Where there’s change, there’s risk; no doubt about it. While it might be unavoidable, and sometimes desirable, we’re never quite certain how something is going to pan out. Trends shift, demographics change, economies fluctuate.
And so it is with The Grange. A hotel within walking distance of the centre of York – in the Bootham area of the city – The Grange has seen its walls, clientele and the city itself change vastly since its opening in 1990.
When Jeremy and Vivian Cassel took over the hotel – formerly a Regency townhouse – in 1989, tourism wasn’t a huge deal in York; theirs one of the few hotels in the area. It’s both to their benefit and credit that the city now thrives on the tourist pound, with 6.9million visitors spending £564m in 2016 alone, though such changes naturally bring with them challenges, not least to The Grange’s F&B team. Speaking to general manager Suzanne Newman, I learn more about recent developments.
“We have updated and expanded the Brasserie, added two lifts, five new bedrooms, sixteen new bathrooms and a new boiler system, resurfaced the car park and improved the WiFi,” she says, adding the all-important caveat that, “the fundamental principles of a warm welcome, great food and outstanding hospitality have not changed, but the fabric of the building is much improved.”
The hospitality is clear from the get-go, as well as a fresh look which hasn’t compromised on tradition. When I sit down to chat with Will Nicol, the head chef echoes her sentiments, as well as alluding to some of the challenges The Grange constantly faces in bringing visitors to its restaurant amidst growing competition.
“This was the best place to eat,” he says, referring to earlier years. He doesn’t suggest this is no longer the case, rather that the field has become ever more crowded.
“Competition’s massively grown,” he says. “We’re in a city with 600 restaurants. So how do you get people in? The answer is consistency with food and service. There are places in the centre [of York] with a good name. You have to keep on working at overall service and make sure you’re offering something.”
With this in mind, Nicol, a chef with 17 years’ experience in large hotels (and under esteemed chefs such as Paul Rampton), felt the need to pinpoint areas where things could be improved, in order to give The Grange a strong chance of standing out from the crowd.
“The food was up and down,” he says, about his arrival. “So a lot of things went into the refurbishment and we wanted to see how to get it to its full potential.”
Fortunately, he has been able to do this, with the help of a passionate, driven and, importantly, focused team, therefore helping The Grange to complement its reputation as one of the best places to stay in York with a strong reputation in the dining department.
“We’ve gotten to where we are now,” he says, as a member of staff talks about tonight’s service in the background and the number of bookings. He assures me the team aren’t resting on their laurels. “We’ve still got bits and pieces to do.”
The chef, used to working in large, corporate hotel chains, clearly enjoys being in a smaller environment with a team of like-minded people who are, as he puts its, “passionate about what we do”.
In discussing the hotel’s move towards consistent quality, Nicol talks about the role played by local produce, one of many factors that has gone into heightening the Ivy Brasserie’s burgeoning reputation.
“Mr Cassel is very traditional,” he says, of the hotel’s owner. “It’s all very French. As much as I try to put different influences in, it still goes back to basic French cooking, which, believe it or not, is quite a large scope. The techniques are still used all over the world in different cultures… lots of fresh fish, for example.”
“We sometimes cook simply, sometimes a bit more advanced. It’s all from the local area. We have a local fishmonger. They go to the coast each night and we get a phone call telling us what’s available. It can be cod, ling, hake, or even langoustines. When we have the horse racing on we have things like lobster and grouse.”
That focus on all things local persists throughout the menu, with traditional cooked Yorkshire breakfast (and a vegetarian option) and locally sourced ham and cheeses, while the chef’s pear crème brûlée and pain perdu are a nod towards Mr Cassel’s longstanding love of French cuisine. As such, the offering is practical, ethical and interesting, with guests who want to eat something from a nearby farm also able to try dishes they might not be overly familiar with.
Ivy Brasserie’s success, however, wouldn’t continue to grow, says Nicol, without a solid team of people, all sharing a desire to continue learning.
“That’s the way you keep your staff,” he says, with regard to team development. “They know they’re getting taught something as well. Which is how I’ve managed to keep mine for over three and a half years.”
For a restaurant of any sort, it’s a veritable achievement, and as I eat in the restaurant both in the evening and at breakfast the next morning, it’s clear from the chatter among staff that the dynamic works well.
Speaking to Newman later, she elaborates on Nicol’s suggestion that competition has become both a challenge and an opportunity.
“Bootham isn’t a ‘destination’ area of York,” she says. “So we do have to work very hard to encourage locals and tourists alike to come to the hotel. We have introduced such events as the popular music nights and the even more popular gin tastings, for example.”
Another development, in part because of having a “great pastry chef”, as Nicol puts it, has been afternoon tea. A growing trend nationally, it’s been a huge success for the hotel.
“Afternoon tea has been ‘trendy’ for several years,” says Newman. “We hosted our first ‘afternoon tea wedding’, with vintage tea cups and saucers back in 2014 and it is still incredibly popular today.”
The Grange has clearly benefited from its development, especially ink its upgrade of the F&B offer.
But it is probably wise to remember that if you’re going to make changes, it’s best to give the people a nice cup of tea while they enjoy the ride.