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Case Study: The Taverners

16 March 2009
Case Study: The Taverners

The Taverners in Godshill is part of a new quality movement on the Isle of Wight, although that's perhaps not immediately obvious, being set in a traditional 17th-century pub with limited parking in a tourist village.

However, stepping inside, it's apparent that this is something quite different from the neighbouring boozer advertising £3.75 Sunday roasts. There's a board on the wall proudly listing how far ingredients have travelled - 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 - 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 - split into regular pub favourites and a daily-changing specials section - sit on the table in an old wine crate.

Owners Roger Sarjent and Lisa Choi purchased a 16-year lease from Punch Taverns in May 2008 for £92,000 - although, having missed out on a previous site, they're aware that they paid over the odds. Rent is £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 Sarjent, whose parents were hoteliers on the island, has worked in the London kitchens of the Lanesborough and the Halkin, and opened Firmdale's Haymarket hotel. Choi -who studied at Bournemouth University and whose parents opened the island's first Chinese restaurant, in 1966 - has experience at London's Capital hotel and the Conrad in Hong Kong and works front of house.

Sarjent 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 "gastropub".

Bar the first month of operation, when they weren't offering food, they have been profitable - 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, there's a lot of daily mise en place. On a typical bank holiday weekend Sarjent 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, Sarjent and Choi want to take it to the next level. "We've created demand but now want to take the next step," says Sarjent.

February Update

Roger Sarjent and Lisa Choi have just spent £10,000 refurbishing the front bar area, but although Punch Taverns is supportive, it's not willing to fund works of this type, so the couple need to assess how much of their own money they should continue to invest in the leased property.

There was a bounce in business recently after local food magazine Taste of the Isle of Wight ran an article on the Taverners, and the couple are now looking at ways to capitalise on this and want advice on how to market the business. "With the recession, we want to know were we should spend our money," says Sarjent.

Looking forward, skills and keeping good staff are also a significant problem. Although there are enough workers on the island to meet demand, there are too many "head chefs" promoted too early without the craft skills the Taverners' freshly prepared food needs - the pub had eight microwaves in its kitchen when Sarjent and Choi took over.

Given the seasonality of work on the island, with most tourists there in the summer months, there's also the problem that many workers "chase the pound" and are interested in working only for the highest payer in the summer months.

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