Opening a Restaurant

In my decadent and rather wonderful role as a food blogger I meet lots of people who are every bit as passionate and interested in food as I am. Conversation starts around a shared interest – be that a favourite dish, the best deli we have found or a recipe that just has to be tried. At some point in this conversation we inevitably arrive at a point of confession; one or other of us will look up rather sheepishly and admit that we would like to open a restaurant of our own and the other will equally sheepishly agree that it is their dream too.

Having confessed to this dream we start to refine it – for one person it may be a French Bistro, for another a classy vegetarian place or even a cosy little Italian café. But whatever the dream, at the back of it I often find a desire to escape from the rat race and indulge in a personal passion.

So when a lovely new restaurant opened in the village where I live I took the opportunity to visit and find out what it really takes to make this dream a reality.

Nola and Vasey opened No 4 Peterville without a shred of naivety about what is involved.

Vasey, the chef at No 4, grew up in the flat above his mother’s beach side restaurant watching her get up early in the morning to prepare lobsters for the day ahead. Since then he has learned the grit and grind of his trade in a variety of pub and restaurant kitchens here in Cornwall and in London.

Nola also grew up in Cornwall and, like many other youngsters in the county, spent her teenage years waitressing during the busy summer months. She honed her customer service and business skills further still when, having moved to London, she worked in event management for the hospitality industry.

Determined to move back to Cornwall and make their dream a reality they started looking for a place. Fate seemed to throw them a line when a property belonging to Vasey’s parents became available but after a great deal of wrangling with planners it was not to be and the search started once again.

Frustrated, but not daunted, they found their current premises, started planning applications again and wrote business plans for the banks. Starting a new business is a challenge at the best of times but, when offset against a recession and a banking crisis, it was beginning to look nigh on impossible; promises made by banks and financial advisors repeatedly came to nothing and the final pieces of the planning and financial puzzle only dropped into place a few days before the opening.

Nola and Vasey are clearly not afraid of hard work; having first seen the premises at Christmas they started work on 19th March and when the building work was completed they spent long days finalising menus, finding suppliers and sourcing kitchen equipment whilst also painting and cleaning ready for opening. They opened for business just in time for the May Bank Holiday trade – just 4 months after stepping through the door for the first time.

Their work was not wasted. When you visit No 4 it has the laid back, relaxed feel perfectly suited to a Cornish village setting but please don’t confuse relaxed with effortless because every detail has been carefully thought about. From the use of linen tea towels for napkins (they give great coverage and no one cares if a tea towel gets dirty) to the choice of squat, thick stemmed wine glasses (stable to reduce spillage, big enough for a generous splosh of vino) the focus is on a balance between style and the facilitation of a relaxed dining experience.

When I asked about the ethos behind No 4, Nola laughed and told me that it changes; as time passes they realise more and more what is really important to them. It has always been about good quality, local ingredients but for Vasey it is also about simplicity; just a few ingredients cooked really well – it is not about foams and gimmicks (according to their website foam belongs in the bath tub, not on a plate!) or any other form of what they consider to be pretentiousness. The menu changes every two weeks in order to be truly seasonal and may need to be tweeked from day to day as the quality and availability of certain ingredients fluctuates.

Service is also really important, it is refreshing to hear Nola say that she loves being a waitress and that service is equal in importance to the food – she wants people to have great food but also a great experience where they feel looked after but not patronised. Any staff they recruit have to share their values and display the same passion for perfection.

The average day at No 4 starts at 8.00 when the food deliveries arrive, Vasey begins his prep and Nola starts on the mountain of bills and food orders and faces the newly learned challenges of keeping accounts. It ends when the last customer leaves at around 11.00 – 11.30 p.m. On a good day Vasey gets to escape to the pub around 4 O’clock to kick back with a beer before the work all ramps up again towards opening time. Yet it is clear from their energy and enthusiasm that they don’t regret a second of their hard work.

It is clear from talking to these two that running a restaurant is less the fulfilment of a dream and more a vocation. Nola and Vasey don’t run No 4, they are No 4, a point which is exemplified by Nola’s assertion that the hardest thing about running the restaurant is dealing with unfair criticism. If they get something wrong she will move heaven and earth to put it right for the customer but when someone complains for no reason she takes it personally and she takes it to heart.

Having eaten at No 4 a couple of times I can’t imagine complaints are something they will have to deal with very often at all.

So if you too dream of running a restaurant I suggest that you forget the dream and start working on the plan. You have to want more than the idea, you have to want the commitment, the hard work, the steep learning curve, the battle with planners, to run the gauntlet with financial institutions, the energy to still be creative about your menu when you have just worked yet another fifteen hour shift and the inner strength to smile when customers think you shouldn’t call it a restaurant if you don’t use tablecloths.

Nola and Vasey are now facing the next big challenge, how to run a successful village restaurant through the quieter winter months. In January they will be taking a few well earned weeks off but until then it is business as usual.

So, wherever you live, if you have a favourite neighbourhood restaurant give a little thought to how you can support them during quieter times. As for me? I can’t think of a better excuse for brunch with friends this weekend.

Thanks to Nola and Vasey for providing the photos for this piece – they were originally taken by Adam Barnes.

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