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Mason's Arms: They did it their way

15 June 2006

Anniversaries are a time to look back and assess the past, so with the end of their first year at the Mason's Arms in sight, Mark and Sarah Dodson are mulling over the previous 12 months of their lives - the things they got right; the things they would do differently.

By and large, the couple planned their move into restaurant ownership wisely, cautiously even, so their mistakes were few, minor and easily rectified.

Among the things that they feel they didn't quite get in place before they opened was the supply chain. "We wasted time sorting this out," says Mark. "We quickly found a fish supplier, then fruit and veg, but meat initially was a weekly delivery, and it didn't work, so we ended up in the local butcher's two or three times a week."

And they didn't foresee the day-to-day maintenance niggles, such as lightbulb changing. "Knowing the location of the nearest hardware shop before we moved down would definitely have helped," says the now odd-job-savvy Mark.

As a chef, Mark was used to marshalling a kitchen - organising shifts, ordering supplies, etc - but paperwork concerning front of house was foreign territory. Sarah, too, had no experience of the bureaucracy of restaurant ownership and, in fact, had not previously worked in the hospitality trade.

"We should have had bookkeepers in from day one, because the paperwork builds up at an alarming rate and takes an age to sort out. We would have saved time by starting off with an accounts package on the computer," reflects Mark.

For anyone embarking on a similar project, the Dodsons would also advise that serious thought be given to laundry systems. They kicked off with paper napkins in the restaurant, but this proved unsatisfactory, and linen was soon substituted.

However, because they had no idea of the rhythm of laundering in a restaurant, the move was fraught. "For a while, I was ironing napkins to order depending on how many we had booked in," says Sarah. Better systems are now in place, but the £2,300 so far spent on laundry was not something the couple had budgeted for.

Lack of cellar management nous could also have been the Dodsons' downfall, but luckily they were able to fall back on the expertise of bar manager Karen Lawrence until they learnt the ropes. "We should have had a better knowledge of the pub side of the business before opening, but we just needed to get the tills ringing," agrees Mark.

And therein lies the most important thing that the Dodsons got right. Namely, getting money coming in to their business from the word go, leaving refurbishment of the dining room until six months down the line.

Likewise, kitchen equipment has been replaced only when necessary or when there's been a good cash-flow in any given month. This way, the couple have avoided taking on crippling debts to get their business under way.

The other area they've got right is the marketing of the Mason's Arms, contacting local newspapers and commissioning photography and business cards within a week of moving down to Devon. Sorting out photography was particularly shrewd, as it meant that they kept control of publicity. "Writers and editors use our pictures, and I've been amazed that our press release appeared almost word-for-word in several newspapers," admits Mark.

A website was key to their marketing strategy, and this was "live" six weeks after the Dodsons acquired the Mason's Arms. Ever the perfectionist, Mark would have liked a shorter launch time for their online presence.

So are the Dodsons thinking of expanding their empire? "We're happy to have got a year under our belt and are still enjoying ourselves, and we want to build on what we've got here," says Mark, with trademark caution. "However, we've always been aware that there is a limitation to the Mason's Arms in terms of capacity, so a second project is a possibility at some time. We'd always have this as our centre, though. We wouldn't get rid of it."

The Mason's Arms

  • Bought: 21 June 2005

  • Owners: Mark and Sarah Dodson

  • Purchase price: "close to" £695,000

  • What is it?: 13th-century inn with small bar and lounge

  • Accolades: one Michelin star, January 2006; Egon Ronay Restaurant and Gastropub Guide, one star; rave review by Jan Moir, Daily Telegraph, 30 June 2005

  • Target annual turnover £275,000 gross

Figures June 2005-May 2006

  • Turnover: £256,000, excluding VAT

  • Staff wages, including casual: £56,000

  • Marketing, including website: £2,500

  • Phone system: £1,000

  • Laundry and cleaning: £2,300

  • Professional fees (legal, accounting, training): £7,600

  • Maintenance and repairs: £12,200

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