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Mason's Arms: Arms and the new woman

18 May 2006

With the busy summer season on the horizon, it's no surprise that Sarah and Mark Dodson have begun to take stock of how they structure their small team of full- and part-time staff.

The business has been performing pretty much to target, so they've decided to recruit another full-time member of staff to help Sarah run front of house. The move will free her up to take on more parental duties - mainly picking up from school - as the Dodsons' nanny, recruited to look after youngest daughter Louisa while she was still pre-school, has now reduced her hours with the family to two days a week.

"Louisa's in nursery now, so it was time to review everything and, actually, I don't think taking on another person full-time will cost the business any more as it will reduce the amount of casual labour shifts," comments Sarah. "We've got a young part-time team and they've got lives outside of here. A lot of them come from farming families and often need to help out back home and they've got A levels coming up soon and will probably be off to university anyway, so it just seems to be the right time to get someone else in."

The "someone else" is 20-year-old Alexandra Cheeseman. She's not local; in fact she hails from the Midlands, but recently completed a work experience stage at the Mason's Arms as part of a Hospitality Supervision course at New College Nottingham. "One of her tutors ate here and asked if we ever took placements, so that's how she ended up down in Devon," explains Sarah.

"She's very young, but she's already done everything from silver service to supervising in Starbucks, with us in between. Plus bar work and IT. She's very quick and does a lot of stuff off her own bat, which is great." Even more importantly, Cheeseman fits in with the rest of the team. "If she hadn't done the work experience, I would have worried about the fact that she's coming from a buzzy town like Nottingham to a sleepy village in Devon, but she knows what to expect and it's actually a great opportunity for her," says Sarah.

Cheeseman's role will be that of assistant to the manager (Sarah) and she will join straight from college on 20 June, almost exactly a year to the day from when the Dodsons first opened.

A new member to the team is not the only change in the air, though. The Mason's Arms has a patio area off the dining room which the Dodsons plan to use to attract a bit more revenue as the summer weather kicks in.

There are five tables, potentially an extra 20 covers, but Mark and sous chef Darren Edwards, will have no extra help in the kitchen, so he aims to box clever in order not to overstretch resources. His plan is to introduce a patio menu to run alongside the à la carte. It will comprise quick and easy dishes for the kitchen to make or assemble and will be offered as a specials option to diners.

Classics, "that some chefs don't want to cook, but people still want to eat," as Mark puts it, will form the basis of the menu. Chilled soups like vichyssoise or gazpacho - perhaps with a cucumber granité to update it - or maybe melon and basil soup with ginger; salad of crab with mango dressing (a popular menu dish over the last year), terrines with home-made pickles and chutneys; local mackerel in a bouillon with crème fraîche and lime; smoked salmon. And desserts? Something along the lines of spiced plum trifle, crème brûlée - food that's light to eat but has a good flavour.

And if the patio menu does what it's designed to do and turnover continues to climb, then a third pair of hands in the kitchen is on the cards. "And some new equipment," ponders Mark. "A new combi-oven, perhaps. Even a Pacojet."

The story so far

  • The property Mason's Arms, Knowstone, Devon
  • Bought 21 June 2005
  • Owners Mark and Sarah Dodson
  • Purchase price "close to" £695,000
  • What is it? 13th-century inn with small bar and lounge, 18-seat restaurant
  • Accolades one Michelin star January 2006; Egon Ronay Restaurant and Gastropub Guide, one star; rave review by Jan Moir, Daily Telegraph, 30 June 2005
  • April turnover £30,000 gross
  • Target annual turnover £275,000 gross
  • Average lunchtime spend £20 per head
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