The Dodsons have had a dream start to 2006. After a mere six months' trading at the Mason's Arms, a Michelin star has been won - not unheard of in that timescale, but still rare.
"I won't say we didn't consider the thought of a star," reflects Mark, "but we weren't consciously aiming for it. Of course we were hoping for some kind of Michelin recognition - it's the ultimate - but having been here such a short time, we would have expected it to take another year before being considered for a star."
Showing admirable sang-froid about the recognition that obsesses all chefs, Mark and Sarah didn't even check the Michelin website at midnight on the day the 2006 stars were released (18 January). But, as Mark admits, that was more to do with ignorance than cool. "We'd got the weeks that the guide was published mixed up - otherwise we'd probably have had a look ourselves," he says.
As it was, the news was relayed to them by various industry friends early on the Thursday morning - and modest celebrations were duly set in motion. "We had a glass of Champagne and tied in celebrations with our [belated] staff Christmas party on the Sunday, which seemed right as everybody was very excited about the news," says Mark.
Press reaction, both local and national, was swift and the Dodsons have given several interviews. It's a welcome boost of publicity for the current winter months and the summer ahead. "I don't think it'll make too much immediate difference - the business was growing steadily anyway - but it'll be great for marketing in the summer holidays," says Mark.
That seems an accurate assessment. The Dodsons closed the restaurant for the first two weeks of January and reopened to two days of full bookings - which were taken before the Michelin star was awarded.
They had closed the inn not only to give themselves a welcome holiday, but also to carry out minor redecoration of the premises. So what has changed? Well, the restaurant has had a lick of paint (Farrow and Ball colours, a green-tinged yellow and burgundy red), new gold satin curtains, and has had its wooden floor stripped and rewaxed. The bar, the kitchen and the gents' loos have also seen a brush and paint pot. In case you're wondering, the ladies' loos were the only part of the inn to receive attention back in June. "Apparently they were priority," laughs Mark.
He and Sarah also commissioned a local artist, Ed Hoare - brother of Nick, one of the bar staff - to create two pieces of abstract modern art for them. The total cost for all the redecoration, soft furnishings and artwork was about £6,000. "We haven't really done a lot, but it's made a big impact on the feel of the place - it really feels like our own now," says Mark.
The Dodsons have just handed their books to their accountant for a six-monthly assessment. They have monitored the Mason's Arms's progress closely themselves, but when the results come back, they will have an even clearer idea of how the business is performing. Mark thinks December was a tad disappointing despite full houses and good average spends per head over Christmas and the New Year (best spend was about £70 per head compared with the normal £40). This followed a slow fortnight at the beginning of the month.
With no 12-month benchmark to measure against, it's difficult to know whether this pattern of business is typical for the Mason's Arms, but the accountant's figures will help to give an indication. One thing's for certain - the Dodsons won't be hiking prices because of their Michelin star to make up any business shortfalls. "It's the worst thing you can do - you're seen as greedy," says Mark firmly. "And anyway, we believe in the business as it is."
Address The Mason's Arms, Knowstone, Devon
Bought: 21 June 2005
Owners Mark and Sarah Dodson
Purchase price "Close to" £695,000
Redecoration costs in Jan 2006 £6,000
What is it? 13-century inn with small bar and lounge, plus 18-seat resturant
AccoladesEgon Ronay Restaurant and Gastropub Guide - one star. Rave review by Jan Moir in Daily Telegraph, 30 June 2005. Michelin star in the 2006 UK guide
December turnover £25,000 gross (above business plan projection)
Target annual turnover £275,000 gross