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Best For Business: Meet the players

25 February 2009
Best For Business: Meet the players

This month Caterer launches its Best for Business programme. We've added a new dimension to our Adopted Business series and, this year, as well as following operators' progress, we have also engaged the services of leading industry figures such as Roy Ackerman, James Horler and Robin Hutson to steer our chosen businesses through these tricky times. Here we introduce our properties, their mentors and our sponsors, 3663 First for Foodservice, First Choice Coffee and Beacon

Tudor Farmhouse Hotel

With a young family and no previous industry experience, Hari and Colin Fell took over the 20-bedroom Tudor Farmhouse hotel on the edge of the Forest of Dean from Hari's parents just over a year ago.

Hari, 34, who was previously an estate agent, holiday rep and trainee solicitor, admits she has a "wishy-washy" background, while Colin, 38, was a customer services manager at a media-monitoring company before becoming deputy general manager at the hotel. He is now joint-general manager and company secretary. They have a son, Matthew, who's nearly two.

"This is more of a way of life than a job, and that's a big part of its allure," says Hari. "We moved on site to give us a better work-life balance. Now Colin gets to see Matthew more, and it's easier for me to work and manage the childcare. It just gives us that extra flexibility."

Their first year proved a difficult one after they had two head chefs who didn't work out. One by one the kitchen brigade left. Food costs went up, and staff costs soared as they hired temps to fill in. Continuity and stability was lost. Hari explains: "One month, GP was 35%. The biggest problem was managing our costs. It was a disastrous situation."

Hari adds: Á¢Â€ÂœWe havenÁ¢Â€Â™t seen much direct effect of recession yet, but some of our regular business guests have recently been made redundant, which made it really hit home. Advance bookings are low, but theyÁ¢Â€Â™re not yet the lowest weÁ¢Â€Â™ve ever seen. People seem to be leaving bookings later now.Á¢Â€Â

They are also aware of their shortcomings. Hari explains: Á¢Â€ÂœThere are things we know we can improve, like the fabric of the hotel and a more polished service, but generally the hotel does pretty well in terms of guest experience, friendliness and food. ItÁ¢Â€Â™s the other aspects of the business we need help with Á¢Â€Â" we have no financial or marketing training. ItÁ¢Â€Â™s easy to become entrenched in a Á¢Â€Â˜this is the way weÁ¢Â€Â™ve always done itÁ¢Â€Â™ mentality, when actually itÁ¢Â€Â™s not necessarily the best way. ItÁ¢Â€Â™s just that you donÁ¢Â€Â™t know any other way to do it.Á¢Â€Â

Mentor Robin Hutson admires the FellsÁ¢Â€Â™ achievements to date, but adds: Á¢Â€ÂœI sensed a slight lack of confidence that may be holding them back. In many respects they have got it right: the staff are very friendly, which is really important, and the sense of owners who care is there in abundance, so they should definitely keep that going.Á¢Â€Â

However, the hotel uses its Á¢Â€Âœcorporate rateÁ¢Â€Â very liberally, he discovered food costs are about 3-4% too high, at 37% and the menu focus is perhaps a touch too fine-dining for the local marketÁ¢Â€Â™s needs. Hutson also suggests comprehensive training regarding the wines and adding more expensive bins at around the Á‚£35 mark. He aims to help generate an additional Á‚£50,000-Á‚£60,000 of profit for 2009.

The Mulberry Tree

The Mulberry Tree is a modern British 65-seat restaurant and bar set within three acres in Boughton Monchelsea, Kent. Proprietor Karen Williams acquired the derelict former pub site in 2005, but her plans to turn it into a food-led operation were met with considerable opposition from local residents, who campaigned for it to be wet-led. It took her a year to be granted planning permission to convert the property into a restaurant, and it finally opened in May 2007.

Á¢Â€ÂœAfter the local residents campaigned against us, we initially tried to run the Mulberry Tree as a pub, offering sandwiches and snacks,Á¢Â€Â Williams says. Á¢Â€ÂœBut it didnÁ¢Â€Â™t work, and we quickly realised that we had to run it as a restaurant and bar.Á¢Â€Â

Despite the initial local reluctance, the Mulberry Tree has established itself as a favourite among residents, but it wasnÁ¢Â€Â™t easy to get there, and Williams admits that a lot of mistakes were made. Á¢Â€ÂœIt was difficult for both me and my head chef, Alan Irwin, to get to grips with what the locals wanted, and we had to change our offer a few times before we got it right,Á¢Â€Â she says.

With two decades of hospitality experience, this is WilliamsÁ¢Â€Â™s fourth venture, after having previously run a wine bar in Weybridge, Surrey, a food-led pub in Essex and a small hotel in Wiltshire. But despite her experience she feels she still has a lot to learn.

Á¢Â€ÂœTo have a successful business you have to constantly look at your product, change with the market and ensure you are providing exactly what the location and customer demand,Á¢Â€Â she says. Á¢Â€ÂœOur aim is to be one of the top dining establishments in Kent, and to have input from industry experts would help this learning curve and hopefully minimise any future faux pas.Á¢Â€Â

Williams oversees the front-of-house operations with daughter Lauren, mum Gill and six part-time staff, while Irwin heads up the three-strong kitchen. The restaurant currently breaks even at around Á‚£6,000 per week, of which 70% is food sales.

Irwin, who joined the restaurant from the former Michelin-starred Chapter One in Bromley, serves a modern British menu focused on seasonal ingredients sourced from local organic suppliers and has been awarded two AA rosettes. The restaurant is a member of the Produced in Kent association, which champions and develops the Kentish identity of local products.

The restaurant has also started to branch out into the events market, and there are plans to develop a kitchen garden and grow produce for use in the restaurant.

Mentor Roy AckermanÁ¢Â€Â™s initial impressions are positive, and he commends the menu. However, he warns that the location means it wonÁ¢Â€Â™t be easy to build up a profile, which will prove a key driver for business.

Á¢Â€ÂœThe restaurant also needs to ensure it has a balance and caters for the local market and understands what people in the area are prepared to pay,Á¢Â€Â he advises, adding, Á¢Â€Âœbut the Mulberry Tree has already achieved a lot. KarenÁ¢Â€Â™s enthusiasm and determination to make this restaurant a success are highly commendable.Á¢Â€Â


ThereÁ¢Â€Â™s a distinct Hotel du Vin vibe in Dominic WoodÁ¢Â€Â™s semi-eponymous restaurant and bar, WildWood, in Bristol. Wood says he drew inspiration from his time at the hotel group, although the concept has been in his head for as long as he can remember. He says: Á¢Â€ÂœIÁ¢Â€Â™ve collected ideas from places IÁ¢Â€Â™ve worked and experiences watching people IÁ¢Â€Â™ve worked for Á¢Â€Â" both the clever ideas and what IÁ¢Â€Â™d do differently.Á¢Â€Â

He chose Bristol because itÁ¢Â€Â™s near Cornwall but without such seasonal trade. WildWood was originally due to open in September, but this was postponed until the beginning of December, by which time the stock market had crashed and the recession was hitting home.

However, the restaurant and bar Á¢Â€Â" which sells locally sourced popular food such as sausage and mash and lamb shank Á¢Â€Â" did well, despite gloomy world economics, beating its projected turnover of Á‚£12,000 for the first month by Á‚£4,000. The wet-dry split is 40% to 60% and costs are currently kept low by WoodÁ¢Â€Â™s seemingly permanent presence at the site: he employs only one full-time and two part-time front of house and three full-time in the kitchen.

His chef is, in fact, his girlfriendÁ¢Â€Â™s sister, who he recruited to avoid any potential clash of ego with a new employee. Á¢Â€ÂœWe have no limitations on our kitchen,Á¢Â€Â says Wood. Á¢Â€ÂœWe serve breakfast all day and if someone, for instance, wants beans on toast, weÁ¢Â€Â™ll cook it for them.Á¢Â€Â

The business is situated in a working area of Bristol, meaning that Wednesday, Thursday and Friday lunches are the busiest times, with Thursday and Friday evenings also popular. However, weekends have less footfall, so WildWood needs to establish a reputation before customers will make their way to it on Saturdays and Sundays. There should also be a steady stream of custom due to its fortuitous positioning beside the Bristol Royal Infirmary hospital, which employs 7,000 staff.

Wood adds: Á¢Â€ÂœWe are surrounded by quirky independent businesses, and the WildWood concept will reflect this and have a positive impact on the area. I do have some good contacts and am pleased IÁ¢Â€Â™ve been able to use a number of local suppliers. I am very aware of the mountain of current, new and constantly changing legislation, and I am going to need a huge amount of advice to steer me through this area of my business.Á¢Â€Â

Despite this, Wood most fears Joe PublicÁ¢Â€Â™s fickle nature. Á¢Â€ÂœWith human beings you never know what theyÁ¢Â€Â™re going to think next,Á¢Â€Â he says. Á¢Â€ÂœI worry that people will publish bad reviews. IÁ¢Â€Â™m hypersensitive, and I worry people will be put off by them.Á¢Â€Â

The Stephan Langton

Nestled in the tiny hamlet of Friday Street, near Dorking in the heart of SurreyÁ¢Â€Â™s beautiful countryside, is the traditional family-run pub, Stephan Langton. Steeped in history, the pub is named after the reforming 13th-century Archbishop of Canterbury who was a signatory to the Magna Carta, a copy of which is pinned on the wall beside the bar.

Husband-and-wife duo Chris and Rosie Robinson took over the Stephan Langton in 2006, and the business is run as the limited company Tofly Limited. A favourite with locals, walkers and cyclists, the Stephan Langton provides a menu of simple, unpretentious home-cooked food created by head chef Simon Adams, such as corned beef hash and home-made pork pie.

Decor is traditional, in shades of green and brown with a retro twist, replacing the flamboyant colour scheme selected by the former owners. Attractive patterned wallpaper designed by Orla Kiely adorns occasional walls in the dining room and toilet, while framed black-and-white photographs of local people add a personal touch to the otherwise plain, earthy walls. ThereÁ¢Â€Â™s also a large courtyard, with six round wooden tables and chairs.

The Robinsons are warm and friendly, welcoming guests into what is essentially their home Á¢Â€Â" they live in the upstairs rooms with their two children. After a quiet December, they are enjoying a busy start to 2009, with bustling weekends bringing in more than 50% of sales.

Company turnover reached Á‚£365,000 up to December 2008 but, like many small businesses, over the coming year the Robinsons hope to tackle the issues of diminishing wet sales, rising costs, changing legislation and the long-term effect of the economic slowdown.

Á¢Â€ÂœThis is our first business venture, and we need to work hard to stay ahead of the competition,Á¢Â€Â says Chris, adding: Á¢Â€ÂœAverage spend is down, wine sales are lower, the midweek is quieter, and corporate business has died down a bit.Á¢Â€Â In order to tackle these issues, Chris says he wants to Á¢Â€Âœunderstand the value of formalising the Sunday lunch periodÁ¢Â€Â and Á¢Â€Âœexplore training staff in formal serviceÁ¢Â€Â.

With a strong demographic of affluent customers and businesses in the surrounding area, Chris is not concerned about his client base but would like to Á¢Â€Âœget more out of it, and either develop the corporate business or look at alternative opportunitiesÁ¢Â€Â. Rosie would like to investigate hosting more events, such as a cinema night or commuter dinners, but expresses caution over health and safety restrictions. SheÁ¢Â€Â™d also like to landscape their land behind the pub and let the rooms they currently live in, but describes these aspirations as Á¢Â€Âœa pipe dreamÁ¢Â€Â.

The Royal Sportsman

The Royal Sportsman is an AA three-star, 28-bedroom country house hotel in Porthmadog, Gwynedd, on the edge of the picturesque Snowdonia National Park. It currently employs 16 members of staff.

Despite enjoying a prime location and little competition, the building had been allowed to deteriorate over a decade, managing to lose its AA star rating. When Louis Naudi and his business partner, Estelle Metso, bought the property in September 1998 they got a declassified business with no marketing systems, financial controls or management disciplines. Technology was non-existent, equipment old, and room furniture was second-hand, broken and dated, and the only customer base was the rather unprofitable coach trade. Á¢Â€ÂœThe hotel was trying to turn a profit on the Á‚£23-per-night coach trade, but what I envisaged was a good three-star market, open to families, couples and corporate clients,Á¢Â€Â says Naudi.

Both Metso and Naudi have previous experience in turning around struggling customer-focused businesses as management and marketing consultants, but they had no specific hospitality experience. They estimated that more than Á‚£500,000 would be needed to restore the hotel to suitable standards. Á¢Â€ÂœWe had to rebuild it from rock bottom, but that meant we could freshen up every aspect, and you donÁ¢Â€Â™t have to compromise your vision,Á¢Â€Â Naudi says. The pair dismissed all but one member of staff and rebuilt everything.

Unfortunately, Naudi and Metso Á¢Â€Âœhad a run-inÁ¢Â€Â and Naudi bought her share of the business. He then suffered from two bouts of serious illness in September 2007, which left him unable to give the business the attention it needed.

In November 2008 Naudi returned to work, realising he could still improve the marketing and food offering of his business. Á¢Â€ÂœWeÁ¢Â€Â™re up on last year, but weÁ¢Â€Â™re not doing as well as we could be. What I want to get out of the mentorship is someone to share feedback with. I suffer from Á¢Â€Â˜the loneliness of the long-distance runnerÁ¢Â€Â™ syndrome. I want to develop a culture where we get ideas from the bottom up, instead of me doing it alone. To improve our marketing and our food offering.Á¢Â€Â

In the first meeting, mentor Peter Birnie went through the hotelÁ¢Â€Â™s menus and their presentation, the wine lists and the rooms. He suggested tweaks to the flavours in the dishes, and looked at the balance of hot and cold desserts. Á¢Â€ÂœHe indicated things from the perspective of someone from the outside looking in, and I didnÁ¢Â€Â™t disagree with a single thing. I couldnÁ¢Â€Â™t have asked for a more relevant person than Peter to help us out,Á¢Â€Â Naudi says.

Birnie says of the property: Á¢Â€ÂœIt seems to be a very well-run hotel and has been consistent in its commitment. ThereÁ¢Â€Â™s also a very friendly team, which is a massive plus. Louis is a confident owner who is open to brainstorming ideas, but I am conscious of the mantra, Á¢Â€Â˜If it ainÁ¢Â€Â™t broke, donÁ¢Â€Â™t fix itÁ¢Â€Â™ when IÁ¢Â€Â™m ladling out advice.

Á¢Â€ÂœThe main two things he needs to work on are his wine list Á¢Â€Â" itÁ¢Â€Â™s not as ambitious or comprehensive as his food offering, and heÁ¢Â€Â™s missing a real chance to increase revenue by not offering high-quality wines. Also, some of the lower-tariff bedrooms are not as bright as the superior rooms, and this could prove disappointing to a returning guest whoÁ¢Â€Â™s previously experienced one of the better rooms.Á¢Â€Â

The Taverners

The Taverners in Godshill is part of a new quality movement on the Isle of Wight, although thatÁ¢Â€Â™s perhaps not immediately obvious, being set in a traditional 16th-century pub with limited parking in a tourist village.

However, stepping inside, itÁ¢Â€Â™s apparent that this is something quite different from the neighbouring boozer advertising Á‚£3.75 Sunday roasts. ThereÁ¢Â€Â™s a board on the wall proudly listing how far ingredients have travelled Á¢Â€Â" free-range pork, organic beef and lamb comes from one end of the village, and milk, cheese, cream and butter from just a few miles away Á¢Â€Â" and another listing when produce is in season. The table candles sit in sand-filled recycled tins the cutlery is wrapped up in napkins and the menus Á¢Â€Â" split into regular pub favourites and a daily-changing specials section Á¢Â€Â" sit on the table in an old wine crate.

Owners Roger Serjent and Lisa Choi purchased a 16-year lease from Punch Taverns in May 2008 for Á‚£92,000 Á¢Â€Â" although, having missed out on a previous site, theyÁ¢Â€Â™re aware that they paid over the odds. Rent is Á‚£40,000 per annum.

The married couple have two young children and returned to the island over two years ago after pursuing careers in London and travelling, including to Australia. Chef Serjent, whose parents were hoteliers on the island, has worked in the London kitchens of the Lanesborough and the Halkin, and opened FirmdaleÁ¢Â€Â™s Haymarket hotel. Choi -who studied at Bournemouth University and whose parents opened the islandÁ¢Â€Â™s first Chinese restaurant, in 1966 Á¢Â€Â" has experience at LondonÁ¢Â€Â™s Capital hotel and the Conrad in Hong Kong and works front of house.

Serjent maintains that they are unique on the island and refers to the property as a pub and eating house, shying away from the pretension of the term Á¢Â€ÂœgastropubÁ¢Â€Â.

Bar the first month of operation, when they werenÁ¢Â€Â™t offering food, they have been profitable Á¢Â€Â" although they are, predictably, working all the hours God sends, with 9am starts and 2am finishes. With everything freshly prepared and produce sourced from foragers and local vegetable patches, thereÁ¢Â€Â™s a lot of daily mise en place. On a typical bank holiday weekend Serjent will hand-peel three bags-worth of potatoes.

They have two full-time chefs in the kitchen, two full-time workers and seven mainly school-age casuals supporting them. Although the business is established and winning a solid reputation, Serjent and Choi want to take it to the next level. Á¢Â€ÂœWeÁ¢Â€Â™ve created demand but now want to take the next step,Á¢Â€Â says Sarjent.


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![Beacon, the largest hospitality purchasing consortium in the UK, provides purchasing deals to more than 2,000 independent operators through 130 suppliers across food, drink, housekeeping, refurbishment and utilities categories.
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