This country inn, says the owners, is the full package: great food, boutique rooms and a brilliant location. Brendan Coyne pays a visit
If you Google Little Eccleston, the Cartford Inn is top of the page. So it's fair to say that owners Patrick and Julie Beaume have put the Lancashire village on the culinary map.
Last year the inn was listed as one of the UK's top 50 gastropubs, and this year it made the shortlist for Best Employer at The Caterer's Catey awards, having been named among the Best Places to Work in Hospitality 2014.
Blackpool-born Julie met Bordeaux-raised Patrick in Texas. After stints with the Hilton Group in London and the Caribbean via Spain, later returning to the Fylde coast to run their own restaurant a few miles down the road, they finally got their hands on the Cartford.
Julie had long cast covetous glances at the old coaching inn by the toll bridge from her mother's farm across the River Wyre, but by the time the owner agreed to sell it, in May 2007, "it was derelict, really," says Patrick.
So they renovated and re-opened the pub in six weeks in time for peak season, which was "challenging", he admits. They then renovated seven bedrooms, later adding seven more. Last month, the couple transformed the old on-site brewery into the River House, another two-floor venue.
So what's next? "A holiday," says Patrick.
People "who don't mind paying for quality" come from all over Lancashire, says Patrick. Many travel from further afield and stay at the weekends, with business travellers boosting occupancy rates during the week.
Corporate and leisure bookings for the River House were flocking in before the paint had dried, says Julie, and the inn remains Little Eccleston's local pub
How does it stand out?
Patrick says the inn is the full package: high quality, traditional cuisine with a hint of French influence, combined with boutique accommodation overlooking the valley across to the Trough of Bowland (an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). But all that would be wasted, says Julie, without the right staff.
Julie, a keen photographer, relies predominantly on social media for marketing and handles all of it herself. "I do four to five hours a day on social media. Facebook is phenomenal for us… but anything that is very visual works."
Patrick laughs that he does "the rest of the work", but admits his wife is "outperforming" competitors who pay PR agencies. "And that is only because we are personal and creative."
But as any marketer knows, word of mouth is the cornerstone of success, and Julie says that is where the staff play a role, ensuring customers "have a wonderful time, go home and tell their friends". She says 30% of Christmas bookings this year came from word of mouth recommendations.
Patrick is reluctant to choose, "because it means picking one supplier over the rest". But he knows what's good for him. "Midland Fish, in Fleetwood is owned and run by my brother-in-law. It means we can pick the best and freshest seafood available daily."
Best business advice
"Be realistic with what you can achieve and be consistent. Have a vision and follow it through. Keep reinvesting and moving forward," says Patrick. "The Cartford grew turnover 20% year-on-year through the recession, but only because our product was right."
Likewise, persistence. It took years for the Beaumes to get hold of the Cartford, but that ultimately did them a favour, because by then "it was really the model that pubs were shifting to," says Patrick. "The smoking ban had basically created what we wanted. The drinking pub is disappearing and now more and more of the big chains are opening hotel rooms within their properties, because they see the benefit of the extra revenue."
The restaurant and hotel "couldn't be much busier", says Patrick, so his focus for 2015 is incremental improvement. But now the River House is open, Julie is planning a space for local artists as well as ushering corporate customers and private diners to the former barn.
But the immediate plan is booking that holiday. "We've had three in eight years," says Julie. She won't say where because, as Patrick explains "she doesn't like to be seen spending money." Under intense pressure, he admits it will be the Caribbean island where they worked before swapping the West Indies for the north west. And for that, the 374 residents of Little Eccleston can be thankful.
Spotlight on… staff engagement
Julie handles house recruitment, and she has a knack for spotting potential: staff churn at the Cartford Inn is 22.4%, which is exceptionally low. "Actually, they're hard to get rid of," she laughs. One former staffer turned doctor "is taking New Year's Eve off to come and work behind the bar", and the current restaurant manager started with the Beaumes as a teenager.
In the kitchen Patrick has also retained the core of his team. The secret could simply be that both Beaumes hire on personality over experience. "When we started, we drew up a set of values. We make sure the staff share those values ahead of anything else,"
"They have to share that vision for your business because they are the ones representing it. Ability and skills come afterwards by training. Personality is
extremely important for us."
What's your favourite hotel? La Corniche near Arcachon, France, for its amazing views over the Atlantic and the Bay of Arcachon.
What's your favourite restaurant?
If you weren't a hotelier, what would have been? Probably a wine merchant, given that I grew up in the Medoc in Bordeaux.
Which hotelier do you most admire? Everyone that has built a long-lasting, successful business.
Describe your business in five words Dynamic, personal, unique, people, quality.
Facts and Stats
Owners Patrick and Julie Beaume
Head chef Ian Manning
Number of staff Fifty, a mix of full-time and part-time employees
Number of rooms 15
Average weekly occupancy 65%
Room rates £70 for a single B&B room; £130 for a double
Covers Average 900 covers a week: 30 at lunch Tuesday to Friday, 40 on Saturday and 200 covers on Sunday; 60 covers at dinner Monday to Thursday, 130 Friday and 140 Saturday
Average spend £18 at lunch and £30 at dinner
Be a best place to work
Last year the Cartford Inn made the shortlist of the Best Employer Catey, having been named among the Best Places to Work in Hospitality 2014.
If you think your employee engagement is similarly enlightened, then you can enter this year's awards. But you need to be quick. The closing date to complete the employee engagement survey is 30 January.
Do you run an award-winning business? Let us know email@example.com