Interview by ForgottenBee
Cole manor tea rooms, a hidden gem in the heart of Cole near Bruton, offers a unique, lunchtime countryside rich dining experience. Localeyez orders a cream tea and gets behind the scenes to find out the secret of their success.
So for those who haven't yet discovered the little gem that is Cole Manor Tea Rooms. Tell me what makes you so unique?
Diana - Well, apart from the obvious things; the delicious food, the wonderful staff, meticulous attention to detail, the individually planned parties; people tell us it is the setting and the atmosphere of Cole Manor that makes it unique.
Sandy - The setting, there are very few tea rooms where, on a warm and sunny day you can sit beside the river, that runs through a beautiful garden whilst enjoying something really delicious to eat and drink. The atmosphere is really peaceful and no one is in a hurry. People feel comfortable and it is very unthreatening. It's also the food. Virtually everything is home baked on the premises, which is something our customers really appreciate.
How has it changed from its initial opening?
Diana - We opened the Tea Rooms in July 2013. Originally there were just two of us who did everything, the cooking, waitressing, washing-up and cleaning. In fact everything that needed to be done; was done by us! Having had no idea how successful we were going to be, I soon realised that we couldn't go on doing everything and that we needed help. It has taken time since then to build up the team, but now we have created a really happy working atmosphere and the perfect working team.
We have been open for three years in July, and it has grown beyond anything we ever imagined might be possible.
You recently won an award, tell our readers how this came about?
Diana - Within a year of opening we were runners up in the Best Coffee Shop/Tea Rooms category of Somerset Life Magazine nominated by customers and all based on recommendation. Then in 2015 we went on to win the award. We have also been selected as one of the top ten Tea Rooms in the South West by Country Calling, who described us as; 'a fab non glitzy addition to Bruton'.
Now that you have re-opened for 2016, have you made any changes to your menu for the new year?
Diana - We offer a Spring/summer menu and an Autumn/Winter menu. Our customers are happy with the choices we offer. There are often three different types of soup, three choices of quiche, and seasonal cakes.
Sandy - We also have Wi-Fi now and a card machine, which has made life easier for both customers and ourselves. We use produce from local companies as much as we can. Our organic cream and milk are from Bruton Dairies, our cheese is from Barbers at Ditcheat, and the meat we use for our increasingly popular Sunday roasts comes from the brilliant Andrew Barclay in Wincanton.
We also have a big vegetable and herb garden and use our own produce in many of our dishes and cakes, including our sumptuous courgette and orange cake, which is a big hit in the summer!
Diana - Some of our customers prefer to order something special that might not be on the menu, we are always happy to do this as long as we have 24 hours notice.
What do you enjoy the most about managing the Cole Manor Tea Rooms and what can frustrate you sometimes?
Sandy and Helen - Working in such idyllic surroundings and with such a great team makes the job so enjoyable as well as creates a great atmosphere and environment.
Frustrations can be the space in the kitchen, when we are really busy and it's very hot and we are all falling over each other. Customers arriving late, as we are just about to close and not wanting to leave after a long busy day can be frustrating. But we smile and get on it.
I noticed you're very interactive on social media. Do you think this is essential for all businesses to be part of?
Sandy – Social media is essential for a business as most people are involved either personally or with their businesses in one way or another. When people get up in the morning, they will check their emails and social media accounts for the day.
Helen - It's an easy way to advertise events, and to share when we are overbooked or closed. Facebook often generates bookings not so much on Twitter but there have been a few enquiries.
Have you ever had a negative review? How did you or how would you deal with one?
Diana – We haven't had that many negative reviews but if the criticism is correct then it needs to be dealt with as soon and as quickly as possible. We would always prefer our customers to tell us at the time if they are not happy with either our food or our service so that we can put things right for them there and then. However much you try not take negative reviews to heart it is a very hard thing not to do.
Are there any secret recipes you would refuse to share?
Diana - Yes I wouldn't let anyone have the recipe for my dressing!
But it really depends on what it is. As often a recipe doesn't always work out the way it's expected to when someone else does it. But on the whole I would share if I could.
Have you encountered any famous visitors?
Diana - We treat all of our customers as if they are famous!
Do you offer a takeaway service? Would this be something you would consider if not?
Diana - We don't offer a takeaway service as such but we are more than happy to provide it if we are asked. This is usually done with an advanced phone call but occasionally a customer will come in and leave with an entire cake. We have provided builders with bacon sandwiches and often we are asked for scones, cream and jam for people to take home. We have a regular customer who loves our flapjacks so much that they make a special visit from quite a distance to buy a whole batch, which they take home to freeze.
Helen - We have provided party food for a christening for 90 people with advanced notice.
Do all the staff get involved in the cooking and food preparation?
Sandy - Diana does the vast majority of the baking and cooking for the Tea Rooms with help a couple of mornings a week from Vicki and Clare. I prepare the vegetarian/vegan food for the Sunday lunches. I'm veggie myself and too often when we go out with friends or family for Sunday Lunch we get a risotto or the dreaded Goats cheese tart, when all we want is a good Sunday Roast veggie style!
At the moment I make a Red Wine and Chestnut pate in puff pastry, which is a big favourite of mine, or a rich tasty cashew nut loaf.
Diana - Helen is our brilliant cake decorator for all those special occasion cakes.
All the cooking is done on site using, as far as possible, locally sourced produce and ingredients. During the summer, when our vegetable garden and greenhouse are in full production, we incorporate as much as we can into our menu. We also use our own fruit for the jams and jellies that are for sale. Anything that is surplus we sell to the local community.
In such an idyllic setting have you ever had writers or artists come and spend the day working and getting inspiration?
Diana - Yes we have had groups of artists book in and come along and set up with their easels, having coffee and lunch breaks in-between. For some reason it always reminds me of an episode from 'Midsummer Murders'!
A book club has come for lunch to discuss the book they have been reading. A blogger who travels around has been and written a blog piece.
We have hosted one of the shows for the Somerset Arts Week for the last 2 years.
Residents from the local residential homes come along in groups, especially when the weather is fine and the garden is at its best.
Sexeys Hospital often comes for a lunch. Also an elderly group from Wells book in advance and come along in a minibus.
It has to be said that Cole Manor Tea Rooms wouldn't work without the huge team effort, to keep up the high standards we have achieved. Richard works alongside the management team and provides background support, whilst they ensure new staff get the right training.
How do new potential customers find you?
Sandy - We don't really advertise so it is mainly word of mouth.
Diana - We have a mention in The Dove and the Pitcombe News. Also a Facebook page. There is also the dreaded Trip Advisor!
Sandy – And a lovely new website designed by Phil Simpson!