The bar is packed at 6.30pm and a queue has already started to form for the next sitting. It is Saturday night in the Nant Ddu Lodge. The Brecon Beacons loom through the mist as the main route between North and South Wales brings in yet more custom.
Chalked up on the blackboard over a roaring fire are dishes such as baked fillet of sewin (a cross between trout and salmon, farmed locally) in cream, white wine and herbs (£7.95), venison sausages with onion gravy and mash (£5.95) - and the best sticky toffee pudding this side of Sharrow Bay.
Enter the Ronsons: Daniel and his wife Jill, and his parents David and Paula. Jill and Daniel were disillusioned hotel and catering graduates from Surrey University, both 27-years-old and fed up with life in the city, she in bank marketing, he a surveyor. Paula and David were, respectively, a disgruntled social worker and a retired Cardiff businessman kicking his heels.
The search for a suitable property began a few months before Nant Ddu was found. The Ronsons had a check-list of what they wanted: it had to be the right size, with the potential for expansion, have substantial grounds, a bar and a pleasant setting. "Nant Ddu had it all," says Daniel.
Three years later they have 22 staff and a turnover of more than £500,000 and growing. They served 40,000 meals last year. This year, Nant Ddu Lodge is serving 1,000 meals a week, rising to 1,400 throughout the summer months. Occupancy in January and February was 46%, rising to 60% in March, selling close to the rack rate of £59.50 for a double room.
Jill Ronson throws herself into an armchair in the sitting room they have created by demolishing four ground floor bedrooms. The restaurant next door takes up most of this space, while two meeting rooms they have created sit at opposite ends. In one of these, a sombre incentive group studies a flip chart.
"I'm the calmer one of the two of us, Dan can get really stressed," she says. Jill does most of the purchasing and administration and looks after the restaurant. At lunchtimes she pulls pints in the bar and talks to the customers. And, at midnight, she can be found helping the pot-washer scrub the last of the evening's debris.
"We don't have much of a social life," says Jill. "That is one thing we must change." Daniel nods in agreement. When they do have a break, they do it well. The first holiday in a while was spent in Majorca for a week at Richard Branson's Michelin-starred Residencia.
Nant Ddu Lodge was bought for £340,000, which includes a house-swap with the previous owner's four-bedroomed house on site, a little way behind the hotel, and David Ronson's house in Cardiff.
Jill and Daniel live in a flat above four of the guest rooms in an extension that was added at the beginning of their third year. "We've spent £250,000 on the place since we have been here and that has all come out of turnover. Any profit we have made has been ploughed back in," explains Daniel. A £25,000 grant from the Wales Tourist Board set them up for the first round of improvements, which will be followed by an application later this year for a further £25,000. Over the next year they are looking to spend at least another £50,000 on further refurbishment, alterations and extensions.
Nant Ddu's location has a lot to do with its current success. "What's weird is that I used to drive past here many times over the years and think how this place would make a bomb," admits Daniel.
The hotel attracts a mix of tourists, business people and those on management training courses. Added to this is a sprinkling of long-stay water engineers - the nearby dam had extensive renovations in the early stages of their occupancy at Nant Ddu. Then there was Garden Festival Wales, which took place at nearby Ebbw Vale and brought middle-aged garden enthusiasts in their droves.
Their core market is middle-aged, says Daniel, with a high number of pensioners for lunch. "There are a lot of people round here with relatively high disposable incomes - middle-class with their own homes and children who have left home. There aren't a great deal of other activities in the area, so they go out to eat."
Children are not encouraged. "There's no TV in the bar, no juke box and we are not on any drinking circuit." And they don't do weddings. "We've turned away hundreds this year," says Daniel, "It's too disruptive for our bar trade and residents."
In fact, much of their business is adapted to suit themselves and their staff, as much as their customers. Hours are strictly enforced. If a customer tries to order food even two minutes after 9pm (last orders), this is politely but firmly refused.
"We feel it is vital that our staff know what time they are going home. We are in a small rural area and it's difficult to find the right staff. I'd much rather upset one customer than risk losing staff," says Daniel. He boasts that Nant Ddu pays basic staff the highest in the area. "There is no labour turnover here," he says.
The newest member of staff is trainee manager Clare Green, a local 22-year-old whom the Ronsons will train up to take charge. After two failed attempts with more experienced managers they want to get it right this time. "We wanted someone who is not afraid to muck in with us," says Jill. "The carrot is that we want this person to take over when we move on to our second place!"
The target for 1995/96 is to hit their optimum turnover of £600,000. To bring up revenue for the rooms (all of which are awaiting redecoration), they are looking at ideas for themed weekends through the winter. Head chef John McAneney wants many bar customers to trade up to eating in the resturant. But they tend to like the bar's chatty atmosphere, which is missing from the restaurant.
"We could do one of three things: leave the restaurant as it is; strip it out and start again with a designer; or meet this halfway - buy new artwork, tables and chairs and put a wine servery in the corner," says Daniel. "We've got the trade, we have just got to get them in there." n
Next visit: 10 August