Nearly 10 years after launching on the north coast of the Isle of Wight, the Little Gloster has scooped The Good Food Guide 2020 Best Local Restaurant award. But it has been far from plain sailing for owners Ben and Holly Cooke. Fiona Sims finds out how they've created a business that works for both staff and customers
Enormous plates of freshly made pappardelle with an unctuous ragù of short rib and oxtail arrive at the table. We've chosen the set menu at £20, which started with Isle of Wight soft cheese croquettes and an aubergine salad with tahini and black garlic dressing, and will finish with an affogato.
The table next to us, meanwhile, has opted for a rather more luxe lunch – a special of Dover sole, which comes with a slick of crab and chilli butter, a seared scallop, three fat prawns and a mound of wilted mixed greens, which followed their à la carte starters of house-cured Hampshire trout on sprouted spelt bread, with dill, crème fraîche, horseradish and Danish caviar, before finishing with pecan and caramel mousse with spiced poached plums, at £47.
Add to the flexible pricing some savvy staff and a stunning 180-degree sea view, and it's no surprise that the Little Gloster on the Isle of Wight has scooped The Good Food Guide 2020 Best Local Restaurant award.
But it hasn't been an easy ride, say owners Ben Cooke and his wife Holly. From dealing with the deeply seasonal location, to TripAdvisor negativity, they've seen it all and have come out the other side holding up the trophy. "The award is just perfect for us – it summarises what we're about and it is the icing on the cake after nine years of hard work," smiles Holly.
Next year will be the Little Gloster's 10th anniversary, which is particularly impressive considering its quiet coastal community location in Gurnard on the northern shore of the Isle of Wight. Gurnard Bay sits on a shingle beach on the Solent, two miles to the west of Cowes. Drive on about half a mile further and you'll reach the Little Gloster, sitting next to the marina among the poshed-up beach huts that cluster on this stretch of low-lying coast.
Yet come they do – a mix of yachties jumping into taxis from their marina-berthed boats, and islanders arriving in cars and on bicycles (there is no public transport here). They enthusiastically support Ben and his brigade's smart cooking and Little Gloster's lively Scandi-chic seaside vibe with its 50 seats (plus a further 20 in the Crew Room).The open kitchen provides a welcome buzz, while cluedup front of house staff, led by Holly, go about their business efficiently.
"The award shows just what hard work can achieve. All of the team have knuckled down and given it everything they've got," credits Holly, sitting on the sofa with Ben in their Balcony Suite, with its wraparound views of the Solent, one of three stylish rooms that the Little Gloster offers.
The name, the Little Gloster, harks back to the prestigious, now closed, Gloster hotel in Cowes, owned by Ben's Danish grandmother. Known to all as Mormor and aged 89, she is still on hand to help out with the flowers and the planting in the adjacent kitchen garden, working alongside Ben's mother Eileen, who does the books.
"We've certainly been through the mill to get to this place. But look, every restaurant has its ups and downs, and when you have a bad day you pick yourself up and get on with it. We've learned that over the past nine years – we've become quite resilient," smiles Ben.
Negative reviews on TripAdvisor from the outset resulted in the need for the Cookes to develop thicker skins. "We found it really difficult to deal with initially – it used to eat us up for days," says Holly. "The business is our baby, so of course it hurt. But nine years on, we now look at those reviews constructively. We reply to the ones that are genuine and see the others, those ridiculously exaggerated ones, for what they are and then move on. You stand up for yourself a lot more the older you get."
All is well during the summer – good cooking and a great sea view pulling customers in – but out of season, it's a different story.
The team tried many different things to win over the locals, who make up the vast majority of guests during this period, from themed nights to DJ-led parties, competitions and an annual Christmas fair. "We've knocked pretty much all of that on the head now. The Christmas fair took months to organise, we had to rip the restaurant and garden apart to put it on and we would lose our bread and butter Sunday lunch service. Despite loving the event, it just didn't work on paper," says Holly.
The events that do work for the Little Gloster are those that are less themed, less clichéd, explains Ben. "For example, coming up, we've got an Isle of Wight Cheese Collective dinner in partnership with one of our suppliers, Vinocation Wines, in the Crew Room. We're now lucky to have three cheesemakers on the Island – Briddlesford, Isle of Wight Cheese Company and the Green Barn. The idea is to bring them all together so they can talk to each other, talk to our guests and everyone can try different wines – a lovely evening of like-minded people sharing a table."
And talking of the wine list, this is another area that has had a major re-think. Three years ago they launched a largely natural wine list. Ben's a big fan and he wanted to be the first on the island to offer this style of wine, tapping into the trend that has ignited in the capital.
"But the locals didn't get it. And some of the wines were just too volatile – vibrant one day and lifeless the next. Though I'm glad we tried it as it's something I'm really passionate about – I really admire the winemakers that go to those lengths, but for now we'll just list a couple," he says. He has trimmed back the list to 38 conventionally made wines, sourced from a handful of suppliers, with 12 wines offered by the glass, starting at £4.25, plus 15 whites, 16 reds, 20 fortified wines (eight sherries, six ports, two Madeiras), seven sparkling wines and a short fine-wine list for the big spenders.
In addition to that set menu the Little Gloster offers ‘Pasta Thursdays' throughout the year, which has gained them a legion of new local fans. "It offers people who wouldn't normally come here accessibility to the restaurant," says Holly, who makes all the pasta herself. "I went to art college so I wanted to bring some of that creativity back into my life, plus I missed doing something really hands-on. It was also an opportunity to help the restaurant."
Holly enrolled in pasta-making workshops at London pastificio and trattoria Burro e Salvia before starting at the restaurant. She now arrives in the kitchen at 7am every Thursday morning to prep, while Ben takes their three-year-old son Uffa to school. "It's my favourite time of the day – I have the kitchen to myself, I pop on the music and the coffee machine and while away four to five hours preparing pasta. I really enjoy it and I'm learning something every day," she says. "It amazes me that nine years on we are still learning and improving daily. Though I reckon we are at that point now where I think we've found the right formula."
And that formula includes the Little Gloster's opening hours, which have had many tweaks over the years, as many restaurants do here, responding to the island's ebb and flow of visitors and hibernating locals.
"But it's key to keeping staff and maintaining consistency. Most have been with us for at least two seasons now, and some for much longer – our head chef Jay [Amado Santiago] has been with us for nine years," says Ben.
The restaurant has always been shut throughout the year on Sunday nights, Mondays and Tuesdays, and it will close for two weeks in November and throughout January, when they re-group, re-decorate and skip off to foreign climes to experience other cultures and cuisines "Those two full days allow people to recover properly, which is what you need in this industry, so we are all at the same rested level when we return. The kitchen is still running at 60 hours a week, with 50 hours for front of house, but it's a much better work-life balance now," assures Ben.
A couple of years ago, from the end of September until the beginning of June, they decided to add additional closing hours of Wednesdays and Thursday lunch. However, they still offer breakfast every day for in-house guests, and are back in the itchen on Wednesdays for prep. "There was the odd moan from locals that we weren't open for lunch on Wednesdays and Thursdays, but as we make everything fresh and like to offer attentive service, the numbers of team members versus guests just didn't add up, so we decided to streamline things," reasons Holly.
Part of that streamlining also meant cutting the popular breakfast service for walkins, which they had offered for a number of years (the business has since been picked up by a nearby café, Gurnard Press, much to their relief). "Breakfast was crazy," states Ben. "Everybody wanted to tailor their orders, people would always arrive late and you have the first lunch guests arriving as breakfast is finishing. It stopped us being able to prep properly for hugely busy Sunday lunch services, for example, and lunch simply had to take priority."
"Now that we've stopped, except for the odd event, such as the Round the Island Race, it has changed our lives. And the customer satisfaction levels when we are open is so much better," smiles Holly.
Employee satisfaction has improved, too. "Everyone working for us now is in it for a career, so it's not just students for a couple of months during the summer who turn up with a hangover. We've got people who are passionate about the job, who turn up ready to rock.
As we've got older, we've also learned how to manage a team better. If things go wrong, it's all about heartfelt chats and checking if the team are OK more than anything," says Holly, adding that the birth of their son Uffa marked another turning point. "If we hadn't had our son and sorted out our work-life balance, we'd probably still be strung out. Uffa puts everything into perspective. It makes you consider all the team and their needs at home."
When Holly went on maternity leave for a couple of years, Ben moved from the kitchen to front of house. "I studied hospitality management, so I thought I knew what I was doing and that it would be an easy transition from the kitchen, but it was a huge culture shock.
It was good to do, though," explains Ben. "I used that time to study for my Wine & Spirit Education Trust exams, sitting levels one to three, which was fantastic because it broadened my palate and opened my eyes to new flavours. It really helped me as a chef," declares Ben, who oversees the pairing of wine and other drinks with every course on the menu with floor manager Francesca Ayling. "It really helps sales, and helps both the customers and staff to make the right choice. We sell a lot of drinks this way."
The biggest change that the Little Gloster has made in the last two years, they reveal, is introducing the welcome station, positioned by the front door. "Before, we would be working our socks off in the office and people would think we weren't on-site," says Holly.
"But by bringing the office front of house, it's so much more efficient. I do everything there, from accounting to marketing, meet, greet and seating, and supporting the team.
"Nine years in, it's wonderful to see our regulars and build relationships with new guests – it's what true hospitality is about."
They've switched booking systems, too, and are now with Tablein. "Now we know which reviews are real and which aren't. Customers booking through Tablein score us an average of 9.75 out of 10, which is brilliant," smiles Holly, leaping up to return to her welcome station, which Ben calls the "control centre".
"She's like Princess Leia," he giggles, before heading back to the kitchen to prepare for a wedding anniversary lunch in the Crew Room.
Facts and figures
- Bedrooms Three
- Occupancy 75%
- Room rates From £150 to £240, based on two sharing, including breakfast
- Average spend From £30 to £55 for three courses, including a couple of glasses of mid-priced wine
- Number of staff 20 (including part-time)
- Senior team Head chef, Jay Amado Santiago; floor manager, Francesca Ayling
- Key audience The local community, yachties, weekenders, down-from-towners, cyclists, walkers, and foodies
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