Gerard and Nina Basset's Hotel TerraVina was renowned for its extensive wine list and lavish rooms, but following Brexit and a personal illness, the couple were forced to rethink operations. Fiona Sims reports
Many of you will recognise the latter - Gerard and Nina Basset's celebrated, wine-focused hotel restaurant, staffed by a gaggle of hugely knowledgeable sommeliers, led by the undisputed king of sommeliers, Master of Wine Gerard Basset, World's Best Sommelier back in 2010 and a co-founder of the Hotel du Vin chain. Basset pocketed the cash from the sale of said chain and in 2007 opened his own smart wine-themed operation, Hotel TerraVina.
And TerraVina chugged along nicely for a number of years. Weekends were consistently busy, seeing an average of 50 diners in the restaurant on a Saturday night, happily glugging their way through Basset's award-winning 450-bin list and some laying down their heads afterwards in the £265 per night rooms.
But as hard as they tried, they couldn't count on the locals as regulars. Yes, they would rock up for special occasions and anniversaries, but they saw it as a posh kind of place, with its fancy glasses, starched napkins, big wine list and smart cellar. Even lunch promotions or wine dinners wouldn't persuade them otherwise.
And then Brexit happened. Wine and food prices from suppliers crept up, it became much harder to recruit good staff and there was a growing lack of customer confidence on the spending front, as there was for many others in the hospitality industry.
Meanwhile, Nina continued with her regular holidays to North Norfolk, where she grew up. Her best friend had returned to live there five years prior, providing a reason to visit, and she witnessed the changes on this remote stretch of coast - most notably the proliferation of stylish farm shops and cafés to which locals would happily drive for a bite and a shop, along with a growing numbers of visitors to the region.
"I thought, if this kind of concept can work in Norfolk, where everyone has to drive miles and often off the beaten track, then maybe it could work here? There's nothing like it around here. But Gerard didn't really get it until he saw it for himself," says Nina.
The pair planned a week-long exploratory trip to investigate North Norfolk's smart café-deli operations further last spring, citing Thornham Deli, Walsingham Farm Shops and Creake Abbey as favourites. But the proposed changes to their business were to escalate much more quickly after Gerard received the devastating news that he had been diagnosed with oesophageal cancer.
"We realised that I was going to have to be at home more. We didn't want to close TerraVina completely, and we didn't want to sell it, but we needed to do something, so that made us think more seriously about the Norfolk concept," explains Nina.
While Gerard underwent chemotherapy in November and December last year, they developed their café idea, grateful for something else to focus on. "We announced our plans to the team in January," says Gerard. "Yes, it meant we would have to cut some staff, but it wasn't so difficult because it only really affected the sommeliers - one part-time and three full-time. But even that wasn't such a big deal in the end as they were at the end of their cycle with me - three went to the Fat Duck and one went to New Zealand as a wine buyer, so they were more than happy."
So how did the remaining team take this new direction? "We were quite surprised with how enthusiastically they embraced the idea - helped by the fact that they all knew they wouldn't be working past 6pm any more. It has made a big difference; they now have a much better work-life balance," says Nina.
"Even though our concept has changed in terms of the offering, we still want quality, so we wanted to keep a good team. We couldn't afford to continue with something that was half-there," stresses Gerard, who underwent a successful six-hour operation in early February, from which he is still recovering.
Gerard already has a few overseas trips lined up, and while his palate has returned, he is not drinking alcohol and has significantly changed his diet. "The doctors didn't tell me to, I decided to after my own research," he says.
Nina says: "From my point of view, Gerard having cancer wasn't the hardest thing; what was harder was the fact that his whole lifestyle has changed. Food and drink was such an important part of who he was and he's been robbed of that because he had cancer of the oesophagus, diminishing the food and drink part of him, which feels so unfair."
It was Nina's dad who came up with the name, Spot in the Woods. "We wanted something that people would feel comfortable enough to abbreviate. Now we hear people say, 'we'll meet you at the Spot', which is exactly what we wanted," she grins.
The doors reopened on 4 March. The Bassets knew the café would attract a different demographic, and that they would be doing more volume than before - but not in quite the numbers that now turn up.
"I thought, if I can run a hotel restaurant than how hard can it be to run a café? But it's not easy. We went from serving 50 people on a Saturday to 350 - it's been a real learning curve. That first Sunday we opened I was completely unprepared. We ran out of everything. We had to call our local farmer and ask them to make us more sausages. It was a real eye-opener - for the kitchen team, too. But they've embraced it brilliantly. Now that we've got into a rhythm, we understand which days will be busier than others. It's challenging, yes, but it's exciting - a lot more exciting in some ways," enthuses Nina.
The place looks completely different and it already feels like it has been there forever, such is the buzz and the way the property has adapted so quickly - and economically - to the changes.
The transformation cost just £10,000, thanks to some clever reimagining of spaces and furniture. The Bassets switched the rattan sofas in the bedrooms with the tables and chairs on the terrace, giving B&B guests somewhere to dine in their room and the terrace a new, easy feel. They also distressed the paintwork on the tables to give it a more shabby chic feel.
"What has surprised me the most? How easy it was to turn it into something completely different. Eleven years of it looking the way it did, we never thought it could completely change by knocking down a wall, taking out a banquette, changing the chairs and giving it a lick of paint. But it has," says Nina.
So who comes now, exactly? "Lots of locals, yes - and lots of families, and many more children - mums with buggies, people with dogs. We love dogs, but TerraVina was never dog-friendly until now. Cyclists are using us a lot, too - they come in their tens and twenties to order scones and toasted teacakes," reports Nina.
"Most importantly, though, we've become a community hub. People who lived next door to us and down the road that maybe we only used to see once a year, we are now seeing at least once or twice a week. All our neighbours meet up with each other here, and that's really lovely. It has become a real community-spirited venue," she says.
In case you are wondering, there is no booking system at Spot in the Woods. "We are a café - it's first come, first served. There's no need for us to worry about no-shows," grins Gerard.
And talking about reservations, the Bassets used to get room bookings through their own sales and marketing efforts. Now they use online booking outfits, such as bookings.com and laterooms to help expand their market. "It's working very well for us," says Nina.
If guests want dinner then they can choose from a pub and a hotel a short walk away and a number of other country pubs all within a 10-minute drive. "And if people really don't want to go out, then we have products from the deli available for them to eat in their room," adds Nina.
The deli, located in the former function room, has opened recently and is the next focus for the couple. "We use a local artisanal baker for all our bread and we make all our own cakes, so 90% of what we sell here is locally sourced. But I didn't want a staffed deli counter, so all our cheeses, for example, we cut, weigh and price up ourselves," says Nina. She also enthuses about her plans for picnic boxes to go, complete with bamboo plates and cutlery for those wanting a day out in the forest.
Wine, too, is for sale in the deli. TerraVina was all about wine, but Gerard has been steadily selling off the list over the past few months - to collectors, local businesses and even a few bottles in the deli. The plan now is to launch a new wine list later this summer with a maximum of 40 wines for sale in both the deli and the cafe, focusing on organic and biodynamic producers and English wines.
"I am not pretending to be an organic wine specialist, but I have always been interested in the topic. Now, while living with my cancer, I am even more concerned about following a healthy diet, so I am trying to follow a macrobiotic diet and eat more organic foods, and so organic wines are part of that. As we are keen to champion local suppliers - again, it follows that we should stock English wines, many of which are excellent," explains Gerard.
The Bassets have cracked it - if the decibel levels in the café mid-morning, midweek (and the sausage rolls) are anything to go by. So does this give them more optimism than if they had carried on with TerraVina? "For sure. It has given us a new lease of life. Doing what we did for 11 years, I suppose we had got a bit in a rut, and this is exciting, isn't it Gerard?" says Nina. "We won't be stopping there," reveals Gerard, with his trademark twinkle. "We want to find an investor and open two or three more; we'd like to do it sooner rather than later. No bedrooms this time, just a shop and a bigger Kitchen Café. We've already registered Spot in the City and Spot in the Country." "Or how about Spot in the Maldives?" Nina laughs, as she leaps up to greet yet another neighbour stopping by for coffee.
Occupancy In June it was around 75% and it has increased throughout July and August
Room rates From £80 to £150 (based on two sharing, including breakfast)
Average spend £6.50 on food and £3.50 on drink (ex-VAT)
Number of staff 28 (including part-time)
Senior team Gavin Barnes, head chef; Ana Rodriguez, general manager; Rowena Naylor and Marie Hine, front of house managers; and Lin Howe, head housekeeper
Key audience The local community, locals from slightly further afield, cyclists, walkers, families and dog owners
Chef Gavin Barnes
The Kitchen Café at Spot in the Woods was always going to be the first and most important stage of the Bassets' new operation to get right. Its success is largely down to head chef Gavin Barnes, who has spent five years working with the couple. So how is he adjusting to the new, busier, more casual food offering?
"Food is food and, as a chef, you can't pigeonhole yourself into doing just one type. You've got to be excited about it, whether you're cooking Michelin-starred dishes or café meals. Similarly, you've got to respect the food you're working with, whether it's a piece of gammon or a black truffle, and if you don't, I don't think you've got any right being in the kitchen. That said, I admit I'm a bit more exhausted these days," says Barnes, who was a finalist in BBC Two competition MasterChef: The Professionals in 2016.
"Three months in and we're still adjusting the menu," he confesses. "Though we can track what we sell with our new till system. We've discovered that all-day breakfast is our biggest seller by a long way; so too is anything with seafood. Our homemade pies and sausage rolls also fly, as do our old-fashioned desserts, such as knickerbocker glory and banana splits - people love them. And we are looking at offering even more healthy options now - we get so many runners stopping by." Barnes works with the same local suppliers he worked with before, such as Sunnyfields for his organic fruit and vegetables, Blackwater Pork (they've gone from buying 20kg of sausages a month to 200kg), and the Real Jam and Chutney Company, plus they have found new suppliers, such as New Forest Chocolates, which they stock in the deli, plus a few more further afield. "Our suppliers are our extended family - we can't do what we do without these guys," he says.
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