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Simple grub is the answer for award winning Stonehaven cafe

A picture of a Christmas dinner
Anyone for Christmas dinner in Stonehaven?

Here at Society, we love a fancy cafe and we like to think we’ve seen it all.

Plush velvet chairs, avocado served five ways and plenty of opportunity for a sneaky Instagram pic.

On her own admission, Susan Knowles doesn’t really do Instagram.

She’s here for real life in all its glorious colour, which can be found at her humble cafe in Stonehaven.

From stunning views of the sea to home-made comforting food, and some impressive celebrity customers to boot – the Waterfront Cafe Bar on Allardice Street is a breath of fresh air.

Susan has to stop several times during our interview to warmly greet customers. She knows all of her “regulars” by name, and can tell me exactly what drink each person orders.

Indeed it was the customers who have frequented the place for years, who cut a special red ribbon when the café finally re-opened following lockdown, and a photograph of the touching moment has been placed on what Susan calls “The Wall of Fame.”

We found out why the simple and honest menu saw Benedict Cumberbatch take a seat during a north-east visit, and why yet another award could be on the horizon for the hardworking team.

How long have you been the proud owner, and how did it come about?

It’s been six years since me and my husband took over, I used to waitress here.

I’ve done lots of jobs. I worked in a petrol station when my kids were young, I’ve stacked shelves and I’ve been a dinner lady.

I have three grandchildren now, I stumbled into owning a cafe but I absolutely love it.

The view is quite something, you must never get bored of it?

It really is gorgeous, and it looks different every single day. On a beautiful day in summer, you can look out to sea and think you’re somewhere abroad.

Or it can change completely on stormy days when the waves are rough.

What made you decide to take the leap and take over?

I remember the previous owner asking me when was I going to run my own business, and I said I was waiting for her to retire. I wasn’t joking, and I love being my own boss. More than that though, I love the public.

Susan has ben running the cafe for six years.

I can tell you what every single person sitting in here has to drink. Myself and the team, we all get to know our customers, and they really are lovely.

It must have been three years when we threw a 90th birthday party for one lady, all her friends came and had the best time.

I think it’s partly down to the nicety of Stonehaven, there’s a fantastic community here.

Tell me about your menu

Right now we’re all about Christmas dinners, and we’re also doing really well with afternoon tea with cream scones, sandwiches, meringues and tray bakes.

We have two cooks and two kitchen assistants. and some of our most popular items on the menu are the most simple.

Afternoon teas have proved a hit

Our all day breakfast always goes down well, alongside sausage, eggs and chips or mince with tatties and skirlie.

Our fish is fantastic, it comes from just south of Stonehaven. Everything is home-made, including the macaroni and the chicken fillets, which are made from proper chicken breast.

The pandemic must have been really challenging for you?

I cried when I heard the news. I still remember where I was, standing in the car park at Asda. I didn’t know what help we would go on to receive with furlough, thankfully all of our girls were able to be furloughed.

The simple menu boasts local produce and home cooking

I checked in with the team every week, and so many of our regular customers kept in touch with us.

It was hard because we had already previously had to close when there was a burst pipe upstairs at the Indian restaurant. It came straight through the ceiling.

How did you adapt post lockdown?

We did consider the idea of doing take-aways when businesses were allowed to do so during lockdown, but we didn’t want to take business away from others.

I wasn’t sure how things were going to go when a date for re-opening was allowed, but people were dying for a cup of coffee.

Stars such as Benedict Cumberbatch have enjoyed a meal at the Waterfront Cafe Bar

You couldn’t sit inside, but thankfully we have outside seating looking onto the sea, where people walk past all the time.

We sold buckets and spades, hot dogs, a traditional cone of chips and we stocked Rizza’s ice cream.

At first we had a gazebo, but that didn’t stand up against the Scottish summer. We soon changed to what we call The Waterfront Hut.

And what’s this I hear about awards?

That was a complete shock to us. We got a letter just the other day, we have been nominated for Scotlands Business Awards.

We were also voted Most Welcoming Cafe of the Year at The Scottish Cafe Awards in 2019, we got to go down to Glasgow for that.

Susan believes a friendly welcome sets The Waterfront Cafe Bar apart

It all comes down to how I train my staff, to always be welcoming and greet customers.

I don’t have a high turnover of staff, and I always say that if someone is paying at the till, there must be an dirty table somewhere.

Efficiency is so important.

We also got an award from Me TOO, for being the friendliest cafe for adults and children with disabilities.

We have a snug area and we re-organise all the tables for those who may have wheelchairs, we are welcoming to everybody.

Mums also love coming in because there’s plenty of space for buggies.

Your location lends itself to summer. Are you busy all year round?

Yes, summer in particular is absolutely hoatching outside.

Say around November-December time we take a hit, but we find ourselves really busy again between Christmas and New Year as we don’t shut for long.

And finally, what is your wall of fame all about?

Well we’ve had a few famous faces come in. Benedict Cumberbatch came in through the front door asking to use the toilet, he was all bundled up with a hoodie on.

Then he came in the back way, and I still didn’t know who he was. I don’t watch Sherlock Homes.

He sat down with his partner, child and nanny for something to eat. He had two helpings of our local fish, and all the girls were telling me who he was.

Soup and a sandwich is the order of the day

He was very happy to have a picture with us, we waited until after he had finished his meal. He only asked that we didn’t put it on social media right away, and we respected that.

Then of course there was Gareth Thomas, he was great signing balls and shirts for kids, and we served 32 members of the BBC film crew who were with him.

We get quite a few Aberdeen football players, and we’re the sponsor  for Cowie Thistle as well.

We welcome everyone, no matter who you are. It’s the atmosphere and what we’ve made of it which keeps people coming back.

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