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Meet The Board: Joel D'Eathe (Busta House Hotel)

September 22nd 2020

Busta House Hotel’s co-manager Joel D’Eathe was just on the brink of becoming a teenager when his family traded Sheffield city centre for the outskirts of Brae at the turn of the century.

His parents had taken up work – his dad a dentist, his mum a teacher – in Shetland in 2001. Within a year Joel took a job washing dishes at the nearby hotel and, aside of an abortive stint at university, there he has remained since.

The respective industrial heartlands of South Yorkshire and Shetland’s North Mainland could scarcely be more different, but having caught the hospitality bug as a school pupil Joel is now very settled here living with wife Stephanie and their child Jessica.

After the previous management “pretty much had to drag me out of the kitchen” to wait tables aged 15, his progress through the ranks was swift. At 17 he became a duty manager and at 23 he was appointed assistant manager to Grant O’Neil, with whom he has jointly run the hotel for the past five years.

They had managed it on behalf of former owners Joe and Veronica Rocks before eventually taking over in 2015.

“Having worked together for so long I don’t think either of us would do it alone. It means we can take a day out every fortnight and know it’ll be fine when the other person is there.

“We play off each other’s strengths very well. He’s very much front of house, customer-based. I can do that side of it but I’m better in the office. We both have very different opinions, but we both have a passion for Shetland and the hotel.”

Joel has always lived nearby and the same applies to most of the staff they employ: “To be part of the community and to be close is so important – you never know when you might be called in at short notice.”

Busta is one of the jewels in the crown of Shetland hoteldom, boasting a secluded waterside setting, leafy grounds and the type of rustic features you’d expect for a property whose first brickwork was constructed in 1588.

“It’s very easy for people that stay in town to come out for a holiday,” Joel points out, “and the finishing lends itself to the character of the building.”

Now 32 and with 19 years’ experience in such a unique setting under his belt, the mild-mannered, friendly and immediately likeable Yorkshireman has long understood the importance of playing an integral part in community life.

That certainly stood the business in strong stead when Covid-19 struck earlier this year. They started a nightly takeaway service and the community’s response “throughout lockdown and beyond has been quite incredible and hugely appreciated”.

“There probably wasn’t one week during lockdown where we made a profit, but it certainly made it a bit easier to keep the lights on. Without the local community it’s unlikely we’d still be here now.”

Joel is a strong enthusiast for Shetland Food & Drink’s mission, having taken a place on the board in 2018, and particularly keen to encourage others to work with one another.

Chairwoman Marian Armitage says his passion and “straight-talking” presence is vital to represent the “public-facing part of the hospitality sector”“Joel is very much a ‘sleeves rolled up and ready’ member, which has been particularly evident during recent months when he has frequently joined virtual board meetings from his van while delivering delicious denners throughout the north of Shetland,” she said.

He welcomes closer relations between SFAD, Promote Shetland and the Shetland Tourist Association, something that “should have been done a long time ago”.

Observers of public life in Shetland will have noticed public bodies waxing lyrical about fostering more “partnership working” and “collaboration”. But actually getting organisations and businesses to put that into practice can be frustratingly elusive.

Joel said it was the primary reason Busta became a SFAD member. Having subsequently been able to build up connections with a host of producers, he is eager to ensure it is easy for others to follow suit.

“Nobody was coming to us with brochures saying who does lamb, beef, potatoes. There was just no information out there,” he explains. “Once we started going to the meetings, we started to find out how and where we could get all the different things that Shetland has to offer.”

The hotel had always stocked Lerwick Brewery’s beers, for instance, but getting together in the same room resulted in collaborating to put on tasting nights: “The more you talk the easier it is to come up with random ideas and make things happen.”

Since signing up to SFAD, Busta has struck up relations with 10 different producers it hadn’t worked with before. That has translated into £75,000 going into the pockets of other local businesses rather than flowing out of the islands.

Joel D'Eathe.Joel is delighted with the upsurge in the availability of Shetland produce in shops lately. “If you think back to three or four years ago you wouldn’t have been able to get half the products. The pop-up shop [in summer 2018] was a big turning point, I think. Now every meeting you go to, you hear of folk who are going to Bolts for the weekly shop.

“The change has been unbelievable in such a short amount of time. Hopefully it’s growing, with Nicola and Magnus coming with Shetland ice cream, and if somebody could do Shetland cheese that’d be amazing.

“Veg has been a massive sticking point… but we were able to move to Shetland eggs for the first time, which was a really nice change, Skibhoul oatcakes, simple things like that.”

Prior to Covid-19, the summer tourist trade had been mushrooming and it is hoped fortunes will revive again in 2021.

Yet it has been a testing time for the hotel trade, particularly in the North Mainland, amid a downturn in oil and gas traffic following the completion of Total’s gas plant and the controversial addition of a sprawling accommodation camp at Sella Ness.

Joel is understandably apprehensive about the future for isles hoteliers – several remain up for sale – and eateries. “As somebody who lives here, it’s vital we keep places like The Dowry, and all the attractions that come with them,” he says.

While “eat out to help out” provided a temporary fillip, “everyone has been out in August – what happens in September, never mind November? Can we do Christmas parties? My worry is how does everyone survive through the winter months.”

Does he foresee a switch to more seasonal operating hours if tourism supplants oil and gas as their primary income source? “It’s certainly possible. What made us different from Scotland’s west coast was the oil terminal.

“It would be a very sad day if we had to start closing in the winter. Local trade is really good, but as soon as you disappear for months, does it become ‘why should I come back to you when you open again’?”

Whatever the challenges, though, it’s a safe bet Joel, Grant and their staff will retain the moral support of folk in the north mainland and beyond. I was just putting the finishing touches to this article when news came through that Busta was one of the recipients of a “community spirit award”.

“It’s great to let the team see that all of their hard work is appreciated so much by everyone,” a pleasantly surprised Joel responded. “We’re just doing what we do and trying to do the best for the local community that we can.”

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