Nick Harman and his wife, Rebecca, moved to the Bourgogne in 2005 and renovated an old hotel and restaurant in the village of Chardonnay. It has exceeded all their expectations and enjoys a high level of repeat business
What is your business and how long have you been trading?
Le Chardon is a bar, hotel and restaurant in the village of Chardonnay in the heart of the Bourgogne. We bought the property (together with the licence IV, a full drinks licence) in June 2005 and opened for business two years later.
Le Chardon was built as a hotel in 1820, but the problem was that the owners would not spend a centime on maintenance and it was finally shut by the hygiene authorities in July 2003. It required a total renovation and could not be done by us: all the work had to be carried out by qualified professionals.
We spent a year getting all the plans done, finding a builder, plumber, electrician, carpenter, getting estimates and so on. Our builder started work in 2006 and it took a year to finish. We have a bar restaurant that can seat 60, a terrace for a further 30, plus four bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms.
Did you do the same trade either in or out of France before?
No. I worked in the motor trade for 25 years, the final 10 as sales director for a Chrysler Jeep franchise in south-west London. Rebecca was an insurance underwriter dealing in vintage cars for the classic motor trade. As a student, I had worked in pubs and hotels and in later life frequented them regularly, but on the other side of the counter.
What qualifications do you need to do this kind of work?
Fluent French is essential, both written and spoken, unless you just want to do gîtes or B&B for the English market. We both had a sales background, so talking to people was never a problem and our weekends when we lived in UK were
mostly spent entertaining.
We enjoyed having dinner parties and friends staying for the weekend, which is basically what we are now doing 24/7.
I have been a passionate cook from an early age and always dreamt of having a professional kitchen. It can become tiring, but you have to be able to smile and carry on. Some days we are up at 6.00 and do not finish until after 1.00.
Why did you think it would work?
We had no idea whether it would, but it was a calculated risk. Primarily it was the location. We had spent holidays in the area quite a few times, and passing through Chardonnay you would invariably see someone having their picture taken by the signpost at the entrance. People go out of their way to say they have been to Chardonnay, and there was nothing for them in the village.
The A6 motorway is 10 minutes from here, a six-hour drive from the Channel and five from the Mediterranean, a perfect stopping-off point. We have people who holiday in the area, but also others who pass through. In winter, we pick up a lot of ski traffic.
We also do a lot of special evenings for birthdays, clubs, local businesses and so on, so we are not reliant on summer vacationers. Plus we have three incomes. We have the bar to keep the locals and passersby happy, the restaurant, which is our biggest source of income, and then the four bedrooms.
Do you have any employees?
We do not employ anyone apart from our 16-year-old daughter, who likes to earn pocket money to keep her motorbike fuelled by cleaning rooms or serving in the restaurant. If we hold one of our themed evenings or have a group booking
for 40 or more people, there are a couple of girls in the village we can call on. Our accountant reckoned we would need to do an extra 30 covers a week in the restaurant to pay a member of staff. We decided that we would rather limit the number and keep it in the family. The other factor is that the business is us. We are not an anonymous hotel chain; this is our home.
Is it your main income?
It is our only income apart from a flat in the UK, which we rent out. We live off the back of the business; it pays all our food, drink, utilities, insurance, the lease on a car and three holidays a year. We make a decent profit. Revenue is up 15 per cent on last year.
How do you market yourselves?
Initially we advertised extensively in the local press, with the tourist office and of course the internet. We are fortunate to have a friend who works in IT and looks after our website. We set a budget of €2,000 for our first year but now, in our fourth year, we spend around €500.
Word of mouth is free and, provided people have a good experience, they will tell their friends. We had a couple stay with us on their way south to their house in Provence, which they have owned for 20 years. They know a lot of people in their area who own houses and our address has been passed on. We now have six or seven owners who stay on the way down and back. More importantly, nobody forgets the name Chardonnay.
In addition, the TripAdvisor website has worked superbly for us, as it is based on people’s experiences and it costs us nothing.
Who is your market?
Anybody and everybody. Our biggest client base are the Dutch, followed by the French, and naturally the British, but we have had guests from all over the world.
What was your biggest mistake?
The window fitter/carpenter we employed who was the only artisan who never turned up on time. He cost us two months.
Did you do a business plan?
Yes. We have a very good accountant who sat down with us and did things outside his brief by way of administration and setting up the business. We produced a business plan that gave us a figure to achieve in our first year of trading. We tore it up after we passed the total in five months.