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The idea of a traditional British pub is a pretty recognizable concept that one might have in one’s head, familiarized as we are with this popular type of bar that is ubiquitous in neighbourhoods and in pop culture — to wit, the fictional Rovers Return Inn of Coronation Street. Less familiar is the case of a Scottish pub, of which there are perhaps only a handful in southwestern Ontario (and a local example of which in Cambridge that has closed — to wit, Burns’ Howff).
That dearth and difference were motivating factors that saw David and Sabrina Hutchison open New Hamburg’s Scran and Dram Scottish Public House less than a year ago. I noticed the change of name and the re-branding of the pub soon after but hadn’t gotten round to popping in. Their story is an interesting one, however — and the couple have made a significant impact with their relatively new business.
What we wanted was to replicate a casual village pub where we as owners get to know the community and just do good pub food and celebrate each other and have fun.
Sabrina, 33, is born and raised in Waterloo Region, while Scottish native and Red Seal certified chef David, 35, has lived in the Waterloo Region for about 14 years. They have a young family which makes them doubly busy, no doubt.
“I started cooking in a small village country pub in Strachan (about 45 minutes from Aberdeen, Scotland) when I was about 13 years old,” says David.
He attended a culinary school in Aberdeen and did his apprenticeship at the Hilton Craigendarroch, near Balmoral Castle and a retreat of the British Royal Family. Sabrina studied communication at Wilfrid Laurier University and tackles the marketing and communications within the restaurant. She works at the University of Waterloo.
On why they’ve taken the step to own and operate their own restaurant, it was a natural evolution, according to David. “I’ve been in the industry for 20 years, and it was time. We always talked about having a pub, and we were looking at doing something in Kitchener or Waterloo. What we wanted was to replicate a casual village pub where we as owners get to know the community and just do good pub food and celebrate each other and have fun.”
You know, when you have skirlie and Cullen Skink on the menu.
The restaurant was formerly the Waterloo Arms; the Hutchisons took it over in October, 2015. A few months later they re-named it the Scran and Dram, which means simply “food and drink”. It’s as much a translation as it is their basic and unadorned approach to what they want to offer folks.
The staff — seeing to a dining room that can hold about 130 patrons and a patio as well — is about 20 people from the community. There is also a room for parties and private functions (and where Scotch tastings take place) that holds about 40 people. David acts mostly as an operator guiding and supervising the menu and its preparation and has a sous chef running the majority of the hands-on kitchen tasks. The restaurant is open daily.
The re-branding and transition to the Scran and Dram came at a cost and lost them a few customers, however. “We went from a traditional British pub with a lot of familiar menu items to the considerable change walking into a Scottish pub,” David notes. “You know, when you have skirlie and Cullen Skink on the menu.”
It’s high quality comfort food,” adds Sabrina. “It’s made fresh and we keep it simple.
“What’s interesting is that we’ve become known for our food now,” says Sabrina. Word has spread quickly and in addition to their immediate New Hamburg neighbours, the pub is seeing a lot of traffic from Kitchener and Waterloo. “A surprising number of people in the region have Scottish heritage,” Sabrina rightly points out. Just reflect on the fact that amidst a solid Germanic background to “Waterloo County” is a hamlet named New Dundee, to mention only one.
As for the food, Hutchison, a veteran of many kitchens in the area including as sous chef at the original Hannah’s Bella Bistro, a tenure at Wildcraft and as culinary director at Wilfrid Laurier among other venues, says easy does it. He will be the first to admit that the menu doesn’t push any boundaries. “It’s just good pub fare with some Celtic dishes and Canadian-influenced food. It’s Scottish-meets-Canada.” As much as possible they try to source local for whatever they cook. “It’s high quality comfort food,” adds Sabrina. “It’s made fresh and we keep it simple.”
Their goal, for front-of-house and for the menu, is to enhance methodically what the both the team can do and what the food program can become, according to David. “We’re going to build up our team and get everything stronger.”
He has that well underway by taking advantage of local food producers: he markets in the morning as the first part of his day. “I wake up and drive to Mountainoak and pick up my cheese. We have Pfenning’s Organics, Nith Valley Butcher, Nith Valley Apiary and a baker in New Hamburg.”
Those ingredients contribute to fish and chips dishes, Scotch eggs, a ploughman’s board, “Cullen and Skink” soup (a smoked haddock and potato dish that’s a very old family recipe), and traditional haggis, which is always on the menu. “It’s incredible how much haggis we sell,” he says. “It’s shocking. I thought it was going to be a loss-leader.”
When it comes to pints, while it’s difficult to get a lot of Scottish draft here, according to David, they serve several in “tinnies,” including Tennent’s along with some of the well-know locals like Block Three and Stratford’s Black Swan. “We’re pushing the number on tap up to 24,” he adds. “About half will be micro-breweries. There’s Pommies Cider and about 11 scotches as well.”
Scran and Dram events include karaoke nights, trivia competitions, and a very popular cèilidh music session the last Sunday of every month. “Celtic musicians come out and they jam for a couple of hours,” say Sabrina. “It’s one of my favourite times to be in the pub.” Otherwise, live music is part of each weekend at Scran and Dram.
There are theme nights too: scotch and Celtic food pairings as well as beer tastings. “We are hoping to do Scotch tastings every couple of months,” says Sabrina. Otherwise, David adds that the simplest theme will be their current tack as they navigate building the best public house that they can. “We just want to celebrate good food and have some fun.”