You wouldn’t expect a conversation with someone who has just announced the closure of their 10-year-long family-run business to be a positive one. But chef and owner Ben Cooke is a man that always sees the glass half full, and opportunity in heartbreak.
He has been running the successful restaurant with rooms Little Gloster on the Isle of Wight with his wife Holly for close to a decade: the name pays homage to his grandparents who also ran a hotel years earlier on the island. As for the atmosphere, panoramic sea views of the Solent accompany superb yet non-fussy dishes that show off local ingredients. An emphasis on fish is, thus, hardly a surprise.
It is listed in the Michelin Guide and was recently awarded ‘Best Local Restaurant 2020’ by The Good Food Guide. Off the back of this, they looked set to be in the best financial position they had ever been in by the end of summer.
Like too many other stories right now, this of course changed when coronavirus hit. It’s now been 14 weeks since lockdown began and the impact has been devastating on this small business despite the couple’s best efforts.
Ben and Holly were one of the first UK restaurants to pivot their operation during lockdown, quickly implementing a new ‘At Home’ service that offered Little Gloster dishes through takeaway. The duo have Danish roots and had been following the news there closely, which they felt allowed them to stay a couple steps ahead of what was announced in the UK.
Now with lockdown easing, they have taken the opportunity to reassess the situation and find the best path forward. Ben told Telegraph Travel: “We punched the numbers for the takeaway service that we were offering, and it turned out that we weren’t even really paying ourselves a wage out of it.” He also shared that because of room cancellations and not being able to operate the restaurant for much of the summer, they were looking at exhausting loans.
Even with the news that they could reopen, the future seemed uncertain. Ben added: “The problem [coronavirus, that is] is still there, it hasn’t gone away.” There are plenty of other factors to consider too, including the safety of staff and guests, plus unknown elements such as the weather and potential localised lockdows. They decided that they needed to act sooner rather than later.
“I’m the first person to be positive in situations and try and look for the best, but I’ve learnt in business over time, you have to have some kind of acceptance,” Ben said. “Seeing the spike yesterday in Leicester, it’s things like that: if we put everything into reopening the restaurant, and then a spike happens, like, what situation will we find ourselves in? Now isn’t the time to go all great guns again.”
On Sunday, Ben and Holly sent out an email to their customers, describing the pride they felt at what they had achieved under surreal circumstances. However, they also revealed that they would be stopping their ‘At Home’ service with immediate effect and would be closing completely at the end of September.
Ben shared, “It’s been one of the most difficult decisions we have had to make. The laying off most of the team, making people redundant… it is not a decision that we have made lightly. We’ve all just got to be adaptable in the situation and be positive, and navigate the best way forward that we can.”
For the remaining months, they will continue to offer their three bedrooms on a b&b basis – but dinners will only continue Wed-Sun for guests staying overnight, who can opt to eat in the restaurant in a socially distant manner, in the garden or on the balcony of their room. Guests can also ask for a seasonal tasting menu with special requests such as Isle of Wight lobster or crab. There is still some availability for those looking for a summer staycation.
Ben and Holly wrote: “Being one of many seasonal restaurant businesses on the island, facing the equivalent of three winters in a row, it is the right decision and we would like to thank our landlord for offering us the opportunity to leave our lease early.”
It is the little details that pepper the letter though that show what a hard decision this must have been, proving that as is often the case, the restaurant has been their life as well as a business: “Every corner of the building tells a story. We know the name of every paint colour in every room, where each piece of furniture was bought and where we painted it on our days off. Each tree and plant in the garden tell a story, every champagne stain on the ceiling or bash on the wall reminds us of a funny evening – peak summer madness when the wheels fell off and chaos ensued.”
The email ends on a positive note, saying that they hope to pursue a new project before too long. Ben told me that since then the reception has been overwhelming, not just with people offering letters of support and thanks, but also those coming at them with ideas for the future “left right and centre.”
He hopes that by running the rooms for the next three months on a private cheffing basis they can also get an idea of whether a similar concept on a larger scale could work in the future. “I’m very excited – the diary has gone very well for the next three months until we exit – to offer the private catering, private yacht style, that I knew from my previous life as a private yacht chef,” he shared. “If we could find the right site on the island where we could build accommodation sites, that could be something that even if coronavirus goes away or we find a cure for it, that could be a very sustainable project for the future.”
Ben and Holly also hope that should lockdown be eased further, they can host a party or two to drink the bar dry and thank regulars in person. Ben concluded, “I’m definitely not defeated, I’m ready to rise again. I’m excited.”