On a hot summer's day the gardens of Wyken Hall are heaven. Bees buzz lazily in the roses, lavender scents the air and the vineyards beyond stretch off into the hazy distance. One of the owners, Carla Carlisle (aka Lady Carlisle), insists we try a glass of Moonshine, the sparkling wine that she and her husband, Sir Kenneth, produce on the Suffolk estate. Who says it's bad to mix business and pleasure?
So we retreat into the cool of her restaurant, the Leaping Hare, housed in a converted 400-year-old barn a short walk from the house. Refreshed by the wine (amazing how delicious English wine can be), the interview begins. The big question is: why has Carla - a woman who says the thought of bulk-buying brings her out in eczema, who finds the word "catering" repulsive, and who trained at the world-famous Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California - chosen a contract caterer to run this Michelin Bib Gourmand-rated restaurant. No offence to contract caterers but it doesn't seem an obvious move.
The short answer is that, although the 46-seat Leaping Hare near Stanton, in rural Suffolk, has never needed to advertise for customers and clearly serves great food, Carla wasn't operating it with enough hard-nosed commercialism. Stocktaking was occasional and nobody really knew what the profit margin was - other than that it was "terrible". So, at the turn of the year, recognising that a good restaurateur needs to have someone with good administrative ability, she signed a deal with Charlton House.
"You can't sustain the effort if you are not profitable. This was farm diversification," she explains, gesturing around the airy restaurant with its gentrified rusticity and stone walls hung with paintings (of hares mainly). "But we never got the economics right, which is why Charlton House has been a help. It frees us up to be creative. Having all these people on the payroll doesn't bother me any more - that's Charlton House's problem."
More to the point, all the regulations, such as health and safety, are their problem, too, which suits Carla even more. "The moment I get a letter about health and safety I get a cataract," she remarks in the southern belle tones of her native New Orleans.
So Carla now has the luxury of being able to leave the boring bits to John Betham, the catering manager recruited for the job by Charlton House's chief executive, Robyn Jones. But they have to tread carefully. The Leaping Hare is very much Carla's baby. She and her husband planted the vineyard in 1988 and developed the barn to host wine tastings. The restaurant grew from there, opening two days a week with Carla at the stove. Although many guests come specifically for the food, others are visiting the gardens, shop and vineyard. Carla's background as apprentice to the pastry chef at Chez Panisse - which champions organic food and a dinner party environment - while being a playwright-in-residence elsewhere (another story) means she has unshakeable ideas about using local suppliers and staff. "I wanted a place where you could get simple, fresh food, as in Chez Panisse, so we sourced local produce. In 1991, that was unusual," she says.
Much of that format is non-negotiable, no matter how much money Charlton House's suppliers could save. Betham has the challenging job of making the Leaping Hare more profitable, while being sensitive to Carla's vision. Both are conscious that there are in effect two bosses, but Carla is ultimately the one they work for. As she says, slightly tongue-in-cheek: "If momma ain't happy, ain't nobody happy."
It means Betham, who previously worked for Eurest in Cambridge, has to compromise more than on other contracts. Business is good, with 1,000-1,300 customers per week and a turnover of £575,000 expected this year. But being busy isn't enough: he can't get more people into the restaurant, so he needs to increase how much they spend - something Carla is uncomfortable with. "We just make suggestions about dessert and so on…" Betham says carefully.
Carla has given way on some points, however. To improve profit margins, Betham has had to rationalise, looking at wastage and persuading Carla that basic supplies would be better bought through Charlton House's suppliers.
Other ideas, however, have met resistance. Over lunch Carla sounds lukewarm about Betham's latest plan. At the moment the restaurant is open for lunch every day and serves dinner only on Friday and Saturday nights. Betham and Jones want to extend this. He suggests Thursday nights in November along with the estate shop, for "Christmas shopping evenings". She is more enthusiastic about reintroducing the so-called "five-mile dinners", whereby all produce comes from within a five-mile radius.
Success so far Betham is encouraged by his achievements so far. An average lunch or dinner bill is £35 a head and he says gross profit is now 70% (it was an unknown quantity before). He reckons he has nudged takings up by 10% - although the challenge is to achieve this in wetter months when turnover can plunge from £3,000 a week down to £600.
Much to Betham and Jones's dismay, however, Carla is totally resistant to the idea of weddings and conferences, which she regards as too impersonal. But she knows business has to be maximised. Her plan is to convert a nearby semi-redundant farm into a 200-seat arts theatre and film society venue to feed into regional events such as the Aldeburgh festival. The Leaping Hare would then become the pre-theatre supper venue, although there would be a finishing kitchen in the new building. She's confident it will get the council's blessing but it still won't be finished for about 18 months.
Betham was attracted to the position because it is a front-of-house role with the same financial disciplines as any contract, but he admits that the job is bigger than he initially thought. He reckons getting staffing levels right is the biggest headache because weather usually dictates customer numbers. Carla is very protective of the staff, who are all locals, but she appreciates the need to improve service and is keen for Charlton House's training manager to come up for a few sessions.
Despite the fact that Jones thinks commercially and Carla creatively, both sides are working towards the same goal - improving profitability. "It has gone better than we ever dreamed," says Carla. "If this were a model for other restaurants I would suggest this route - having a ‘silent' partner."
As for Jones, she would welcome another such contract: "It's not as scary as you might think and it's a joy that you can have anyone coming through the door."
Contract caterer vs restaurateur
Robyn Jones, chief executive at Charlton House would like to take business at Wyken Hall up a notch.
Wearing her commercial hat, she'd love to open more than two evenings a week and would almost give her right arm to take on weddings and conferences. But that's not what owner Carla Carlisle wants and Jones respects that.
"It's always challenging taking over an in-house restaurant but it's even more so here because it is their life," she says.
For Charlton House, the contract, which is cost-plus with profit sharing, offers very little financial risk and it's profitable. Originally, the Carlisles had been in talks with some of the bigger contractors, such as Aramark's Premier division, but soon realised they would be swamped by such huge organisations. Carla identified with the fact that Charlton House is run by Jones and her husband, Tim.
Needless to say, Carla also loves the fact there are no Charlton House logos. As she says: "Charlton House does the hard work and we do the fun, so the identity of the restaurant hasn't changed."
And Carla has the last word. "It works as long as you don't tell each other how to do the job," she says.
The ins and outs
The Leaping Hare Vineyard Restaurant
Bury St Edmunds
Suffolk IP31 2DW
Tel: 01359 250287
Owners: Sir Kenneth and Lady Carlisle
Contractor: Charlton House (tel: 01491 683400)
Catering manager: John Betham
Type of contract: Cost-plus and profit share
Number of staff: 27 in restaurant
Number of customers: 1,000-1,300 a week
Average spend: £35 a head in the restaurant; £4 in the caf‚
Number of seats: 46
Opening hours: lunch every day; dinner on Friday and Saturday evenings
Projected turnover: £575,000
Gross profit margin: 70%
Despite her hands-on background, Carla, leaves the cooking to head chef Alex Turner. But having Charlton House on board means she has more time to be creative - for instance she has now upgraded the menu - while getting advice from Robyn Jones and the team on what is commercially viable. She welcomes the fact that Turner will no doubt get a visit from Charlton House's food innovation director, David Cavalier soon.
The main menu, which offers dishes such as seared pork tenderloin, colcannon potatoes, wrapped baby leeks, Wyken Cider jus (£14.95) changes about once a week and is seasonal. The café menu, featuring plates such as Wyken farmers' market ploughman's with hand-raised chicken and bacon pie, Cheddar cheese and chutney (£7.95) is more fixed. There's a throwback to her native America with toasted American bagels with cream cheese (£3). Meanwhile, items such as Wyken carrot cake remind Carla of her days at Chez Panisse.
Jones's mystery visits threw up the fact there wasn't a children's menu, so now some dishes can be ordered in smaller portions.
Although many guests come for the food, others are visiting the gardens, shop and vineyard. The gardens are closed on Saturday when a farmers' market is held. On average there are about 50-55 diners on Friday and Saturday nights. Three courses with wine costs about £35 per person. The caf‚ takes an average £4 a head because many customers just want tea.
There's no desire to go for stars. As Carla says, it would put the price up too much and scare off the locals. Jones agrees: "Now we know the business better, it wouldn't work," she nods.