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Business couple set to launch recruitment drive as they look towards September opening for new Helmsdale food attraction

By Caroline McMorran

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An enterprising couple have unveiled ambitious plans for a food destination in Helmsdale which they say will attract visitors, create employment and kickstart careers in the hospitality industry for local young people.

Lawyer Donna Payne and her partner Ben Ward-Fuller, a teacher, are in the throes of renovating Othin House, a substantial property located next to the A9 and NC500 tourism route on Dunrobin Street.

Donna Payne and Ben Ward-Fuller.
Donna Payne and Ben Ward-Fuller.

When work is complete, the food hub will contain an artisan bakery, delicatessen, coffee house and kitchen.

The couple hope to be in operation by September and are set to launch a recruitment drive, with a number of apprenticeships on offer.

Donna said: “Everything we have got is being thrown into Othin House. We want to make it a beautiful venue and it is important to use that our main customers and workforce will come from the local community.

“It is more than just a business for us. It is about doing what we can to enhance Helmsdale for our community.”

Donna, who also runs a charity for victims of domestic abuse and who is still working as a lawyer, and Ben bought Othin House in 2019. They moved north from St Albans with their 15-year-old daughter Florence in March 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic struck.

“I have always loved Scotland, lived near Dumfries for some time, and have holidayed here frequently. It was always my aim to return permanently," said Donna. “I looked at Othin House and the Garvault Hotel, but it was that little bit too remote.

“Helmsdale is a lovely location. The building is right on the A9 and offered us a home above the shop and gave us everything we needed.”

Othin House has previously served as the Highlands Supply Store and is thought to have operated as a supermarket for a time.

“The people who had it before us were planning to open it as a music bar but ill health and a lack of funds prevented that," said Donna. "It has been a dark spot in the village for a long times."

Othin House, Helmsdale.
Othin House, Helmsdale.

She was taught to cook as a young child by her dad, a chef and restaurateur, and she and Ben have a shared interest in food. They have both taken charcuterie and other food related courses.

“I would never call myself a professional chef. I am a cook, I do tasty food - but it is not fine dining,” said Donna. “We are going to have a real mix of food - nothing too frightening and not too out there! Just a variety of tastes to experience and enjoy.

“We are planning afternoon and high teas, Sunday roasts, deli platters, daily specials, and a New York style brunch offering. We will also be organising special evening events and menus.”

The couple's vision is of a delicatessen alongside a “public living room” with a wood burner, comfortable sofas and seating. They say it will have a 1890s "Parisian salon" feel with a baby grand piano.

They will be seeking apprentices for the bakery, kitchen, food retail and front of house as well as other kitchen staff, cleaners and general maintenance workers.

Staff will be given opportunities to work towards further qualifications in food-related fields such as charcuterie and cheesemaking.

Donna said: “It is a tragedy that there are so few real long-term jobs with prospects for people who want to stay here and have a career. We hope that, beyond building our own business, we can bring some long-term and satisfying careers to the community.”

She added: “We are going to try a lot of things and be led by customers and so not all the ideas may come to fruition."

She also plans to set up support groups for victims of domestic abuse which she has previously done in Kent.

For more information, email: info@othinhouse.com

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