Poacher turned hotelkeeper

28 July 2005
Poacher turned hotelkeeper

Back in February 2003, the Scottish Highland village of Kingussie, under a foot-and-a-half of snow, seemed a world away from my recently-vacated house in rural Hampshire.

And from the top of the drive, our new home and business, the Cross, which we had bought as a well-established restaurant-with-rooms was barely visible through the blizzard. After almost 18 years of sleeping and eating my way around the hotels and restaurants of the UK, all in the name of the AA's annual guidebooks, I had stepped back into the real world.

I'd seen, survived, and for the most part enjoyed the many changes that had taken place at the AA during that time. Looking back at the AA's dull directories of hotels and B&Bs that were published in 1985, researched by a charming but motley crew of inspectors, it was a far cry from the efficient and respected organisation I had just turned my back on.

The AA's demutualisation and absorption into Centrica Plc in the 1990s may have seen the end of the friendly old club that we all loved, but it brought with it a leaner, more commercial approach that enabled a much-improved range of guidebooks to be produced, spawned a properly trained team of professional inspectors and resulted in a profitability that was never achieved under the old regime.

So why leave? I suppose my decision to leave and set up my own hospitality business had formed over time. One of the AA's big achievements has been the development of the AA rosette awards and the annual restaurant guide. Over 10 years, these helped to build up the AA's reputation for food assessment. But it wasn't easy. The management didn't understand how to produce a truly independent guide and the demands placed on the inspection team were such that the fee-paying businesses were prioritised, sometimes to the detriment of the guides' independence.

his approach was manifested in 2002 in the cavalier manner with which Roger Wood, then the AA's managing director, famously dealt with a table reservation at Ptrus, and the subsequent attempt to manipulate the independent awards process. It resulted in the resignation of Simon Wright, the editor of the restaurant guide. It also probably consolidated my thoughts about moving on.

The idea of "poacher turning gamekeeper" appealed to me. After all, if I couldn't run a successful operation after 18 years assessing the pros and cons of countless hotel and restaurants, then no one could.

Katie, my wife, was disenchanted with her career as a food technology teacher and our two children were still at an age when the angst of a move from Hampshire to our native Scotland could be minimised. The timing seemed as perfect as it was going to get and we began to search in earnest for the right property.

The Cross presented as many challenges as it did opportunities. On the plus side, it had enjoyed a good reputation under the previous owners, who had relocated it to an idyllic position alongside the river Gynack where an old tweed mill had been converted to a rustic restaurant and eight comfortable bedrooms. Critically, the existing head chef, Becca Henderson, agreed to stay and add polish and technique to the fresh ideas I brought with me. And our location at the centre of Cairngorm National Park, close to a regenerating Aviemore resort and increasingly accessible by air, train and road, meant there would be opportunities to grow the business.

And, of course, surrounded as we are by mountains, lochs, rivers and wide-open spaces, it was - and is - a great place to live.

However, "reputation" - even a favourable one - can be a double-edged sword. The previous owners, understandably, had been treading water as they headed towards retirement and their healthy profit was achieved despite dwindling occupancy figures.

If the Cross was to be successful, a fresh approach was required. We decided to extend the trading season to take account of the growing short-breaks market in Scotland. At the same time, we made the decision to close on Sunday and Monday evenings to simplify our staffing requirements and allow us some quality time as a family.

We set about making low-cost but highly visible improvements to the grounds and gardens and to the way in which the restaurant and bedrooms were presented. Fresh flowers on each table, crisp white linen in the bedrooms, and an understated Scottish influence was introduced throughout. Each bedroom, for example, was given Arran aromatics toiletries, Speyside Glenlivet water and CD cubes featuring Scottish contemporary music.

But plans for substantial refurbishment have been put on hold as unexpected and unplanned costs have arisen.

A new boiler cost 1,500; repairs to a cooker 500. This January, we also had to find an extra 3,000 to improve drainage in the grounds after a flash flood swept through the building, while another 500 was required to fix a gas fire. Nevertheless, we were fortunate to inherit a property that was in good repair, which means major changes can happily wait until funds and time allow.

We also started to recruit an energetic pool of local staff, which we'd expected to be a big problem, located where we were. But we pay above-average rates of pay and offer a (mostly) good-humoured working environment.

Building a reliable supplier network has been more of a challenge. The contract launderers with whom we first worked were so ineffective that our counter-claim for lost and damaged items all but exceeded the total of our first year's invoices. We now work with a well-known national supplier who tries hard to meet our expectations and accepts an extraordinarily high "reject" rate.

Under its previous ownership, the Cross was renowned for its wine list. However, I was eager to build a new list that would reflect current drinking trends, offer good value and, perhaps most importantly, feature wines that Katie and I like to drink and are able to enthuse about. The number of suppliers has grown to more than a dozen and we've been on the shortlist for the AA Wine Award for the past three years.

I feel it's essential that the produce supplied to our kitchen is of the highest quality. It's also important that, as far as is possible, our produce is local and seasonal - and that's not that easy. Don't get me wrong: Scotland offers a fantastic range of high-quality raw produce and there are many high-quality producers, growers and stockists to be found.

Supply, on the other hand, is another matter. Most suppliers send their produce by carrier and we keep our fingers crossed for next-day delivery. This is not ideal. Deliveries can be late or not happen at all and our food costs are significantly higher as a result of transport charges.

Our advertising and marketing budget in year one was set at 4% of projected turnover and was concentrated on direct marketing via the address database and paid-for entries in selected guidebooks. Referrals from the guides account for almost 30% of our bookings, so they're not to be sniffed at.

I always preached to hoteliers, restaurateurs and chefs that they should concern themselves more with what their customers want and less with what they think the guidebooks want. And now I'm on the other side of the fence I make sure I'm true to my word. Inspectors, whether we know who they are or not, get treated like any other guest.

In fact, the only time I was terrified to cook for anyone was when Gordon Ramsay dined earlier this year. I don't know what he really made of our food, but I sensed he enjoyed reversing the tables on me.

We were very pleased when the AA awarded us with three rosettes earlier this year, as I'm sure they felt they were obliged to be extremely cautious before doing so.

So has it all been worth it?

Steadily increasing turnover and occupancy figures would suggest we're making progress. We've also enjoyed some critical acclaim which, together with positive guest feedback and encouraging levels of repeat business, have been good confidence-builders. It would be overdoing the clich somewhat to suggest we're living our dream - but then, there's not much time left for dreaming at the end of a 16-hour day.


The figures behind the Cross operation:

  • Purchase price: £400,000

  • Borrowing: £200,000

  • Turnover 2003: £165,000

  • Turnover 2004: £215,000

  • Turnover 2005 (est): £260,000

Source of bookings:

  • Personal recommendation: 27%

  • Repeat visit: 22%

  • www.thecross.co.uk: 14%

  • Corporate: 6%

  • Food Food Guide: 4%

  • Scotland the Best: 4%

  • AA: 3%

  • Good Hotel Guide: 3%

  • Press articles: 3%

  • Other guides/websites: 13%

  • Unspecified source: 1%

How to spot an inspector

David Young's tips for indentifying those hotels/restaurant inspectors:

  • They generally book either weeks in advance to at the last minute. If the former, it's probably to check you send out confirmation letters, while the latter more than likely suggests a disorganised inspector.

  • They often make their bookings on a Friday afternoon or Monday morning - they don't work weekends.

  • A single booking for one night is still the norm, but beware inspectors "under training" who might arrive in pairs or even groups.

  • They usually book under their real name. On the odd occasion I booked under a false name I invariably forgot and then didn't respond when addressed by staff.

  • They rarely haggle over rates when booking, and tend not to ask the sort of questions normal guests ask, such as: "Do you serve good food?" or "If there's snow on the road, will we still be able to get to you?"

  • The inside of their car is either deliberately chaotic or disturbingly neat and tidy.

  • When asked to indicate how they discovered your hotel, inspectors are incapable of lying. Professional pride will ensure that the last thing an AA inspector could do would be to tick the box "RAC", or vice-versa.

  • Drinks expenditure is limited to an aperitif and a glass of wine, even after studying the wine list for half and hour. They only splash out on a half-bottle of Beaujolias of your food is really getting the once-over.

  • The modern inspector dresses down for dinner, even further down for breakfast - and then miraculously appears at check-out like a shiny pin in a smart business suit.

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