He was a bold man who first swallowed an oyster, declared James I in the 17th century. Two hundred years later the Victorians were slurping back a billion or more of the bivalves every year. But by the late 1970s the oyster had become an expensive delicacy with a mere five million or so being consumed each year in Britain, and it was again a bold man indeed who would look upon the mollusc as the basis for a whole new industry.
That man was Scottish landowner John Noble, who decided to reintroduce the oyster to Loch Fyne, Scotland's longest sea loch - and even his friends thought it was 'daft'.
Noble and his business partner Andrew Lane saw gold in the bed of Loch Fyne, which was once home to a flourishing oyster colony.
And, 20 years on, their labour of love has at last culminated in commercial triumph. It is largely through their determination that oysters are back on the British menu in a big way, and their success comes at a time when it is more common for Britons to go to a restaurant once a week than it is to attend church.
Noble is living proof that a business can remain dynamic and innovative well beyond its launch. Having a good idea is the natural starting point for success, but true entrepreneurs don't stop there. Noble and Lane kept the gamble going, adding on businesses and going from strength to strength.
Buoyed by the success of their oyster farming and the popularity of their oyster bar and restaurant on the shores of Loch Fyne, the quiet Scottish duo created a new company, Loch Fyne Restaurants (LFR), which has just raised pounds 3.5 million through private shareholders. It already has five restaurants throughout the UK and things are going so well that another 20 are planned over the next two years.
Loch Fyne itself was the rich asset on which their expanding industry was founded. One only has to visit a Conran restaurant, or go to Scott's or Wiltons or Chez Gerard, to find that most of the shellfish have been nurtured in Loch Fyne. The same is true at the Hong Kong Hilton, at Raffles in Singapore, even in the canteen at the Bolshoi Theatre. The loch's products are so much in vogue that Chris Patten chose Loch Fyne smoked salmon for the 12,000-seat banquet staged for the Hong Kong handover ceremonies.
The LFR restaurants are booming in the seafood renaissance. They have been designed to be relaxed and friendly, rather than trendy, and Noble and Lane are confident that their fresh seafood concept is a winning one.
'Our theme is unique,' says Noble, who at 63 is happy to buck the trend of the young 20-something entrepreneur. 'I suppose our rivals might be Livebait and Group Chez Gerard, but no-one else has got their own mussels and oysters and smokehouse.'
Although Loch Fyne Oysters (LFO) has expanded into the restaurant scene, there was no guarantee of success when the company went into business in 1977. At the time, John Noble's family estate, which included parts of Loch Fyne, faced financial ruin after his father died, leaving crippling death duties of 75%. Rather than surrender to the taxman, Noble fought to save the estate. It was a difficult time, he recalls. 'Ardkinglas had been our home, so it wasn't on the cards to sell it - although my accountant advised me to.
And he was quite right from a cold-blooded point of view, because it was making considerable losses.'
Noble had no experience of fish farming. He had spent an unhappy few years working in the City at his father's insistence and eventually left to begin a career in the wine trade - founding a wine distribution business in Edinburgh that still flourishes. 'I didn't have any particular strategy,' Noble remembers. 'Things just unfolded.'
Fortunately, he had come to know Lane, a marine biologist whose technical knowledge made up for Noble's inexperience. And Noble's wine-selling expertise came in useful for promoting the oysters. 'When I started in wine, it was toffs selling wine to other toffs,' he says, but he observed how the taste for wine gradually caught on across the social spectrum. He figured that the same could be done with oysters. When LFO was launched, it sold mainly to big trade customers such as hotels and restaurants, but some clever marketing also enabled Noble to build up a database of more than 12,000 individual home-delivery customers.
Noble and Lane had the perfect oyster-breeding location. Loch Fyne is only slightly salty and is fed by the clear water of Scottish mountain springs. Yet there were numerous early setbacks. Says Lane: 'The profits are quite small and the learning curve is very long. And the sea has a way of destroying all your plans.' Although oysters don't require feeding, they take about two years to grow from seed. So for the first couple of years Noble was running a company that had nothing to sell. He was forced to buy grown oysters from Ireland to give the business a head start.
Everything was done on a shoestring. An initial grant from the Highlands and Islands Development Board helped, but with no surplus budget Noble had to be inventive with his marketing. Some of the first people he approached have since become household names in Britain's food industry. Terence Conran, Raymond Blanc and Rick Stein all became trade customers. Today these people are at the heart of Britain's thriving restaurant industry.
And LFO is their main seafood supplier.
Noble backed a successful marketing stunt at Kensington's Polish Club a couple of years ago in a bid to dispel the myth that oysters can't be consumed at the same time as spirits. He hosted an oyster-and-vodka evening.
'Either everyone will enjoy themselves or everyone will chunder,' Noble said before the drinking got under way. The press loved it, and LFO had an early media success.
Now that LFO and the new sister restaurants company are doing so well, Lane's 'slow learning curve' has reached its destination and the company is taking another step forward with a Loch Fyne web site through which customers can order oysters online.
Noble and Lane are of course excited by their business success. 'It's challenging and interesting,' says Noble. 'I don't feel that I've seen it all or done it all - far from it. One probably never reaches a stage where you can say: 'Well, that's it. What the hell am I going to do today?' There's a whole host of things still to tackle.'
Such as a potential AIM listing for Loch Fyne Restaurants or, if not, then a trade sale if the right cash offer comes along. Whatever happens, Noble and Lane are practically assured of success. As well as the oysters and restaurants, the two have added on various other businesses along the way, so that the loch is now home to farmed mussels and there is a large and efficient salmon smokehouse next to the Loch Fyne oyster bar and shop.
'The driving force in the early years was to survive, by any means possible - and that philosophy is still with us,' says Lane. 'So we took seafood and added as many industries on to it as possible. We've survived two major recessions and will hopefully survive everything else.'
Noble is delighted that a business that has taken so long to nurture is finally fulfilling its potential. 'You don't go into the oyster business looking to make a quick buck,' he says. 'It's not really a dot.com-type industry. It's not a late developer, as one of my friends suggested to me, but a slow developer.'
At a time when those 20-something entrepreneurs dominate the media, it's refreshing to find they don't have a monopoly on exciting business developments. Noble and Lane attribute their success to good management and a strong team. 'I disagree with the experts who say that in the hotel and restaurant business the three important things are location, location and location,' says Noble. 'In my view, it's management, management, management.'
The Loch Fyne restaurants are likely to multiply rapidly in the coming years and the saga of the oyster is coming full circle from Victorian times. Noble and Lane have selected an 'all-day' type menu, with reasonable prices. It's not quite McOysters, but they have successfully transformed a speciality food into a growing industry. From that average consumption of five million oysters a year when Noble and Lane started, British demand is now nudging 30 million a year - and the restaurant at the Loch Fyne base now sells more oysters than any other outlet in the UK.
It's all a long way from the days of Charles Dickens when, as one of his characters in Pickwick Papers remarked: 'Poverty and oysters always seem to go together.'
THE NOBLE GUIDE TO STAYING THE DISTANCE
The desire to be his own boss (together with a family crisis) forced John Noble into late entrepreneurship. But when the going gets tough, being an entrepreneur isn't always easy. If you're unhappy with your job and think you harbour an entrepreneurial flair, you should have:-
- An ability to spot an opportunity, however obscure
- A willingness to learn a new trade, sometimes from scratch
- Self-belief and ambition to succeed
- Determination to beat seemingly insurmountable obstacles
- Courage to stick at something with no guarantee of success
- Long-term vision, rather than a get-rich-quick mentality
- Negotiating skills - you may need to barter for money, resources, or even basic equipment just to get started
- Ability to call on friends, family and acquaintances for help
- Acceptance that you may have to live very frugally for the first few years - Noble didn't pay himself a salary until the business could afford it.