Chef Simon Hulstone on running a seasonal hospitality business

By Emma Eversham contact

- Last updated on GMT

Chef Simon Hulstone on running a seasonal hospitality business

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Simon Hulstone is chef-owner of The Elephant restaurant in Torquay. Last year his family acquired tea room Burridge’s, also in the town. Here he talks about the challenges of running seasonal hospitality businesses and how he has been impacted by the widespread chef shortage. 

What is happening with your businesses currently? 

We use the winter season to catch up on everything as we don't tend to be very busy this time of year. At the restaurant we give everything a good clean and all staff have their holidays​No-one takes one in the summer because we’re too busy. I always think it's funny when restaurateurs in London moan about August being dead while we're rushed off our feet. 

The tearoom (Burridge's) is very new to us, so it's hard to say whether that is performing well or not. The restaurant picks up for Christmas parties and we do a lunch trade, but the tourists disappear in the winter months. Those that do come in the winter months are here are in big on packages and don’t leave their hotels to spend money. They visit the town, but won’t pop in to the tearoom for coffee because it's free in their hotel.  

Would you recommend running a business in a holiday destination? 

It depends if you're doing it for a lifestyle choice or after a business that will make money. We’re in Torquay town centre and we struggle in the winter. The population is almost 200,000 here but other places in Cornwall or Devon which are mainly working towns will have places close for six months of the year, because they don't have people there who will spend money. With a seasonal business you have to make your money while the sun shines and if you’re going to close for six months you’ve got to be able to replace those staff members the next year and have enough money to see you through while you’re closed. 

Saying that, Torquay is on the up, there’s a lot of investment in the bay and both The Elephant and Burridge's are in the fortunate position of being owner-operated, so we'll see what the future holds. 

Have you been affected by the chef shortage?

Put it this way, last year we had a waiting list, this year we didn’t get any CVs at all. There have been a lot of new openings in Torquay - not at the standard we are or doing what we want to do - but chains that are offering more money and easier hours. We can’t compete with them as an independent family-run restaurant. Our remit is that we put back into the employee by training and working. We can’t offer thousands of pounds more, but at least if you leave here you are going to move onto somewhere better and improve your CV. It’s hard. We can’t go down to four-day weeks or make big changes like that, it’s financial suicide for us. I don’t have the PR backing of a TV career behind me, so we just have to continue as we are.

What is the solution to solving the chef shortage? 

I don’t have a solution. We’ve won lots of awards and have had a Michelin star now for 11 years, which is something to be proud of. Geographically we do well for where we are, but tempting people down here is a different thing altogether. People have to want to move down to Devon and Cornwall and we also have the situation of me being a full time member of the kitchen, so there’s not a lot of promotion involved. You’re not going to run the Elephant because I’m always here, so that's hard for a lot of people.

There was a time when I had a solid team for five years but those guys needed to do what they needed to do and you can’t hold people back. They moved on and we had to start again, but it's hard to replace people. There are so many opportunities in the industry that chefs can walk out of one kitchen and straight into another one. No-one is even checking references anymore. 

Do awards help the business? 

Awards will help but they can also have a negative impact. Customers think if you win an award you don’t need their business as you’ll be too busy. We shied away from entering awards and didn’t advertise for a couple of years because people said ‘you’re always full because you’re always in the paper’. They thought we were too posh. 

They also seem to raise expectations which isn't always a good thing. When people go out to a chain restaurant they know what to expect so they don’t tend to complain, but when they come to us they have a higher expectation and they set their standards slightly higher and it’s quite annoying. We do our food better than the chains and at the same price, but people feel they can moan about it more with us. 

How is trade at Burridge's? 

We’ve come to the end of our season, but we're going to run it for the whole year to see how it works and give us a chance to learn from our mistakes. Trade was great in the summer, but then it just dropped off a cliff.

Running a tearoom requires a totally different mind-set from what I've been doing before. We were tarnished with the 'it's Simon Hulstone's now, it must be posh' brush, but we've kept it as a café selling cakes and cream teas, so it’s accessible to everybody, we just do it well. I’ve tried to keep as much of my family’s image away from it and leave the staff to run it and that's working well.

Are you planning any changes there?

We started straight away at Easter and all we did was change the crockery in the summer to make everything more uniform. We closed for a week in November to give it a refresh and make it a bit warmer in there. Later this month we’ll add a bit more to the decor and maybe change the chairs and tables, but it depends on how trade is. 

What else is happening with you? 

I'm taking part in the Norwegian Skrei again this year with Michel Roux Jr and I still work with Kikkoman and Steelite which is close to me because of the Stoke-on-Trent (Hulstone's former home town) link.

We’re also extending our farm this year as we've taken on another polytunnel. We have three already, but this one will take us further into the winter with growth of our produce. The farm has been massive for the restaurant, we get a delivery three-times a week and it helps us with food costs and helps us with our story. This year we're planning on utilising more of the produce into jams and chutneys and honeys that we can sell on-site as well. 

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