Owner Rowland Leach, who started the operation in 2003 with his wife Mary, said the restaurant with rooms was very costly to run, and despite attracting plenty of business it was only making a “modest profit”.
“West Stoke House is a gorgeous, but very expensive, 250 year-old country house. We bought it in 2000, and started off with the guest rooms in 2003. It evolved to include a restaurant, but it was a natural, organic development, with no defined business plan,” he said.
“We only had eight bedrooms, and that really wasn’t enough. At the end of the day, we found that the cost outweighed the profitability. Although we all loved it and it was making a modest profit, it really wasn’t enough to make it an attractive sell. And like anything, you know you’re not going to be in it forever, and you want to know that you’re grooming something to make it profitable to sell.”
The venue, which is also the family home of the Leachs, held about 40-50 weddings a year, and holding any more than that would have been too disruptive to their family life, he explained. In addition, because he himself was neither a head chef nor a general manager, the business also had to support high staff costs to keep all the posts covered.
Head chef Darren Brown has already announced that he will be joining the 10 in 8 Fine Dining Group, where he’ll head up the New Angel restaurant in Dartmouth, Devon.
Leach said Brown’s departure and the closure of West Stoke House were a mutual decision. “Darren has been wonderful. He’s amazingly flexible; he can do weddings one day and Michelin-starred dining the next. But at the end of the day, his personal ambition is more about pure restaurants. We knew that ultimately he’d want to move on, and it seemed like the right time.”
Several members of the 17-strong staff will stay on with the Leachs in their new enterprise, which will be a delicatessen-restaurant in Chichester.
Joel Massey, sous chef at West Stoke House will become head chef at the new venue, which will be named Amelie and Friends. The current junior sous chef, Mike Abraham, will also stay on as sous chef at Amelie.
The new restaurant will be housed in a Georgian building. Leach is in the process of finalising the lease on the premises, and plans to open the new site in early March 2011. Over the next five years, he hopes the brand will be able to expand to another three sites along the south coast.
The 70-cover restaurant, which also includes a garden space and a greenhouse, will have a contemporary feel combined with the classic Georgian features of the building. It will be furnished with a mixture of furniture dating from the 50s through to the modern day, and will be decorated with modern art.
The food will be “family friendly”, including many vegetarian options, and although the prices have not yet been finalised, they will be “palatable for the public”.
“We won’t necessarily do late dining. At the moment we’re planning an all-day operation, closing at 7.30pm. We won’t be after any Michelin stars, it’ll be about good healthy food,” said Leach.