A year after opening Storyteller Brasserie and Wine Room in Cheltenham, Mette Larsen knows she would have done things differently. "If I knew then what I know now, we would have really pushed to get the conservatory up and running more quickly," she says.
"People said our concept was too bold, so we toned it down, but all the changes since we opened have been to make it more bold. We should have trusted ourselves more and not listened to the conservative people," says Larsen.
The original budget projections forecast a turnover of £393,847 with a gross profit of £271,755 and net profit of £115,177. But all this was based on the conservatory being up and running in month three, not month nine, as was the reality.
Despite this, after one year of trading, Storyteller reports a turnover of £308,000 and a gross profit of £201,700. The net profit of £40,600 is where the lack of the conservatory really shows, as Larsen predicted its addition would increase revenue by 25%, which would go more or less straight to the bottom line.
In its first few weeks the conservatory, which brings the restaurants seats to 90, has added 50 covers a week and added about £1,000 in turnover.
In May, with the conservatory open for only two-and-a-half weeks, revenue was £24,500 - a good £2,500 up on target and on the previous few months' trading.
The customers' reaction has been positive - in fact, most of the regulars want to sit in the conservatory. Larsen is forced to use the room off the bar for large parties, those who haven't booked, or when full, as a smoking room. A choice which is not always popular, she says, despite good ventilation.
Increase in customers
It seems the main effect of the conservatory has been to increase the number of customers who just show up without booking, especially on weeknights. With weekends running close to fully booked, it is only the weekday lunch hour that Larsen is still finding a bit of a struggle, and one not aided by the location. "All the offices are at the other end of town in Montpellier, and they won't leave their area for lunch," she observes.
But there may be help of a sort on the way. A themed futuristic restaurant, reportedly called the Millennium and targeted at families, is being built across the street and is due for completion at the end of August. Larsen hopes that the adult visitors to the new restaurant will notice Storyteller and come back to try it out.
To entice people to bring friends, Larsen has launched a frequent-diner club. Cards of regular guests will be held behind the bar, "so customers don't have yet another card to carry in their wallets" and will get a point for each pound spent. At 200 points, a free lunch for two is awarded, at 400 points a free dinner for two, and at 2,500 there is a free balloon ride for two.
Larsen hopes the scheme will encourage more parties, as average spend is £23 and six friends could go a long way to securing a free lunch for a regular customer.
On the staff front, a new Swedish chef, Sara Akeson, has come over from Stavanger's Storyteller to learn the latest menu changes and specials from David Spencer in Cheltenham. Meanwhile, Stuart McCullen from Cheltenham is in Sandnes, Norway, helping the team there bed down. Spencer has returned from Sandnes - the newest Storyteller - where he spent time making drawings to redesign the kitchen and bar area and taught the Norwegian team the techniques necessary for the style of food.
The multiple outlets give staff something to talk about and the incentive to perform well, believes Larsen. "The international aspect makes it really interesting for the employees because they have the chance to travel and experience a different kitchen and operation."
Now Larsen would not trade running Cheltenham for Stavanger. "Norway is too focused on numbers and not the people."
Looking ahead to the summer, Larsen hopes to relax a little after the frantic building work of March and April. Summer is notoriously slow in Cheltenham, and with the World Cup and Wimbledon keeping people glued to the television, Larsen does not expect business to roar ahead.
It will be September before Larsen feels the need to push ahead with her next project - securing a second UK site. With Paul Lavelle busy with his underwater design company she is content to run Cheltenham and improve the skills of Peter Hardiman and Larsen's sister Toril in their ability to run the restaurant. Once Larsen has started on a new project, they will have to be able to ensure the quality and standards of service are kept up in Cheltenham.