A year ago, Katherine and Simon Hodgson, partners in the Yarcombe Inn in Yarcombe, Devon, made it no secret that they were finding their new venture tiring and demoralising, not to mention costly. "It got to a point where I was fed up and perturbed," says Simon, who is also theinn's chef.
Now, turnover is up by 33% against last year, with average weekly takings at £2,000. The reason? A newly built 40ft skittle alley upstairs. Built in one week at the end of last year by Simon, his parents and friends, at a cost of about £2,000, it has proved itself an excellent moneyspinner.
Skittles is a popular pastime in the West Country, and the Hodgsons realised that their own skittles facility could be the answer to their financial struggles. While the local skittles league drank at the Yarcombe Inn, after a quick first drink they then travelled to another nearby pub to use its alley - which was frustrating for the Hodgsons. But the Yarcombe Inn has wised up and also snatched two-thirds of the customers.
Start to finish
"Now we can cater for them from start to finish," says Katherine. "We put the other stray third down to customers staying loyal to the other pub."
Skittles may be only a game but, to the Hodgsons, it has provided a much-needed boost in confidence and, ultimately, turnover since the alley was built. They had thought they should renovate and redecorate the four existing bedrooms and turn them into holiday apartments, but the skittle alley won out in the end. Simon says: "We hummed and hawed but finally decided to go with the skittle alley idea. We made the right decision."
He has also conceded that customers' tastes are not as sophisticated and adventurous as among those around London. "I worked just outside London for a while and brought my skills, ideas and passion for good food down to Devon," he says. "Unfortunately, you can't tell customers what to eat. You have to adapt your menu to suit your clientele, rather than the other way around. If they want steak-and-kidney pudding, you have to provide it for them."
Simon is a wannabe TV chef and openly admits to feeling a bit thwarted by cooking what he considers more basic food. "When you know you are capable of doing more exciting dishes, then of course you experience disappointment and frustration," he says, "but I'm running a business, and business needs to satisfy the demand of the customers. You cannot bring London to Yarcombe if the customers don't want it."
The menu now contains more traditional pub fare such as steak-and-kidney pie (£4.95) as well as more upmarket options such as roast sea bass and creamed scallops (£14.95). "Our more adventurous options sell better at the weekend because regular diners come in and want to try something different each week," says Simon. "Passing trade customers opt for the non-fancy, cheaper dishes."
The new menu has seen average spend drop year-on-year to £4.50 for lunch and £11-£12 for an evening meal, compared with around £7.50 and £14.75 respectively in 1997. But the cheaper dishes are selling in higher quantities than the more expensive ones, changing the shift in how the turnover is made up. A simple equation: more meals, less spend per head.
The number of customers is up by 49% against last year, so giving the customers what they want is obviously working. "It was not like we imagined it to be when we first started here," says Simon, "but you live and learn, and adapt to suit in all areas. But I think we've got the balance almost right now."