing overheads the restaurant model was becoming less and less profitable. A drinks-led business, I believed, had a better chance of success. A unit was offered up in Bread Street, which I believed would be a winner, as it was close to the old Infirmary development, Timberyard, the Code technology hub, as well as my old stomping ground, the financial sector around Morrison Street.
While The Fat Pony was being planned and refitted, The Dogs was on the market, although potential buyers were put off by its first floor location, which I had felt was part of its charm. The Pony opened in the summer of 2017. It was well staffed, with a great chef, Scott Wyse, and two boys who had worked with me at The Dogs in charge.
It was a very slow start, but having been through so many openings, I was sure that as word got about, so business would increase. It didn't. Hours and staff were reduced, staff left. By the summer of 2018 The Dogs was finally under offer, but for half of its value. The deal was concluded, but within three days it was realised that The Dogs' Limited Company was insolvent and the funds from the sale were swallowed up.
Despite Roz suffering a very nasty allergic reaction related to her asthma and staff leaving we managed to stay open until June 2019, but after a disastrous Easter, it was obvious that The Pony was insolvent.
What on earth happened?