Reflections on our first year of business.
It’s been a very busy summer but we are not complaining. Because of this the bulletins have gone from monthly to bi-monthly and now here I am trying to condense three months into one!
The weather like most of Europe has been a bit hit and miss but it hasn’t had much effect tourism. The biggest increase for us has been repeat business and recommendations. We’ve had people stay who last year stopped for lunch or a drink but always left with a brochure. Others have told family and friends about us and they have stayed. Occupation of the rooms is 60% up on last year, the restaurant 52% and the bar 38%. We are just about at a level where if we increase any more we will need staff and that is not a consideration given the level of social security charges the employer pays. Our accountant said that to have one full-time staff member we would need to do thirty extra covers in the restaurant every week just to pay their wages. We prefer to turn people away from the restaurant rather than try to accommodate them and reduce the standards. Everything that comes out of the kitchen is fresh, we don’t stick ready meals in a microwave like a lot of pubs in the UK so gauging stock levels is difficult. Last year was a big learning curve and some evenings were very stressful. We average twenty covers a night over the weekend so now we prepare a starter and a main course for ten or twelve as ‘specials’, normally a quiche of some sort (check out the latest recipe on the recipe page) and a main dish of lamb shanks or rabbit in mustard sauce for example. These can simmer gently all evening and are ready to serve. We get a 70% take up on the ‘specials’ and that eases the pressure on the kitchen.
Rebecca’s biggest problem is turning round the bedrooms with only three sets of bed linen per room especially when you have people staying one night and the room is booked the following night. People who stay for two nights or more are less hassle and much more profitable. Our prices are slightly above those of the ‘chambres d’hôte’ in the area but we have one great advantage. We are a ‘one stop shop’. Very few B & B’s around here do an evening meal and they can only serve a drink with a meal. Imagine having spent eight hours in your car, arriving at your B & B, showering and changing and then having to get back into the car to go and find somewhere to eat. Here you have a glass of wine or a gin and tonic when you arrive, take a leisurely shower, then come down for a meal followed by a couple of cognacs and then crawl upstairs to bed with no risk of being breathalysed on the way!! It also means that the 60€ per room per night turns into 120€ on average, which is much more interesting.
The other big advantage is speaking English. Many of the Dutch, German and Swiss have very little French but their level of English is amazing. Plus of course we get Australians and Americans. Most of the hotels have English speaking staff but their level of English is enough to do their job, it’s not conversational. We’ve spent many late nights chatting with guests and answering all the questions they haven’t been able to ask during their holiday. One Aussie couple stopped for a glass of wine and ended up staying four nights. Becca had to ask them to leave in the end as they walked the dogs every afternoon and she was putting on weight as she wasn’t getting her daily exercise!!
So what’s been happening this summer? We’ve run our usual special evenings this year doing a paella for ‘La fête de la Musique’ in June followed by barbecues in July and August averaging sixty people per evening. We’ve gathered a stack of e-mail addresses from people who live in the area and send out a mail announcing any special events and normally fill the place from that. The director of the Chateau de Montlaville, owned by the French Scout Association came down and asked if we could do a meal one Sunday in August. We thought it would be a meal for all the students who work there during the summer looking after the children who stay for summer camp so suggested a barbecue, something less formal than a sit down set menu. He agreed. But imagine our surprise when forty sixty-somethings from the Lions Club in Chalon-sur Saone arrived. There were a few miserable faces as they took their places and Romain, the Director, had to explain how a barbecue meal worked, i.e. you can come back for more, it’s a one plate system, you serve yourself etc etc. (The French are so set in their ways when it comes to eating!!) but by the end they all agreed it was good and they will be back next year.
On the subject of food, I must mention lunchtimes during the week. Most French workmen go to a restaurant during the week and a lot of places do a set menu of starter, main course, dessert, wine and coffee for 12€. We have two such places within 3 kms.
However, if your bum is not on a seat by 12.30 you’ve had it and they all close at 2pm. So we have a lunchtime menu of salads, omelettes, steaks, chips, etc that we serve all day. The tourists love it as they can eat when they want and have something light. But the French………..Can we eat?…..Yes, this is our menu ……….You don’t have a set menu?……….No, but you can start with a salad, then have a steak, followed by a dessert……….No, we don’t want that, who does a menu round here? I’ve spoken to the locals and it would appear that your average French workman wants to sit down, be served, not have to make a decision as what he wants to eat, and leave.
It doesn’t seem to matter that he might not like something, he just doesn’t want choice, he can’t cope with it!!
The two dogs are growing up nicely. They are nearly ten months old and have settled into our routine very nicely. There are some downsides. Our lovely rear terrace planted with ENGLISH grass!! that our guests appreciate so much on summer days now resembles a battlefield with chewed up sticks, toys and the odd hole. One rather large one seems to be the beginnings of an escape tunnel and has been nicknamed ‘The Chanel Tunnel’ after the chief perpetrator! They are well accepted by our guests and Nick has been joined on his morning walk by various children staying with their parents. Bob and Judy, a lovely Australian couple who stopped for a glass of wine and stayed four nights, took them for walks every day. It got to a point where Becca said to them ‘You’re going to have to leave.
I’m putting on too much weight not having to walk the dogs every afternoon!!’ Chanel and Chablis love their walks. They have discovered blackberries, next doors vegetable garden (they stole a melon the other day) and now they’ve started on the grapes in the vines.
Jo celebrated her fiftieth birthday for the second time this year with a big do for family and friends. A big thank you to all the forty odd family and friends who made the trip from the UK and various parts of France for the weekend. We started on the Friday evening when Sophie did a paella for forty five people at Le Chardon, then as we were closed for the whole weekend, on Saturday we decamped to Uchizy for lunch , and then in the evening was the party for 110. The weather was perfect, the best day of the year, and at 3am we could still sit outside in shirtsleeves (the alcohol may have had a bit to do with it!!). The highlight was Jean-Marc arriving with Jo’s birthday present, a new Mini Cooper Clubman in bright red.
He’d parked it round the corner and sneaked off in the middle of the evening to get it. Everybody had a super evening and we all returned Sunday lunchtime to finish off the food and have a few more drinks. Sunday afternoon some of us went down to the river to fish and exercise the dogs and then in the evening it was tartiflette and salad at Le Chardon for the thirty three people still standing. A memorable weekend.
We’ve hosted baptisms for six children, the last being a big family gathering where they baptised four of their grandchildren at the same time. Christophe Nouhen, one of our local wine suppliers, baptised his daughter Margot and invited us to the meal afterwards. We decided to do the aperitif after the service for him and hosted ninety five people. He supplied the wine (thank goodness!) and we did the food. We then shut for the rest of the day and enjoyed a wonderful evening eating, drinking and dancing at a restaurant on the banks of the river.
The gite is working very well. It is advertised with Chez Nous in the UK and we have had ten weeks let so far – not bad for the first year – and we have enquiries for next year already. Mind you, if you want to holiday in Burgundy there only about ten places to choose from, in the Dordogne or Charentes there are hundreds!!
To sum up, we are very happy with our lot in France. We are healthier, wealthier (the accountant made us go and buy a new car!!) and far, far happier than we ever were in the
UK. The only downside is being quite a distance from all of you, our friends and family although quite a few have been over to see us and we are taking a couple of weeks off at the end of October to come back to Blighty. We arrive Saturday 25th October until Sunday 9th November although we are taking a weeks holiday in Fuerteventura in the Canaries from Wednesday 29th.