Nestling in the shadows of the village church and just a stone’s throw from the National Trust’s Montacute House, the family-run 17th century Kings Arms Inn is a food-led inn situated in an idyllic setting in rural Somerset.
Just as the lockdown lifted in the first week of July, the new manager of the Kings Arms Inn, Sarah Vigo took up the role. The couple that had previously been running the business had decided to step back from operations to enjoy the finer things of life.
Fortunately for Sarah in the restrictive circumstances of post-lockdown, she is not taking over an unfamiliar business. “I’ve worked here for four years in various capacities, helping out with a lot of things including front of house, although I had no official title,” she says.
The Kings Arms Inn is a family run business, and although Sarah is not a member of the family herself, she is stepping in to the management role to enable the previous managers to get on and enjoy themselves a bit more. “They are here in the background – they still pop their heads round – but the actual day-to-day decisions are up to me,” she says.
Daniel Patrick owns the pub, and his parents-in-law Katherine and Derek were the managers for the last eight years. Although Sarah has a brief experience co-running a pub in Devon, her background is in costume-making and design rather than hospitality – she worked at Butlins for 14 years, 10 of these as wardrobe manager. She naturally brings some of her artistic design skills to the business, for instance drawing elaborate blackboards outside the inn, producing artwork for special occasions such as New Year’s Eve,
and designing the Valentine’s menu, creating a design that is in keeping with the elegant old building itself.
Bringing new ideas
Sarah has some ideas of her own that she is considering implementing as the new manager. “I’m discussing with the head chef, Nick, the idea of introducing a high tea – probably pre-ordered and compete with cake stands and the like. We are in a country village, and people do occasionally come in asking for things like cakes, and we don’t always have them available.”
She is also thinking of offering takeaway picnics. “Many of our overnight guests are of a certain age, and they like to visit the nearby National Trust attractions. The idea is we will be able to provide them with a lunch to take with them and break up the day. We have been asked for this in the past and have occasionally done it on the fly, and I thought it would be nice to do as a proper offering,” says Sarah. She adds: “We might pop in a bottle of prosecco to the lunch pack.”
Other plans to develop the business have taken a back seat owing to the strenuous demands of the post-COVID-19 regime, as the staff work hard to comply with the multitude of guidelines. The guest rooms for example are now blocked out in between guests to enable an even higher density deep clean than the usual deep clean the inn’s rooms would undergo pre-lockdown.
None of the new measures has deterred visitors, Sarah says, and the inn has had guests staying every night since it reopened. “This has been lovely, and we’ve managed to move the rooms round so they are not back to back,” says Sarah. “We do have pre-booked rooms in August that we won’t be able to leave free.” Given the food-driven nature of the business she was concerned the new post-lockdown one-way system for customers would put them off visiting. “That worried me the most, because everything is table service and it is a trek out to our garden, so everything is naturally slower. But we have found every one of our guests has been completely supportive and understanding, which has been really lovely.
“Business has actually picked up much more quickly than we expected. At the weekend in the evenings we have been full in the bar and restaurant,” she says.
As well as welcoming the older generation, in the summer months the inn traditionally takes a significant number of bookings for wedding groups in its rooms, since nearby there is a popular countryside wedding venue.
Unsurprisingly this year the inn has had every one of its summer wedding guests cancel, but Sarah says all five of these wedding groups that did cancel due to lockdown have now rebooked
“We also get families staying,” she adds. “We have a couple of family rooms, and we have a lot of businesspeople staying overnight.” Pets are meanwhile allowed in seven of the inn’s 15 guest rooms.
The Kings Arms Inn is not a place to attract a younger crowd, she says. “It’s more a place for people to come to for fine dining with a relaxed edge, rather than for someone who wants to come in and have five shots of tequila.”
All the staff are PPE-aware and have the transparent facial visors and, explaining the somewhat convoluted new one-way system through the pub, Sarah says: “Guests come in through the front door and exit via the back door. That in itself is a bit tricky because if you are in the beer garden it means you have to come all the way round the front go get back in the bar
The inn employs a hostess on the door to take contact details for the NHS Track & Trace system. “Even if they are just coming in for a pint of orange juice, we still ask customers for their details,” she says. “It’s not mandatory for them to comply, but so far everyone has done so.”
The business had to decline the chance to use QR codes to record visitor details. “The main problem we have with this old building is that we can’t get effective Wi-Fi. But our older demographic is less likely to have a smartphone, which justifies us still doing it the old-fashioned way,” she explains.
Less than a month into her official post of manager at the inn, Sarah says she is confident the business will survive the changes in the long run. “Weekends have been almost back to pre-lockdown levels, and it has quite shocked us at how busy we have been.
Even our lunchtime trade picked up in the first fortnight, and we are most surprised about our rooms which have been filling up quite nicely. We went from nothing to at least a few bedrooms occupied every day.
“I’m very happy we’ve come from nothing to where we are in the first month,” she concludes.