How the West won us

01 December 2005
How the West won us

One of the major reasons for Sarah and Mark Dodson's plunge into the harsh realities of restaurant ownership was a determination to become more of a family unit. With three daughters under the age of 10, the Dodsons' goal was to have jobs that enabled both of them to see more of their children, together, as the girls grew up.

An important part of being able to achieve that goal was to purchase a property with accommodation on site, and at the Mason's Arms the family have a surprisingly spacious living area "above the shop". Four bedrooms - three en suite, a kitchen and breakfast room, lounge and kids' den.

"Our previous house in Taplow had five bedrooms, so it was important to try and replicate the space," says Sarah. "Making sure the girls were comfortable was very important."

Their daughters are Alexandra, eight, Charlotte, six, and Louisa, two, and the Dodsons had to factor in more than just a family home when they were looking for a business. They needed to find somewhere that was within spitting distance of suitable schools - and within 30 minutes of their restaurant.

Once the couple had put in an offer on the Mason's Arms in the spring, Sarah logged straight on to the internet to research schools on the Ofsted website. "We narrowed it down to three possibilities in the area for Alexandra and Charlotte. Obviously, Louisa is much younger, and we knew we'd have to allow for a nanny in our business plan," she explains.

Once their shortlist had been established, the Dodsons looked at curricula and visited each of the schools. In addition to academic standards, one of their guidelines was the size of the schools. "We wanted a similar size to the one that the girls went to in Taplow. We were dragging them down to Devon, miles away from friends, and we wanted to make the transition as easy as possible, so a familiar school scenario was vital," stresses Mark.

The school that the Dodsons settled on was Chulmleigh Primary, a couple of villages away from the Mason's Arms in Knowstone. The school run takes just under 25 minutes.

For Louisa, the couple discovered a nursery school in nearby South Molton, just 15 minutes away, which she attends in the morning. They also recruited a local nanny, 23-year-old Naomi Bircham. She looks after Louisa primarly in the afternoons when Sarah and Mark are busy running the inn, but also collects the older girls from school.

Bircham works four days a week, Tuesday to Friday, starting mid-morning. The daily routine is for either Sarah or Mark to drop off the girls in the morning, leaving Bircham to take control of school runs and children's needs in the afternoon until 5.45pm. The family then eat together and the girls are packed off to bed as the first evening customers arrive. Monday, when the Mason's Arms is closed, is always a family day, with Sarah and Mark making sure that they take over school duties or go out with the children if it is a holiday.

The Dodsons are clearly on the way to achieving their family-work balance - but expenditure on their children's education (including nanny's salary, nursery fees, insurance, mileage on the school runs, etc) will come, they reckon, to about 15,000 a year.

They believe it's money well spent. They see a lot more of the girls than they would if they both worked away from home, and they're on hand in the evening if there are any crises. Luckily, apart from the odd nightmare, there have been none to date. In fact, the girls have taken to their new life like ducks to water, making the odd appearance front-of-house and doing little jobs around the restaurant when not at school.

"We always wanted to be child-friendly here, and it's nice when customers come in with children for them to see ours a bit. It relaxes them," says Mark.

Actually, the Dodson girls view their new life as a big adventure. "You can hear them proudly telling friends that they live in a restaurant," laughs Sarah. "And they've told us that they are never moving from Devon."

The story so far

Mark and Sarah Dobson bought the Mason's Arms in Knowstone, Deveon, on 21 June for close to £695,000.

Since then, the 13th-century inn with its 18-seat restaurant has had a rave review from Jan Moir in the Daily Telegraph and was awarded a star in Egon Ronay's 2006 restaurants and gastropubs guide.

Turnover for October was £25,000 - above the Dobson's business plan projection. They are aiming for an annual turnover of £275,000.

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