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06 October 2005
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When you take over an established business there's a fine line to tread between not rocking the boat and creating your own identity. The Mason's Arms, which Sarah and Mark Dodson bought at the end of June, had a well established reputation as a food destination and the couple didn't want to squander the customer goodwill they inherited, but they did want visitors to clock that they planned to make a few changes.

Actually, there's a lot that can be achieved on very little money, particularly if you get the local and national press involved - and the Dodsons have been astute in targeting the right publications for their business.

As soon as they acquired the Mason's Arms, they put out a press release to the local newspapers informing them of the change of ownership and providing information on Mark's background heading up the kitchens at the renowned Waterside Inn in Bray and Taplow's luxury Cliveden hotel. The subliminal message was thus established that here was a chef with form offering some seriously good food, who was also willing to adapt to local conditions.

"The main paper for us is the North Devon Journal [circulation 34,700] and it wrote about us a couple of weeks after we moved in - we got phone calls off the back of that the day it came out," says Mark. "All the papers have written about us, and we've had steady local business right from the word go through them."

However, it was a national review (the only one to date) that sent the profile of the Mason's Arms rocketing beyond Devon. After Daily Telegraph reviewer Jan Moir gave Dodson's food the thumbs-up in July, bookings started flooding in from foodies travelling down to the West Country for weekends and holidays.

"It went mental," recalls Mark. "We had 38 phone enquiries the day it went in. We had to buy a new phone and answerphone to cope with everything! I didn't realise how influential she was before that."

Rumour has it that Moir picked up on the Mason's after reading about the Dodsons' move to Devon in Caterer. "Yeah," admits Mark, "we were keen to be one of your adopted businesses because of the industry coverage it could give us, although we're still slightly nervous that the whole world will know if things don't work out!"

Because the Dodsons are forward planners, they were ready with de luxe business cards to hand out to satisfied Mason's Arms customers when the deluge of bookings came. Actually, these are upmarket postcards similar to those that hotels always leave in their bedrooms - with photographs of the inn and Dodsons, plus contact details.

The beauty of this simple marketing tool was its low cost (£500) and knock-on effect (via customers who take them away and hand them on to friends).

The Dodsons have also used them to mail shot about 500 friends, former customers from Berkshire and members of the Academy of Culinary Arts, of which Mark is a member.

The photography for the postcards provided the Dodsons with the visual basis for their latest marketing baby: a website. Designed by Milton Keynes-based company Orchid, recommended by a supplier (Paula Sherlock of Signature FSE, which provides the inn's tableware), the site is clean and uncluttered and is costing the Dodsons less than £1,500.

The home page introduces the Dodsons and the property, and there are three main-menu links. Click on "About Us" and there are subdivisions of location, directions, opening hours, where to stay and a short history of Knowstone village. "Food" opens out into Á la carte, past favourites and wines. "Media" has a press release and the Daily Telegraph review.

"I don't like to see an information overload when I visit a website, so we've kept it to the point," says Dodson. "We've already had some enquiries from people who've seen it, but we won't get a proper idea of its impact for a while yet. When I was at Cliveden their website was a very important tool for business and one I think you can't afford not to have."

The story so far

  • The property: Mason's Arms, Knowstone, Devon
  • Bought: 21 June
  • Owners: Mark and Sarah Dodson
  • Purchase price: "Close to" £695,000
  • What is it?: 13th-century inn with small bar and lounge, plus 18-seat restaurant
  • Rave review: By Jan Moir in Daily Telegraph, 30 July - "The food is of an incredibly high standard" - it resulted in turnovers of between £6,000 and £9,000 in the weeks following publication, well over the projected sum
  • Target annual turnover: £275,000 (gross)
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