Talk me through your hospitality career?
I’m second generation at Soar Mill Cove hotel, my daughter is third. I came here as a boy 40 years ago. My mother was a cook, my father a carpenter and I started off because my parents were so busy at the hotel and they worked all hours. I was given an omelette pan at age 11 and told I had to make an omelette if I wanted to be fed when I came home from school.
Cheffing was in the blood, and by age 13 French onion soup bowls appeared on my Christmas list. I learned under the chef we had here – we’ve had fabulous chefs here over the years. I started as a young apprentice going to the local catering college in Plymouth, which had a kitchen that produced from hoof onwards. Raw carcasses would arrive in the kitchen and we had all the different departments within its three restaurants.
I was working part time back at the hotel in the evenings and weekends and from there I went to work at Mosimann’s under Anton Mosimann, and did a brief spell at various restaurants in and around london before spending pretty much all of my career at Soar Mill Cove hotel. For many years I was cheffing, and I gave it up many years ago to oversee the management of the hotel, leaving it to our head chef who’s now been with us for 22 years.
Are you the hotel manager?
No, I have a hotel manager, he’s Matt Barton and he’s been with us since he was 14.
What did you learn from your parents?
Work ethics, obviously, the number one factor. I think because I had an old fashioned method of being taught in every department, I was very lucky that I’ve been able to talk to the chefs, sommeliers and other staff with knowledge.
I would hope I learned some style and sophistication from my mother – the art of conversing with guests and being a host. It was the heavy days of the 70s when they [parents] were here, when Dom Perignon, fat cigars and conspicuous consumption were fashionable.
Is it the 40th anniversary of the hotel’s creation or your career?
The hotel. What was here before was a shack really – a sea view guesthouse. Soar Mill Cove hotel as such has been here for 40 years. Mum’s written her book which comes out at the end of November, called ‘The cook, the carpenter and the Cove’ and she was going through her memories of all the famous guests and making pavlova for Audrey Hepburn and things of that nature.
How have you managed to keep it in the family all this time?
We’ve never rested on our laurels. I’ve always had an appetite for being as good as we possibly could be, we don’t claim to be the best things in the world, but we probably claim that we try as hard as anyone else. Nowadays, I’m very lucky that the team around me is so marvellous and it’s so big, we’ve got my wife, my daughter, and then all of our staff. They all have a similar ethos which is why they’ve been with us for so many years.
Why do you think your staff have stayed so long?
I think it must be mutual respect – it’s not rocket science, but it’s amazing how many people miss it. I wouldn’t want any of my staff to come into work on any day not feeling that they were going to be respected. Nobody knows if the guest around the corner is going to be lovely or horrible so it’s hugely rewarding when you turn them around.
When I went to work for people like Anton Mosimann, who was a perfect gentleman and the most mannered and organised of chefs, I thought that’s how I wished for my kitchen to be run. So it’s just a simple thing of respect. I probably don’t praise people as much as I should, but when I do it’s meant. Criticism is also given but it’s constructive.
How would you describe your managerial style?
I would say that I’m approachable but I’m not a soft touch. I have a tremendous loyalty from [my staff], why that is i guess one would have to ask some of them! I’m not really sure, I hope they would say “he’s fair”. but I don’t suffer fools easily.
You recently won the Seaside Hotel of the Year award, how did that feel?
That was marvellous. To me, the Good Hotel Guide and Michelin really are the only independent guides, there are no financial ties… Nothing is really independent apart from those two. I didn’t know we were being inspected! It’s [an award] that maybe isn’t so well known out of the industry but to me is the culmination of our career.
Has it affected custom positively?
It’s been busy, the PR has been good – The Mail, The Independent and local newspapers, certainly the phone’s been busy, bookings are busy. All it does now is make sure that we keep up standards, particularly as it lists certain things as it was so you’ve got to make sure that everything is up to standard. Once you’re on a pedestal people will want to take a swing at you.
Your anniversary gin, ‘Jen’s Gin’, is that permanent?
It’ll continue. I guess we thought it would be a nice idea to do and we all tease my wife that she likes a nice gin – she hardly drinks at all – but it’s a family joke. It’s proved very popular and local shops and restaurants will be stocking it so it’s something that’s going to continue. The recipe is tied down so it’s one that will remain.
So the gin can be part of the hotels legacy?
Yeah, definitely. Jen’s been joking about – I hope she’s joking – but she’s saying she’s now going to do Jen’s brand of clothing!
Is your mother still involved in the hotel?
She’s not involved anymore, she loves to come and we and guests love to see her. My father passed away unfortunately just under a year ago, it’s coming up to the anniversary of that. Writing her book is something she started but never cracked down to do and once he passed away, that’s what she got on with.
Of course because of the 150 recipes in it, our chefs have been very involved in trying them and we have all been photographing them. That’s been a busy year for her. Once the book’s published she’ll be just as busy, we’ll be sending her around to various organisations and talks. I don’t think she’ll let people out of the venues without buying a book.
Explain the reason behind the charity ball?
We’re known as the place that does an annual charity ball and we’ve done it for many, many local causes over the years. This year its particularly poignant to us because it’s the intensive care unit of our local major hospital Derriford and they were the people that looked after my father when he was in hospital. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it out but it wasn’t for their lack of trying. That’s what it is aid of. It’s always a really fun buzzy time, our charity ball, it’s the thing of the season.
What do you think your parents legacy on the hotel is and what do you hope yours will be?
It’s interesting as we’ve got people coming to the book launch, our postman of 40 years that would help stamp the letters and guests that have been coming to the hotel. Some of the guests will say it’s affected their lives. We tend to see multi generational groups of guests and if we’ve had a positive effect on people’s lives be it guests, staff, suppliers, tradesmen, over those years then that means enough.
If we’ve done anything positive to anybody then I’m very happy. I’m sure my parents were particularly happy to see it continue in my generation I’m certainly happy to see it continue in my daughter’s generation.
So you expect her to take over?
Yes, she’s gradually taking over. We’re not the only family involved although we own it. Our restaurant manager saw our pretty young waitress and married her, they’ve got a child. My head chef did likewise. They’ve got three children now. My manager’s mother works here too; so there’s many families it stretches out to.
Are there any guests who have been with you from the beginning?
Yes, there’s one that coming to the book launch and his family of course will come as well. So we see every generation continue. We’ve got at least four generations of guests.
In recent years, how much have you changed or updated the hotel?
We relaunched it in 2013 with the decor, a new leisure centre and expansion into self catering. And we’ve also rebranded which is an important thing. It’s all very well doing all these marvellous things – you’ve got to shout about it, but first work out what you’re going to shout. We look at what we say, how we say it, our copyright, our photography – Becky [daughter] drives us along in a modern manner. We do it all on theme, she would freak out if anyone types something with the wrong font.
After the anniversary, what are the hotels plans?
The big things will be to continue the expansion of our self catering, it produces a trade for our local restaurants, and that works terribly well. We’d possibly look at – various plans, new bar and so on. This winter, we’re refreshing a lot of the decor to make it even more seaside chic. My wife and daughter are busy looking at fabrics at the moment.
By Shekina Tuahene. This article first appeared in the November 2017 issue of Hotel Owner.