Jimmy Doherty shares how he set up his farm restaurant, along with top tips for those starting out
Looking at ways to diversify your business – particularly in farming – can often take you in directions that you may not have previously thought of, or even initially dismissed.
When we bought our farm, it had all of these old buildings. I remember my wife saying, “This building would make a great restaurant. Imagine if we had a restaurant.”
Initially, we both laughed it off, but when the time was right we returned to the idea. It has now been open for seven years now, and really is the beating heart of the farm.
It’s where we get the best interaction with customers – we can ask them how their day’s going, get their feedback, tell them about our products in the farm shop or suggest activities and events that they might be interested in.
Here’s what I’ve learnt over the years about setting up and running a farm restaurant
1. Showcase your hard work
After all the hard work that goes into running a farm, a restaurant is where you can really showcase your achievements.
Your menu is the ultimate showpiece. It features everything you’ve lovingly reared or grown and gives you the scope to get creative.
All the meat we serve is our own. When people visit, they can sit down, watch the animals grazing, and know where everything they eat has come from. It’s that real field-to-fork experience.
The restaurant is a unique selling point for us. It draws people in, raises awareness of our wider business and keeps them coming back.
2. Use it to get to know your customers
Unfortunately, few farmers get to actually meet their end customers. Having a restaurant allows you to do that.
Having more interaction not only forges stronger relationships and customer loyalty, but it’s also great for learning how you could improve.
After their meal, it’s easy to ask our customers what they liked, what they didn’t like and what they’d change. It’s also a great opportunity to upsell. Let the customer know that the sausages they just enjoyed so much are available in the farm shop.
3. Start off on the right foot
You can’t just put a cooker in a kitchen and start selling food. If you’re serving food to the general public there are various rules and regulations that you’ll have to get to grips with.
From employing staff with the necessary health and safety qualifications, to establishing proper cleaning schedules, you need to have everything in place from the outset.
Think carefully about how much space you need. With the benefit of hindsight, I would have doubled the restaurant’s capacity when we first opened, particularly for Sunday roasts. Ask the questions you would ask yourself, such as where will parents put their buggies? You can only fit so many in one small area. These are the typical problems people with kids have when they go out for a meal.
You also need to think about having the right specialist insurance in place and being aware of all the risks you are opening yourself up to – seeking professional advice can really help with this.
It’s all achievable, but you have to be prepared to go through those processes.
4. Learn the trade
If somebody said to me that they were thinking of starting a restaurant, the best piece of advice I could give them is to get some experience.
Go to a restaurant and see if you can help out – even if it’s just volunteering.
If that’s not possible, then go to a busy restaurant on a Friday night, then again on a Monday lunchtime. Pay attention to how the staffing changes, the menus, the price points.
It’s easy to lose money very quickly in a restaurant if you don’t get the fundamentals right.
You don’t want to throw away valuable produce because you haven’t gauged how busy you’re going to be at different times. You need to really crunch those numbers and constantly be tweaking the parameters when things change.
5. Plan your menu carefully
Your menu is very important. It has to be accessible from both a food and price perspective.
You want to have a unique selling point and showcase your farm’s personality, but at the same time you don’t want to go overboard with originality or start charging £29 for a main course.
I’d recommend always keeping a few essentials on there – we’ve learned that directly through what our customers have told us. That includes fish and chips, a pie, and sausage and mash, and you need to have a good vegetarian option.
6. Focus on creating enjoyment
There’s a real social aspect to running a restaurant. It acts as a hub and generates a real vibe on the farm.
On a cold January day, staff and customers alike can come in here and be energised. It has become a really important part of what we do.
I look at our restaurant during a busy Sunday lunch and can see people enjoying themselves and making great memories. That’s what is going to draw people back and spread the word.
When it comes down to it, that enjoyable experience is precisely what you are trying to create.