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All Saints goes marching

01 January 2000 by
All Saints goes marching

Hereford's only other vegetarian restaurant, The Pulse, ceased trading this spring, leaving the field clear for the Café at All Saints, now almost one year old. Café director Bill Sewell prefers to think that he didn't stop The Pulse in its tracks, but a look at his business's success tells its own story.

The bank reckoned that the café would make sales in year one totalling about £70,000, while Sewell predicted £100,000. It's clear now that the figure will be close to £240,000. Sewell is delighted, although not complacent. He wonders whether it was beginner's luck for something novel in a rural market town, and whether customer numbers were typical.

He wrings his hands when asked to analyse patterns of trade. August boomed, then September bombed; December was amazing and then came the winter doldrums; now, as summer dawns, the coach parties are back, the tourists are pouring in and the problem is where to fit everyone.

Numbers have been one of Sewell's biggest surprises. While average spend per head rarely got above £2.50, volume became decisive. He explains: "The numbers have been much more than we'd anticipated. I think it's due to a great site, an attractive finished design, and a food offer that has struck a chord. The concept appeals to people in this area because it was new. I know from customer response forms that we have brought in a significant number of people to Hereford who would otherwise not have come to the town."

The All Saints parish head-count is very small, so it's clear that the café has not relied on those from the restored church's pews, although they do form a small element. Instead, Sewell has seen two large groups emerge as regular customers - elderly people, and mothers with babies and young children.

Sewell hopes to lure more professionals to the café by raising their awareness of it in the coming year. He's not sure yet how to do this but has already discounted the idea of a separate sandwich run to offices. This would be too time-consuming and is not viable given the limited kitchen space and staff resources.

However, building a relationship with the local population at different levels remains a top priority and fits in with the aims of All Saints' priest, Father Andrew Mottram, who promotes the idea of church and community merging. And although there was a flurry of resentment towards the café and church among some local traders last summer, the general reception in the town has been favourable.

Sewell says: "The warmth with which the project has been received has been one of the most amazing things. People continue to be really keen to make contact with the café." In this vein, a local school has asked him to give a talk to pupils during Hereford's Food Week and the church is to host a special fair for neighbouring growers and suppliers of organic produce, while coach parties descend on the café as part of their tour route.

"The food and community element is taking off," says Sewell, "and it's great that local growers are now approaching us and asking us to use their produce. We've got our place in the geography of Hereford. Publicity through coverage in Caterer and through the story about the lewd statue have really helped that process. It's about stopping being a nice, new little café and becoming somewhere with which people develop links."

On the downside, the biggest shock to Sewell over the year has been the high overheads, double what he planned for. Laundry, heating and lighting have all soaked up money and, although laundry costs are linked to the café's busier-than-expected life, the other two are harder to unravel. Staffing has also been a case of trial and error, and its costs have stuck stubbornly at about 40% of turnover for most of the year. It is Sewell's aim to bring this down to nearer 35%.

First heating and now ventilation have continued to irk Sewell, who sees temperature control as a significant problem in both kitchen and dining areas although, for now, limited resources are blocking any possible solution.

The most stressful weekend of the year came in mid-May, when the café's Garland oven broke down at 11.30am on a Friday and its manufacturers proved unable to send assistance until the following Monday. With a seasonal supper planned that evening, the only solution was a frantic scramble to Sewell's house, where he produced food for 200. Many of these were for one of the café's seasonal suppers, for which he had to reduce the price per head from £16 to £10.

The gremlin, it later emerged, was nothing more than somebody having accidentally hit the oven's emergency shut-off switch. The episode took a notable toll of both nerves and money.

Such disasters aside, Sewell finds Hereford markedly less frantic and pressured than his natural habitat of London, where he also runs the Place Below café in the crypt of the church of St Mary-le-Bow.

Although the plan was that, by now, Sewell would be giving the Café at All Saints one day of his time per month, the reality is that he must be there at least once a week. This has led to a change in his domestic situation.

As he explains: "I wasn't planning to be a long-term manager but my role as café director is actually very hands-on. My wife Sarah and I have decided to move down here permanently. It's fantastic in this part of the world. There are all sorts of possibilities to do things with suppliers, which don't exist in London.

"This is a real farming community with lots of people making food. Because of the terrain, most of the farms are small and haven't been gobbled up in to giant estates, like in East Anglia. There are more organic growers in Hereford than in any other county."

He continues: "I think there is enormous potential for Hereford to become a centre for delicious food. It should be like towns such as Champagne in France, where visitors will come away with a case of the local speciality. They could do the same here with local ciders."

Sewell is excited about the future and is happy to know that he will be spending it in Hereford. For now, it's a case of "steady as she goes", with no radical moves planned. But Sewell is always open to new ideas and, once the venue's first anniversary supper is over in late June, his game plan for year two might alter.

Certainly, his home life will never be the same after September - Sarah is expecting their first child, potentially another customer at the café which not so long ago was a new-born itself.

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