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One Lismore Show five years ago, Mairi Hawkes found a way to get more islanders to try oysters from her family farm in Port Ramsay – by simply adding alcohol.
When lockdown forced her Oban hair removal salon to shut, Mairi turned her foodie idea into a flourishing business called Slàinte Sauces making ‘tipsy drizzles’ for seafood, burgers, desserts, and cocktails, ‘sure to bring the celebration to your table’.
Now Mairi’s Slàinte Sauces, handcrafted in small batches on Lismore, has caught the eye of Dragon’s Den star Theo Paphitis, and she has ambitious plans to expand into Harrods, and Fortnum & Mason. But her success has not been easy: in particular, she discovered a desperate need for more business units in Oban and the islands.
Mairi grew up on Easdale where her father, the late Johnnie MacFadyen, was the ferryman, and then later on Lismore, where Johnnie started up the family oyster farm at Port Ramsay, now run by her brother Alan and Australian husband Geoff. The inspiration for her ‘tipsy drizzles’ came from an unlikely place in 2016, at the first Lismore Agricultural Show in almost 80 years.
Mairi had set up a stall selling her family’s oysters and was wracking her brains for ways to encourage more people to try them, for, as Jonathan Swift wrote: ‘It was a brave man who first ate an oyster.’ She hit upon the idea (bravely tried by your correspondent) of injecting the molluscs with gin, tequila, or Cointreau – whichever spirit the show-goers preferred. It was somewhat messy, but successful.
It was a light bulb moment. ‘It was the only way people would eat oysters,’ she said. ‘That was how I got into the sauces: you need sauces to pour onto oysters.’ She worked with a food technologist to get the recipes for her many sauces right.
The first ones were designed as accompaniments for oysters, such as spicy tequila or whisky with lemon and chilli, but then she started making sauces for desserts as well, like whisky, raspberry and vanilla – described as ‘cranachan in a bottle’ – and her biggest seller, white chocolate and raspberry martini. People loved them and said they made excellent cocktails too. The range has grown to 12 flavours in total – so far.
However, Mairi was also busy running her hair removal clinic in Oban – until March 2020 when the Covid pandemic hit. ‘I had to shut my business in lockdown,’ she recalled, but in three weeks she got back on her feet, deciding to run with her sauce idea, launching in May 2020. ‘This is a perfect time to branch out,’ she said. ‘Fortunately the Lismore Cafe allowed me to use their kitchen.
‘It has taken off quickly. It is quite unique. They are easy to use and look good on shop shelves. They obviously taste amazing. You have your story. You have fabulous pictures to show. People love it. My websites were very buoyant during lockdown. The food industry is a very difficult thing to crack, because there are so many regulations. But it is very exciting and challenging. I am very ambitious.’
But Lismore couldn’t provide the infrastructure her growing business needed.
‘It is difficult to do this full time on Lismore because of the water supply,’ she explained. ‘We do not have a public water supply. Even basic things like internet connection is quite poor on Lismore. Getting deliveries can be difficult and expensive. Wee islands need units. Premises and expensive deliveries hold businesses back on small islands.’
In a bid to solve these problems, Mairi sought a business unit in Oban – but they were in desperate short supply there too.
‘Oban has to have more units for business, especially with Covid,’ she said: ‘So many are starting up and have nowhere to go. It was very difficult. There is nothing, and what there is gets taken up so quickly.’
Eventually Mairi was lucky to find premises on Lochavullin Road and can at last upscale her production, pitching her sauces to luxury retail giants such as Harrods and Fortnum & Mason.
Her sauces are already sold in many shops around Scotland, which are listed on her website. On September 6-7, Mairi will be showcasing her sauces at the Speciality Fine Food Fair in London’s Olympia Centre.
Last month she won a competition called Small Business Sunday, run by a star of the BBC show Dragon’s Den, Theo Paphitis. ‘I entered it every Sunday for a whole year,’ she revealed: ‘I thought I just have to keep going with this.’
Finally, her determination paid off. ‘We met him,’ she explained, and received ‘lectures and advice that has opened up a whole network of connections.
‘Next year, I’m looking forward to employing people,’ she said. ‘It shows you can start businesses here, and help young people come back.’