Better Business – Barclay House hotel, Looe, Cornwall

28 June 2012
Better Business – Barclay House hotel, Looe, Cornwall

Barclay House hotel in Cornwall is a family affair and the heart of a business that also owns a separate restaurant and pub in the area. Aaron Morby talks to general manager Graham Brooks

Need to know
Barclay House is the flagship hotel of a prospering local business in the seaside town of Looe, east Cornwall. Tucked into the hillside of the river valley, the whitewashed Victorian hotel overlooks the quaint harbour and boasts a dozen rooms, eight holiday cottages, a restaurant and swimming pool.

Husband-and-wife team Graham and Gill Brooks run the business, which was bought by Graham's brother, Malcolm, in 2006 from the proceeds of the sale of his Pegler taps manufacturing business in Yorkshire.

In the past two years, opportunities to buy a separate quayside restaurant and country inn were both snapped up to spread the reach of the business in the area.

Looe is a traditional Cornish bucket-and-spade seaside town. General manager Graham Brooks explains that Barclay House and a few other local traders are set on raising standards to draw in a more sophisticated holiday crowd.

"Speaking in car terms we are targeting the BMW/Audi market, with the occasional Bentley and Ford Escort," he explains.

The range of facilities, which includes gym, sauna, swimming pool and a quality restaurant, tends to appeal to early retirees and, during weekends, hard-working younger couples looking for a short break in east Cornwall.

"Our busiest time is on either side of the school break in June and September," says Brooks.

Several self-catering holiday cottages add another dimension tending to attract families with young children looking for access to quality facilities but greater flexibility around eating in peak season.

Business growth
Since Barclay House was bought for £2.5m six years ago, a steady stream of investment has helped turnover rise from £400,000 to about £1.5m. Much of the early effort focused on refurbishing Barclay House, as well as adding another room with disabled access and creating a gym.

Two years ago, a local restaurant on the quayside in Looe came up for grabs and was snapped up for a bargain £250,000. A year later, a local pub just outside Looe came on the market and Barclay House bought the Plough at Duloe for £325,000. The three operations create a solid base that helps to keep what would otherwise be a strongly seasonal business ticking throughout the year.

Both the Plough Inn and Trawlers restaurant have earned reputations across the South-west as quality dining destinations in their own right and boast a strong local following. Together they account for about half of Barclay House's total takings.

Looking ahead, Brooks says there is an appetite for another hotel in Cornwall, with nearby Fowey looking a likely location.

Restaurant growth
Food has been a big driver for the business. And to fly the flag for Looe, Barclay House is sponsoring the first Looe Festival of Food and Drink at the end of this month.

"The previous owner was a tough act to follow but he had let the restaurant slip and left an opportunity to really turn things around, " explains Brooks.

"The first thing we did was find a talented local chef, Benjamin Palmer, who reopened the restaurant and within a year had won his first rosette."

Since then there has been a string of awards including South West Restaurant of the Year 2011 - Taste of the West, and last year, a second AA rosette.

Now working as executive chef, Palmer oversees the hotel restaurant and Trawlers on the Quay, and directly runs the Plough with his partner, Francesca. The hotel restaurant is now a fine-dining location and Michelin-trained head chef Joe Sardari serves a four-course Table d'hôtel menu at a competitive £32 and six-course taster menu for £39.

Gourmet breaks
Brooks says that they put a lot of effort into promoting the selection of eating experiences. A series of special gourmet deals helps business throughout the year, attracting diners from across the South-west.

"Our dine-and-stay package of £139 is very popular. It's almost the same price as coming to have a dinner and taking a taxi home, and draws in diners from Plymouth, 20 miles away," explains Brooks.

Barclay House also offers couples a special three-night Taste of Looe Gourmet break from just £499, serving a meal at each of its three restaurants.

"This is really popular and we have sold more than 100 packages since setting up in February," he adds.

Favourite supplier
Brooks says Barclay House is an important local employer and customer for small local suppliers. It happily promotes more than 20 of these on its website, but with good-quality local fish its essential ingredient, Brooks says merchant Simply Fish stands out.

Owners Dominic Sadler and Julian Clemens, both former chefs, ensure day boat-caught fish are delivered straight to the dining table. Their business is benefiting from a resurgent interest in Cornish coastal fish and now supplies many local West Country restaurants.

"They are passionate about fish and happy to explore ways of promoting the region.

"We will soon join forces to run cookery courses specialising in preparing local catches," says Brooks

Spotlight on the wedding island

Looe Island Wedding
Looe Island Wedding
Barclay House became a licensed venue for civil wedding ceremonies three years ago and specialises in small, intimate weddings.

In collaboration with Cornwall Wildlife Trust, it offers an exclusive opportunity to marry on legendary Looe Island - the island's history dates back to 1139 and includes the ruins of a Benedictine chapel.

The 22-acre island is now managed by the trust as a marine nature reserve while holding a licence for up to 12 weddings per year, making it one of the most coveted venues in Cornwall.

Guests are ferried to the island for the ceremony and then return to the hotel for reception and wedding breakfast.

"We do about six weddings a year, but it is good business because more often than not the couples tend to come from all around the UK and stay with their guests in our hotel."

"We offer to hold the wedding at the hotel if very bad weather prevents the boat trip, but that hasn't happened yet."

Graham Brooks's revelations
Favourite hotel The Right Round House, Cornwall
Favourite restaurant Fifteen Cornwall
What book has inspired you? When the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Motto Tomorrow's a new day. Never hold on to yesterday's difficulties
If you weren't a hotelier, what would you have been? Travel guide
Which hotelier do you most admire? Ruth Watson and Alex Polizzi
Describe your business in five words Service, hospitality, location, achievement, enjoy

Facts and stats
Executive chef Benjamin Palmer
Staff 60 (39 permanent, 21 temporary)
Average room rate £165 (per night)
Number of businesses 3 (Barclay hotel, Trawlers restaurant, Plough pub)

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