Credit: Jo Hanley

'I worked like a crazy woman, but the responsibility weighed heavily on me and I turned to drink' - Sarah Heward

HOW I BEAT THE ODDS: The owner of The Real Food Café in a remote part of Scotland has had to cope with the death of her husband, vandals and problems finding staff.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 03 Feb 2016

Before 2005, my partner Steve and I hardly ever saw each other. I was living in London as managing director of a hospitality company, while he worked in the oil industry out of Paris. We seemed to spend half our free time on Eurostar. When Steve's sister was diagnosed with cancer, we started thinking about what we were doing with our lives.

By chance, I came across an advert for an old Little Chef in remote Tyndrum, on the main road from Glasgow to Fort William. We knew the area as we had a holiday cottage nearby, so we went to have a look. It was in a sad state but we had this vision for it, as a roadside fish and chip shop with a Scottish twist. Our friends thought we were mad. But we bought it that year, and moved to Scotland. Steve planned on working freelance in Aberdeen while I ran the café, but he only ever ended up doing that for three days. He found he loved the catering business and threw himself into it with me.

Sourcing ingredients locally proved very difficult, as many markets wouldn't deliver our way. We also underestimated the challenge of getting staff. Tyndrum is tiny and there's no one else for 40 miles in any direction. It was tough, but we loved the new outdoors life we had there. It was like being a pioneer.

We married in the café after six months – fish, chips and champagne – and became part of the local community. We were visiting a friend one night seven months later, when Steve collapsed. He'd suffered an aortic aneurysm and died in front of me.

The next morning I had to go and tell the staff before the postman brought the news. Everyone was so kind, but I was in a state of deep shock and grief. The business was a salvation, but it was also a ball and chain. It had terrible cash flow problems every winter, and I had to borrow from my parents to avoid breaching my banking covenant. I worked like a crazy woman, but the responsibility weighed heavily on me and I turned to drink.

When you're in a bad place, bad things start to happen to you. We were vandalised several times and I attracted the attention of a stalker. The police were never far from my door.

This carried on for three and a half years, before somehow my survival instinct kicked in. I joined Alcoholics Anonymous, took up triathlon again and hired a business coach.

Hearing criticism from my coach Alan about how I ran the business was hard - it was my baby - but he was right. There were improvements I could make. Gradually, they took effect. Meanwhile, Alan became my business partner and later my boyfriend.

I've always loved the café, but now I'm proud of it because it's a proper business. We make 15-20% profit on about a £1m turnover. I'd like to install a biomass heater and build a small food production factory and shop on site. I've never regretted our decision to move.

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