Carol Emmas chats to Ian Marray about the challenges of hospitality and his vision for his restaurant

Look on a restaurant's website from January through to spring and you’ll see a multitude of foodie offerings in various guises. “It’s always a nail-biting time, early in the year,” admits Low, Slow & Dough owner Ian Marray, who opened his Oxton Village restaurant just under a year ago.  “We’re still feeling our way and trying to find out what’s best, and it’s all good and going well. We’re booked up Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. But a lot of people are staying in and saving up at this time of year, so it’s much quieter pre-5pm.”

Ian’s answer is a ’beat the clock' offer from 13.00 - 18.00 p.m. The time you arrive is the price you pay. In other words, book to eat at 13.00 and you pay £13 for a burger, drink, and seasoned fries, 14.00 hours, £14.00 etc. A canny idea in a competitive market when all restaurants are trying to coax in custom with their differing deals.

We’ve just done a renovation on the bar and tripled the cocktail menu to have Mexican, American, and Classic themes. The aim is to open up a bit later in the evening so people can come in for a couple of drinks and maybe some snacks. We’ll clear the tables and create a bit of a speakeasy vibe.

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It’s a risky step to open a restaurant in this current economic climate. Especially when you have a relatively recent background in the industry. Nevertheless, with all the barriers this country has experienced over the past few years, it hasn’t put him off. Originally, Ian comes from an industrial background and has a few businesses with his brother. He sold one of those businesses, and with both money and new-found time on his hands, he began his Tex Mex experiment down at Woodside Ferry Village in 2019. “We spent two years there. Then various other places; The Baltic Beer Garden, Love Lane Brewery and Peaky Blinders for another two seasons. Then contracting in other kitchens, including Franklin’s in Heswall. We didn’t want to invest in our own place then because we wanted to build the business gradually," he says.

It was a friend who owned the building Ian is in now, in Oxton. “I’d asked him previously if it ever became available to let me know. It did, and he did. It was a quick decision. Cooking and eating good food has always been what I enjoyed in my downtime. So this is my passion project,” he says, casting his eyes around the room.

You can see that he’s 100% involved. You can also see he has pretty sharp intuition in terms of its formula. Which is one that naturally conveys the impression of a bunch of mates hanging out in a relaxed space, enjoying good food, and having a few drinks. Once upon a time, pubs were just pubs serving drinks, and they all changed to begin serving food. This feels like it’s taking an about turn by integrating more bars in a predominantly food-led place. “We’ve just done a renovation on the bar and tripled the cocktail menu to have Mexican, American, and Classic themes. The aim is to open up a bit later in the evening so people can come in for a couple of drinks and maybe some snacks. We’ll clear the tables and create a bit of a speakeasy vibe.”

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There’s no shortage of bars in Oxton Village. So the new bar offering can only add to its image of being at the epicentre of all things foody, alcoholic, and über-lively. There is a well-considered drinks list, with a decent cocktail offering. The wine list, as well as selling bottles, offers all wines by the glass in three sizes, which is great when on many wine lists there is a very limited choice. The prices aren’t excessive, either. But, if you’re feeling flush and want to buy a bottle of Bolly you can. Bottle beers and ales are not your run-of-the-mill and there are mocktails too.

Other restaurants have inhabited the same building over the past few years and, for different reasons, have not succeeded. “No fault of their own, COVID was at fault last time.” At the same time, although those restaurants had good offerings, in terms of Low Slow & Dough, it feels like both its food and drink offerings has naturally found its niche within the Oxton village dynamic. Ian has read the room.

If you look at its website and Instagram, you see photographs of juice-oozing burgers that appeal to any palate, especially after a couple of drinks in the pubs across the road. You’re going to want to soak up that alcohol. What better way to do that than with a fat, fresh, juicy burger with all the trimmings? Or BBQ brisket, tomatillo salsa, cowboy candy loaded tots and nachos. There is lots of ‘dirty’ food on the menu, and dirty food appeals to all. “The burgers have overtaken the tacos now in terms of popularity,”  says Ian. "We’ve had a dozen different varieties and have honed it down to just six. The Hot Head is the favourite. We dehydrate and sweet brine the jalapeños. We call it cowboy candy because it’s sweet but hot, and it comes with a deep-fried onion crunch and a base layer of habanero jam.” There are also vegan options, such as a Big ‘V’, made with secret burger sauce, pickles, fresh onion and lettuce. It comprises, Beyond Meat patty, vegan cheese, and a vegan bun.

Although business hasn’t all been plain sailing. While the reviews on TripAdvisor have been consistently good, in a blow that came left-field for Ian, it was awarded a one-star hygiene rating 12 weeks after it opened. Worse still, it hit the local press. “It was a total shock,” Ian says. “I thought we were way better than we were. But we’d just moved in and had an inherited kitchen, and I think we were reviewed just a little bit quickly.” He adds, “The day after we received the news, we rectified the things that needed fixing, and we have since had a refit. Yet, I feel it was also positive. We parted ways with the chef, as a lot of the issues centred around what he should have done at the time. I managed to get back our previous chef Alex Warrington, and he turned things around straight away. We also now use an external food hygiene agent whose business it is to put everything in place to make sure we get consistent five-star ratings and she’s really good.” After a recent rating visit, Low, Slow and Dough got their well-deserved 5-star rating back. 

Going forward, Ian says he’s potentially looking to expand into Liverpool city centre in late 2025/ early 2026 if everything goes to plan. “What’s made things more difficult recently is the 20% VAT on food sales. We can put our prices up, but there is a limit to what is a fair price. So most income in the winter months goes on food costs, staffing costs, and costs for the place. In the summer months we’re 40% busier, so maybe then we can make a bit of gravy.”

“Going forward in the short term, we’re just looking forward to summer. It’ll be fine when the sun shines and everyone comes out.” 

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