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Planta owner on how Elgin town centre can create ‘a buzz’ to help High Street thrive

Marius Puscas believes the town has 'huge potential' and can be pushed to the next level with some changes.

Marius Puscas standing at front desk of Planta.
Marius Puscas is a passionate believer of Elgin's potential. Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson

Marius Puscas was just days away from opening Planta on Elgin town centre’s Batchen Street when the country was plunged into lockdown.

Job interviews had been held, staff had been promised posts, stock plans had been put in place – and then everything had to stop before the doors could open.

What may have killed the dreams for some only strengthened the desire from the businessman passion to open an Italian-inspired restaurant focused on fresh produce.

Four years on and Planta has survived several challenges to become one of the go-to destinations on Batchen Street and Elgin town centre.

  • Marius told the Press and Journal about “the buzz” he thinks Elgin needs to make the town centre thrive.
  • How a huge gamble of importing a massive pizza oven from Italy is paying off.
  • The constant challenges of launching a new business during Covid and cost-of-living crisis.
  • Why he thinks Elgin has “huge potential” and how it can be captured.

‘Elgin needs a buzz to get people talking about the town centre’

Romanian-born Marius settled in Elgin in 2008, following friends who had moved to the area as part of the Erasmus European university exchange programme.

After a decade of working in hospitality management locally for firms including Johnstons of Elgin and the Banff Springs Hotel, he harboured ambitions of opening his own restaurant.

Now a fixture on Batchen Street alongside other independent traders, he believes the location has all the ingredients to help his business thrive.

However, there is one thing he continues to push for to help push the location to the next level.

Marius Puscas standing outside Planta looking down Batchen Street.
Marius Puscas would like to expand his business out into Batchen Street with outside tables and chairs. Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson

Marius, 37, said: “I have tried and tried to find a way to get opportunities to put tables and chairs out in the street over the summer.

“We did it during Covid and it created such a nice buzz.

“We could have this place booming. There could be nice garden lights outside. It could be so lovely, a location people talk about to their friends and want to be part of themselves.

“It’s what we all need to be thinking of. How can we encourage people into town? It’s very difficult if we don’t have that buzz.

“I have tried and tried with the council but been told it would be a safety hazard. I think local authorities need to find a way to make things like this work.”

What Elgin town centre needs to build on ‘huge potential’

Bringing tables and chairs onto the pavement and road in Batchen Street has been supported by other local traders in the area.

However, Marius is candid that it cannot be the only step to help push Elgin to the next level.

The businessman is adamant the town has “huge potential”, but believes much of it is currently untapped while other communities benefit.

Customers being served pizza inside Planta.
Planta wants to offer visitors a reason to spend longer in Elgin town centre. Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson

He said: “In the centre at the moment you are almost at the point of there not being much for tourists.

“I’m extremely confident that when Gordon and MacPhail is fully reopened it will be a breath of fresh air and bring footfall.

“Elgin has the cathedral which has wonderful history and Johnstons which is such a well-known business. We need to look at how we can take the people who visit both of them into the town centre.

Gordon and Macphail building on South Street covered in scaffolding.
There are hopes the completed Gordon and MacPhail building on South Street will boost footfall. Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson

“I think we need to look at creating a central location for tour buses to drop people off. I absolutely love Elgin, I think it’s got huge potential, there’s so much more we can do with the right support.

“It’s frustrating because we’re off the Whisky Trail a bit, but when you look at Hopeman and Burghead in the summer they are very busy.

“We need to look at how we can create a similar buzz in Elgin.”

How ‘huge gamble’ of importing massive Italian pizza oven to Elgin is paying off

When Planta finally had its delayed opening as Covid restrictions eased, customers queued from the door down the street for a table.

Marius admits he has experimented with various themes since the early days of the business.

A wine bar, cheese boards and charcuterie were an early success but when others replicated them it forced him to think again.

Marius Puscas sliding a pizza into the Planta pizza oven.
Marius Puscas believes the pizzas at Planta will be impossible for other Elgin town centre firms to replicate. Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson

He said: “Competition is always good. It makes you think, get your business head down and work out what’s next.”

What he settled on was adding Neapolitan-inspired Italian pizzas to the menu.

However, not content to do things half-cooked, he went all-in on importing a pizza oven from Italy in March 2022 to ensure he could create the real deal in Elgin.

It was no small task with the glittering gold oven having to be dropped off several yards away on the High Street.

A forklift truck was then needed to carry it to Planta with the window taken off the unit for it to be lifted inside.

Marius was reluctant to reveal how much the investment had cost him, but is thrilled with the results.

He said: “It’s almost like a dream come true for me. We’re trying our best to make authentic Neapolitan pizzas, which you can’t get anywhere else here.

Pizza oven in front window of Planta.
The front window of Planta had to be removed to install the pizza oven. Image: Mobi Pizza Ovens

“We bring in the cheese from Naples, the flour comes from the Amalfi coast.

“We get a lot of questions about whether you can put pineapple on but I like to keep the tastes authentic.

“It was a huge investment, it was a gamble, but it’s something that nobody else can do here. It’s a unique product.

“I’ve trained with a company in Italy to be a master pizzaiolo (pizza maker). We’ve worked on the pizzas and are going to start entering them in some national competitions.”

How Planta has survived Covid and the cost-of-living crisis as a new business

As he was preparing in the days before the Covid lockdown, Marius hung a yellow bike above the door to Planta.

It was originally intended to represent the restaurant’s commitment to fresh ingredients and healthy foods.

However, during lockdown it became a sign to show passers-by that Marius was not giving up on his dream for Planta in Elgin town centre.

Marius Puscas inside Planta with bike on the wall behind.
There is a focus on fresh and health ingredients at Planta. Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson

That hope remained later in the year – despite him taking 70 cancellation phone calls in just three hours when the Scottish Government advised against Christmas gatherings.

He said: “It took a long time for us to have any sense of normality in the business without any kind of restrictions.

“You couldn’t predict anything. Even just having an understanding of footfall at different times of year, everything has been so inconsistent for us as a new business.”

Those financial inconsistencies continue today with the Ukraine war and cost-of-living crisis pushing up costs of ingredients and power.

Marius Puscas outside Planta with business behind.
The yellow bike above Planta became a symbol of hope for the business during lockdown. Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson

It has led to him adding his voice to others in the hospitality industry calling for a reduction in the government’s 20% VAT rate.  

He said: “Prices have gone up by anything from 60% to 150%. A five-litre bottle of olive oil used to cost £15, it’s now £45. Our electricity at one point went from £1,200 or £1,300 a month to £6,000.

“VAT is a big challenge for us, and others like us, just now. One thing we’ve had to do is only open on evenings on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, it’s just too difficult to do it the whole week.”

Read more from Elgin town centre businesses