One of the key things to get right in any business - particularly in the restaurant trade - is staff. The waiting staff set the tone, dictate the front-of-house ambience; the kitchen brigade determine whether you get the consistency and quality of product on the plate.
When they bought the Mason's Arms, in Knowstone, Devon, Mark and Sarah Dodson were acutely aware of this. Mark's previous life as head chef of Bray's Waterside Inn and executive chef at Cliveden, Berkshire's luxury hotel, meant he had been exposed to the very highest Michelin standards of service and cooking. However, the Mason's Arms called for a less formal benchmark, in particular on the waiting side.
The Dodsons are aiming for a relaxed operation that mirrors the no-linen dining room and classically simple food they put out. "If the staff are relaxed, then the customers relax too, and enjoy themselves more," says Sarah. "We're not trying to be a five-star hotel," adds Mark. "What we want is simple but polite service. The smile is the important thing, making people feel welcome."
Most of the staff are sixth-formers or students - in other words, under 20 - and part-timers. The only people on the full payroll are Mark's right-hand man in the kitchen, 24-year-old Darren Edwards, and Karen Lawrence, 28, who manages the bar. Building a team of casual part-timers makes sense for the Mason's Arms, at least until the Dodsons have completed a full year's trading and have an overview of the peaks and troughs of their business.
"We've been incredibly busy since we opened - we've been full every night and pretty much every lunchtime in August - but we don't know what's going to happen in October," points out Mark. "It would be lovely to have someone else full-time in the kitchen to free me up, but if I take someone on at 25,000 then they've got to bring that worth into the business. We run a very tight ship - Sarah and I aren't actually drawing a salary at the moment, so being flexible in staff terms was always part of our game plan."
The Dodsons are pub virgins (in the ownership stakes, anyway), so Lawrence has been a key player. "Karen's been a godsend because she's run a pub before, so she's been teaching us the ropes," admits Sarah who was also new to the restaurant business. In a way, though, this has stopped her from having any preconceptions about the "proper" way to do things front of house, which she oversees. "I want the dining room to be how I'd like it myself if I were a customer," she says.
However, there are certain standards which she expects from her team - polished glasses and attentive, but not intrusive, service being the guiding lines. And because both she and her team are inexperienced as sommeliers, she has made the decision not to pour wine and water at the table, but to leave diners to top up their glasses themselves. Orders are taken in the lounge before customers enter the dining room and the water and wine awaits them at their table. "I'll pour the initial glass of wine," concedes Sarah, "but try and limit it to that. There's no point in doing the job badly, better not to do it at all."
At the moment, training is very much done on the job for the Dodsons' young army of part-timers - there's been little time for anything else since they bought the Mason's Arms in July - but they're planning to put some systems in place when business calms down in the winter. Until then, crib sheets abound around the kitchen - descriptions of cheeses and dishes, for example - and all the staff are given a chance to taste the menu. "It's very important that everyone knows what the dishes taste like so they can tell the customers," stresses Mark.
It's very clear the Dodsons know the importance of valuing and encouraging good staff. They treat their young team as part of an extended family and get loyalty and enthusiasm back.
They've been so successful at establishing the Mason's Arms as a desirable place to work among locals that they've had no difficulty recruiting casual staff - which might have been a problem because of the inn's location deep in the north Devon countryside.
Waitress Helen Selley and bar manager Karen Lawrence live in the next village; barman Nick Hoar and kitchen porter Tommy Rottenbury come from nearby South Molton, while bar worker Rebecca Poole and kitchen porter Richard Devine live in Knowstone, the Mason's Arms' own village. "We're the biggest employer in Knowstone," jokes Mark. And you don't achieve that in a tight-knit community unless the locals reckon you'll treat their children well.
Full-time: Darren Edwards, sous chef; Karen Lawrence, bar manager.
Part-time: Nick Hoar, bar; Rebecca Poole, bar; Helen Selley, waitress; Clare Stanbury, waitress; Richard Devine (aka Noz), kitchen porter/commis/waiter; Richard Stanbury, kitchen porter/commis; Tommy Rottenbury, kitchen porter/commis; Jonathon Carter, kitchen porter.
Staff wages: 16% of turnover.
Caterer has "adopted" four hospitality businesses, which will be visited in rotation every four weeks. There are: the Cube & Star, Hoxton Square, London; the Club Hotel & Spa, St Helier, Jersey; the White Lion, Stoke; and the Mason's Arms in north Devon