Despite residing in countries across the globe, there was something about Aboyne that always drew Hollie and Emma Petrie back to their hometown.
From Canada, Austria and New Zealand to Sri Lanka and Indonesia, the sisters have spent a number of years “spreading their wings” and discovering what other areas of the world have to offer.
But it was in Aboyne, where Hollie and Emma grew up, that they discovered their love of cooking and baking. And the pair even worked in local cafes part-time from the age of 14.
“Neither of us had any professional training as cooks,” Hollie said. “We just love food, and I honestly think it is the best thing for bringing people together.”
Hollie spent four years at Edinburgh University, before working in New Zealand for six months with a friend. It was here that she learned how to create a “proper coffee” and run a cafe.
She added: “I absorbed a lot about how things ran in the cafe I worked for – what makes a smooth service, and so on. Eventually, I got trained as a barista.
“My first shift on the machine by myself was a challenge. It was really busy and I couldn’t keep up with the cheques. Now, I am very quick and I love the buzz from a busy rush.
“When I got home to Scotland, I started working as part of the team at Foodstory, which was a new cafe in Aberdeen at this point.
“Working there was fun and my co-workers were amazing. It was hard because we were always so so busy, but again I learned a lot about what does and doesn’t work.
“I’d been there for a few months and got promoted to shift manager.
“I was still living at home with my family, so when my sister got made redundant from her job, she literally just turned round to me one evening and asked ‘would you open a cafe with me?’. It made so much sense, I said yes straight away.”
The sisters started thinking up the concept of their business from the get-go, which they knew for certain would be based in Aboyne.
With help from their parents, the duo was finally able to launch and run their own cafe, Spider on a Bicycle.
Hollie said: “There was definitely a gap in the market in Aboyne for the kind of place we wanted to create. And between us, we have the right skill set.
“Emma had hospitality experience too, and she is also the most organised and motivated person I know. I had the practical experience in good cafes and was building my coffee knowledge.
“We managed to rent a space in the village. Emma project managed the conversion and fit-out whilst I was still working part-time before I eventually left my job. We started operating in December 2016, when I was 24 and Emma was only 21.
“Pre-pandemic (in normal times), the cafe had about 30 seats and a team of around eight. Nowadays, we are just a team of four, but we hope to expand again once the future is a bit clearer.
“We were so much busier than we thought we would be – no grace period, we just hit the ground running.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is that you can’t please everyone all the time, and that’s okay.
“My advice to anyone wanting to open their own food or drink business would be to make sure you know what you’re getting into first. There needs to be respect between staff and managers/owners, and unless you can do everything you’re expecting them to do, it’s a lot harder to achieve that.
“My sister is the best business partner I could have asked for, we complement each other’s talents and there is full trust.”
Speaking on the offering at their popular cafe, Hollie says customers can expect nothing less than quality coffee when ordering from them.
And when it comes to their contemporary food offering, there are an array of items to choose from.
“There was nowhere close to us that made a really good coffee, and that we would actually want to go and hang out at, so we decided to change that.
“Emma and I wanted to make a space that was welcoming and friendly, where we could offer some simple food and baking where the quality was really good, and people would want to come and meet up.
“Things have definitely got better the past couple of years though, with more good food and drink businesses opening across the north-east, you just need to know where to look. We care about what we do and I think that shows.
“Day-to-day, we both still work in the cafe. Things have changed with the pandemic. When we were able to re-open it was only four days a week, compared to six or seven, with shorter hours.
“The menu changed with Covid-19 as we were mainly operating as a takeaway. Now it’s much more ‘grab and go’ style.
“We make as much in-house from scratch as possible including all our baking of sandwiches, salads, frittata and sausage rolls, and so on.
“Every morning (and throughout the day) you need to ensure the coffee is tasting bang on.
“Choosing which coffee to use was a big decision when we set up. We use coffee from Papercup Coffee Company, based in Glasgow.
“They are a small-scale speciality roaster, roasting to order in small batches, and they also have a very good cafe.
“They tend to have a few different coffees on offer at any one time, which changes seasonally, but we tend to stick to the same one for our espresso for the season. Our customers prefer consistency we’ve found, they don’t like change!
“We currently just make espresso-based drinks – including lattes, cappuccinos and americanos more than anything else.
“As much as we would love to have a filter offering on as well, the investment in equipment and training to do that wouldn’t be worth it in our small market.
“I think there is still a lot of confusion over the phrase ‘speciality coffee’. Some people see it and think it means anything from a coffee machine with steamed milk or a ‘fancy’ coffee. In reality, t’s more about the origin of the coffee itself.
“Green coffee beans are graded for quality and speciality coffee is the top section of the grading system.
“Speciality buyers and roasters also tend to have a shorter chain between them and the grower with greater traceability – usually right to the farm or collective where the coffee was grown and processed. Coffee roasting is an art, and not an easy one to perfect.”
“Food-wise, our most popular products are probably our cinnamon buns, vegan apple cake, and carrot and ginger cake,” Hollie said.
“In the savoury front, it’s got to be the sausage rolls or pork pies from Wark Farm.
“My favourite is our sandwich with spiced roast cauliflower, grilled halloumi, lettuce, raita and pink pickled onion. We also make a really good scone for all the traditionalists out there.”
Reflecting on their years as business owners, Hollie and Emma are proud of what Spider on a Bicycle has brought to the local community.
“The most rewarding thing is people telling us how they feel it’s improved the village and the people we have met through it.
“It’s hard to know what the next year is going to look like when the restrictions begin to lift.
“We’ve been closed a lot of the year, and going forward, we will need to remain flexible and haven’t yet made any decisions about what the business will look like. It’s so difficult when everything keeps changing.
“I imagine that later in the spring we will be able to re-open for takeaway and take it from there. The safety of our staff is the most important thing though.
“We were doing really well before the pandemic and looking into how we could offer more, but the whole industry has been knocked for six, so we are just happy to still be here.
“Emma and I do have some exciting plans for becoming a bread co-op though, working with an incredible wood-fired sourdough bakery who deliver from Comrie, which would be amazing, so keep a lookout for that.”
A Round of Questions with Hollie Petrie
Keen to find out more about the mind behind Spider on a Bicycle? Well, take a look at how Hollie Petrie got on in our round of questions.
What’s your customer ice breaker?
We’re a small village so we know most of our customers already, no need to break the ice.
It’s the end of your shift – what do you pour yourself?
Doing the clean down after a super busy shift in the summer, it’s got to be an iced coffee or one of the Karma Cola sodas straight from the fridge.
If you were a coffee/drink, what would you be and why?
If I was a coffee, I would probably be a long black. I’m small, simple and straightforward. My business partner and sister, Emma, doesn’t actually drink coffee, so she would 100% be a good cup of tea.
Most unusual coffee/drink you’ve ever tried?
I don’t actually think I’ve ever had to drink anything that weird!
What would the theme song to your average shift be?
I love to put on some funk and soul in the summer when we are really busy. It keeps us all in the groove going with the flow, even if we haven’t had a chance to eat anything all day.
What’s in your drinks cabinet at home?
Pretty much everything you can think of. My boyfriend and I love to mix up some nice drinks and he is very into whisky, so we’ve got a big collection.
Best food and drink pairing?
It would have to be some kind of very spicy, hot and delicious street food eaten on the side of the road in a country somewhere in southeastern Asia, with a cold local beer. This is my favourite kind of food experience.
If you were stuck on a desert island, what three drinks would be there with you?
Good coffee, cold beers and an unlimited supply of caipirinhas.
If you had to make a drink to represent Aberdeen, what would it be?
I haven’t done any bar work for a long time, but I think I would like to make something that also reflects the environment out here around Aboyne, Off the top of my head, I would go for a rosehip gin sour, made with Porter’s Gin and a homemade foraged rosehip syrup.
You have to serve your favourite superhero or celebrity a drink. Who is it, and what do you serve them?
My favourite food celebrity would be Anthony Bourdain, who sadly took his own life in 2018. The shows he made about food, people and places are incredible – they’ve been a joy to watch, particularly this past year when we can’t get out to eat and drink or travel. He brought a lot to the table over his life, and I imagine would be the best guest at a dinner party. I would make him a negroni.