For the third operator in our Profiting from 2012 Business Tracker series we visit Windsor, where Chrys and Hannah Fisher are gearing up for a running start at the Palmer Arms in Dorney. James Stagg reports
When Chrys Fisher took on the Palmer Arms pub with his wife Hannah in 2009 he had no idea of the business potential afforded by the lake just one mile away.
The country pub and restaurant is situated in the village of Dorney, just down the road from the lake of the same name that's set to host Olympic rowing, kayak and paralympic rowing events in 2012. But when the couple first opened the Palmer Arms in 2007, they hadn't counted on an increase in events leading up to the games propelling their business through turbulent recessionary waters.
"The lake wasn't very busy when we first took this place on," Chrys Fisher says. "Now they've got Henley regatta there, triathlons and other regattas. We just didn't realise how many people visit that lake."
Set in spectacular parkland near Windsor, Dorney Lake is the home of Eton College's rowing. As well as hosting numerous rowing and flat water canoeing, the centre also hosts year-round corporate and private hospitality, ensuring a steady stream of visitors to the area.
Despite not having considered the opportunity presented by the lake at first, it's now the first port of call for Palmer Arms promotional material. The pub has grown 30% year-on-year in the three years since the Fishers took it on, and while much of that has to do with their dedication to serving serious, unpretentious food, at least part of its success can be attributed to the lake.
"We grew about 30% first year, the same second year and we're looking to do around the same in the third year," Fisher adds. "It caught us by surprise in a way, though we don't really reflect on it enough. Our projections were nowhere near that but expectations change. It has grown steadily but we need to make sure we're consolidating all the time."
The figures certainly weren't expected by the banks, who refused to invest in the business when the former general manager of Browns on St Martin's Lane in London decided to go it alone with his wife. The pair sold their house and had to plough all they could into the new business.
"Nobody was lending because it was the height of the recession," Fisher says. "And so we had to sell the house for a bit less than what we would have taken for it a year before that. We still did reasonably well out of it. Even with all the experience we had people still weren't interested in giving us the pub and taking any risks. They still aren't."
The pub is food led, with 70% of sales driven by the traditional pub food and new à la carte menu featuring seasonal and local produce. It will do 300 covers on a typical Sunday, with almost double that on a summer's day thanks to its spacious garden. But Fisher expects many more than that when an expected 30,000 visitors a day descend on Dorney for the Olympic rowing events.
He can be confident, having already had bookings for the Olympic period. When the French federation were at Dorney Lake this summer they visited the Palmer Arms every day of their week-long trip. "They told me they loved it and asked to be sent the prices for next year," Fisher explains. "They want to book for 220 people for next year and I now have to work out where I will put them. The rowers want either a buffet or sit-down dinner. We don't want to rip people off but we want to maximise it so we need to be able to work out what we can do."
One consideration is to use part of the car park to site a marquee and organise an outside kitchen, but Fisher is still uncertain how to service it, something his mentor, head of AA Hotel Services Simon Numphud, will be able to advise on (see box). "I used to run high-volume businesses but they were all set up," he adds. "When you do it every day it's easy."
His plan is to try to offer fast turnaround food in the morning, while people are heading past on the way to the rowing, and in the afternoon offer a bit more variety for those with more time. "It's trying to gauge the pace of people as well as catering for larger functions on top of that," Fisher says.
Chrys and Hannah Fisher are being mentored by Simon Numphud, head of AA Hotel Services, which has been recommending hotels, guest accommodation and restaurants for over 100 years.
He is impressed at the couple's progress in the three years since taking on the business. "They have an interesting story, particularly with Chrys' background, and have clearly done well to develop the business in three years," Numphud says. "If anything, much of what they need to do is develop the outside catering opportunity."
Numphud has 10 years' experience working in the hotel industry, predominately in restaurant and hotels within Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds. A fellow of the Institute of Hospitality and regular judge for various hospitality awards, he is also a mentor for Oxford Brookes University hospitality management students.
Our Profiting from 2012 Business Tracker series is published in association with ACT Clean and People 1st