Balbirnie House managing director Nicholas Russell couldn’t have predicted the wave of community support as he launched a new click and collect food service to help keep staff in jobs.

The Fife hotel boss has praised staff and customers for their efforts and support after fulfilling 1,000 takeaway orders from the front entrance of Balbirnie House.

Nicholas Russell who has been at the Georgian mansion since 1992 said never in the three decades of working at the hotel, has he experienced anything like the support he has seen in the past seven days.

Operating from noon to 8pm daily, the collection service, which launched in the midst of the festive season, has seen the hotel welcome 18 of its 85-strong workforce back to the premises.

The drive-thru concept sees customers order via an app and pick a designated collection time. They can pick up their order by driving around the turning circle and collecting it there, or by queueing in a separate socially distanced line at the front of the hotel for those on foot.

He said: “I have been here running Balbirnie House since 1992 and this is something we have never tried before. We had a decision to make, we either close completely, or somehow endeavour to keep going, and that’s what we have done. We thought the best way to do this was to deliver a click and collect, safe, socially distanced facility for the local community.

“We opened up and it has been amazing to see the reaction people have had over the course of the first week. We had 1,000 orders fulfilled and it has been so nice to be on the receiving end of community support. It is a very humbling feeling indeed.

“We knew it had to be priced competitively, especially if it was going to be for the local community. We wanted it to be sustainable and initially we thought we’d be running the takeaway service for a few weeks, but you just never know and looking at what is happening across Scotland and whether these restrictions will be ongoing, we just don’t know. Fortunately, anyone in Fife is able to travel within the area and Balbirnie Park is a beautiful place to go for a walk, so there’s logic in going for a walk and then getting a chippie takeaway.”

App development

Offering everything from fish and chips to pizzas, as well as burgers, posh hot dogs and more, Nicholas and his team, not to mention other specialists who have helped in developing the app in which customers order from, have worked hard to ensure each and every order is fulfilled to the highest of standards.

Working with Criton, an Edinburgh based hotel app builder, and Hungrrr, a Dundee-based online food ordering firm, Balbirnie House has been able to diversify and cope with demand due to the innovative technology used.

“It has taken on a revolution of its own in terms of the technology involved. The technology was developed and is the first time we’ve ever integrated the abilities of an app with food ordering,” said Nicholas.

“We’re taking a food ordering system and applying that to a hotel environment and then applying the ability to have a pre-designated collection time. Hungrrr – the company who have helped us develop the app – worked until late on Boxing Day evening to help us customise the app to ensure it was easy and slick to use.

“If I think back to when I started at Balbirnie, we couldn’t communicate a message so quickly and effectively as we do now on social media. We have a substantial following on Facebook which has been a real game changer for us.”

Smooth operation

Giving customers the opportunity to either collect the food in their cars or on foot in socially distanced queues, Nicholas says the “mobile dining room” resembles a fast-food drive-thru at times.

He added: “We’re offering collection outside from tables; however, many people are choosing just to remain in their cars, or as we call it, a mobile dining room. People are just driving through and getting their orders. The teams who are taking the food from the kitchens to the cars have been saying that it almost looks like a McDonald’s drive through which is quite funny seeing the outside area like that.

“The technology is designed to allow us to deliver an order every two and a half minutes. People have a slot which tells them their time, so we’re always working to refine the service. On Sunday we served 129 orders and they were all being issued out the front door within one minute of the pre-agreed time slot. It is a very good system.

“A lot of customers are now asking if we’ll continue doing this in the future. We’re not far away from spring so maybe we could offer an afternoon tea version where people could bring their own blanket and enjoy afternoon tea in the park when it is warmer.  We’ve got some new menu items coming along and have been overwhelmed with the support and encouragement online.

“On Saturday we had a technical glitch and sadly we took more orders than we could fulfil. I put out a message on Facebook on Sunday apologising to those four customers affected and also thanked everyone for their kind support. We could not believe how far the message travelled. It had over 1,000 likes, had reached nearly 28K people and had been shared 70 times.”

18 staff back working

Having been able to bring some staff back from furlough, he also hopes to see the momentum keeping up so that potentially more employees could return, although he is wary that the new restrictions in place across the whole of Scotland may discourage people to come out.

“Our brigade at full status is 85 individuals. We have 18 back working with us and the rest are on furlough or are retained on part-time hours. We’re used to being a very busy place all year round, but the takeaway is keeping the 18 people in employment, and whether that is sustainable, we just don’t know. We don’t know how people are going to react to the new lockdown as they simply may choose not to leave their houses.”

But remaining positive, Nicholas is also hopeful that come warmer months, they will be able to welcome customers to another new concept he has thought up, an al fresco bistro in 10 gazebos outside on the front lawn.

While this is just in the planning stages, it is something he is considering for the near future.