Tea and biscuits by day and sushi by night - Mike Whitworth reports on plans to turn some of the National Trust's tearooms into venues for evening dining.
Commercialism has cast its long shadow over another great British institution. The National Trust, purveyor of cream teas to the tweed-and-wellies set, has decided that a typical tearoom spend of £3-£4.50 per head is shamefully low, and is eyeing the wallets of serious diners.
The end of this month sees the opening of its first evening restaurant, a café-bistro at Mount Stewart house, historic home of the Londonderry family on Northern Ireland's Strangford Lough. July will see the unveiling of a second evening venue, this time at the medieval Ightham Mote, near Sevenoaks in Kent. Each will cater for about 65 covers, with a predicted spend of £20-£25 per person, plus wine. By opening four nights a week, Thursday to Sunday, it is hoped to push combined day and evening takings at each venue to £250,000-£280,000 a year.
This is the trust's first venture into evening dining and, if the two pilots are successful, there could be half-a-dozen or more similar bistros opening in the next couple of years. The project is being handled by National Trust Enterprises, the commercial arm of the charity, which, in 2000/01, contributed more than £11m to trust funds through profits in its shops, restaurants, tearooms and holiday cottages.
Paul Vickers, who put together the original business plan for the project last year, joined the trust as national catering manager three years ago. He saw huge opportunities to extend opening hours at trust properties beyond the conventional 5pm closing time and particularly to exploit its wealth of magnificent buildings and gardens. "We have these wonderful locations," he says. "I thought that, if you could take one of these and turn it into an evening destination, it would be very special."
Vickers was reassured that he was on the right track by a survey of 200 targeted customers in the South-east of England that suggested 95% would be prepared to travel to a National Trust restaurant in the evening (Mount Stewart is about 45 minutes by car from Belfast).
National Trust Enterprises wanted a format that could compete with mainstream, middle-market chains. To help create the right concept, it drafted in retail brand consultancy First which, a couple of years ago, evolved the design for the trust's high street shops.
John Blakeney, a partner at First, knew that the challenge this time was to help the trust's catering operations appeal to a wider market without alienating its loyal, but conservative, customer base. This had to be achieved using existing, albeit redesigned, daytime premises. The Mount Stewart and Ightham Mote restaurants will both lead double lives, offering assisted-service teas and traditional hot and cold meals during the day, closing for an hour at 5pm while the tables are reset, then reopening as table-service operations in the evening.
"One of the biggest challenges has been to maintain the service people expect during the day while still allowing the restaurant to transform itself at night," Blakeney says. The results are intended to strike a familiar chord with customers of trust shops in locations such as Kent's Bluewater retail park, as First has tried to use a consistent "brand language" across all the trust's ventures.
But the new restaurant concept also "reflects local qualities and the unique locations". So, while signage and printed materials will be similar across all sites, interiors are being tweaked according to the locale.
Mount Stewart's Bay Restaurant, with its proximity to the sea, features atmospheric photographs of Strangford Lough. At Ightham Mote, the designers are drawing more on the personality of the building itself, using specially made plaster mouldings in the restaurant that mimic carvings inside the 14th-century manor house, and fabrics that copy the house's decoration.
First has used lighting and decoration to "achieve a moodswing in the evening". Table decorations will change with the switch from tearoom to bistro - in the daytime, square vases with flowers floating in water; in the evening, small table lights.
On the food side, the trust's daytime menus have always leaned towards traditional British cuisine with, wherever possible, a slight local twist. The local character will be retained in the evening through the specials menu, says Vickers, with, for example, an emphasis on seafood dishes at Mount Stewart. But the trust is promising an international flavour to the main menu with its choice of head chef for its first venue, Glenn Carlisle.
Carlisle is a Canadian national, although his parents were originally from Belfast, and was an executive sous chef for Canadian groups including Hip Restaurants and the Oliver Bonacini chain. Currently living in Portavogie on the Ards Peninsula in County Down, Carlisle was working at Grace Neill's in Donaghadee before joining the trust. He says his biggest challenge will be "breaking the stereotype of a tearoom" and getting people used to the fact that the Bay Restaurant will be contemporary in both design and cuisine. Tweed-wearers, be warned: he lists sushi and foie gras as his favourite foods.
Starters will cost about £5, main courses about £15. The wine list is New World-orientated and moderately priced, from Australian house wines at £10.95 to the top-priced J Moreau Chablis at £16.95.
There must be a small concern that neither the Bay Restaurant nor the forthcoming Ightham Mote bistro are located within the main property. The Bay Restaurant is in converted outbuildings abutting Mount Stewart House; Ightham Mote is in a new purpose-built facility carefully blended into the landscape surrounding the moated manor house.
Will this be enough to drag diners away from more convenient, if more mundane, haunts? Vickers certainly thinks so, although it may depend on whether each local property manager, charged with safeguarding the historic building and its surroundings, can be persuaded to loosen the rules on evening access to make the dining experience more special.
"We are certainly looking at opportunities for evening visits to the properties on certain dates," says Vickers, "and we'd be looking to try not to charge if people have dined in the restaurant. I don't see why we shouldn't do that if someone has spent £25 on a meal. We've obviously got to be sensitive in terms of the locations we choose, but some properties are more robust than others."
With improved on-site catering facilities, there could also be opportunities to extend the trust's existing function business, which does allow weddings and other events inside some of the less-vulnerable properties. There is just a hint of tension between the trust's commercial and conservation arms, but the prospect of a £250,000-a-year catering business is not to be sniffed at. And even the tea-and-biscuits clients will benefit from a better class of cuppa.
The Bay Restaurant
Mount Stewart, Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland
Tel: 028 4278 7807
Catering manager: Paul Vickers
Head chef: Glenn Carlisle
Evening opening: Thursday-Sunday, year-round, last orders 11pm
Number of covers: 65
Projected average spend: £20-£25 plus wine
Number of staff: 12-15
Cost of refit: about £130,000
Projected annual turnover: £250,000-£280,000 (day and evening combined)