The Abbey Hotel in Bath has been a landmark for generations. But with its Allium restaurant and commitment to fine dining and wine it is starting to gain a reputation as a destination way beyond finding a smart room for the night. We talk to the management team behind putting The Abbey on the map.
Wine consultant Angela Mount has helped raise wine standards at the Abbey hotel to match its award winning food.
You would think with the number of tourists and visitors that flock to Bath every day of the year that it would not be a problem running a city centre hotel. Never mind one that can claim to be in the oldest building in the city, on the oldest street, in the heart of the old town, just a big kick away from the city’s famous rugby stadium and train station.
But the Abbey Hotel has had to work very hard to reinvent itself when it was taken over by Ian and Christa Taylor in 2012 with a £1.5m transformation plan.
It was, let’s say, a good time to give it a kick start. It wasn’t just the building that was old but, what was on offer inside it.
It certainly took more than one lick of paint to get it going again, but the result is a hotel that has been transformed in to a multifaceted venue that can keep guests, visitors, tourists and locals happy from breakfast to midnight.
As a result, as well as entertaining and serving its own guests, The Abbey has become a social and networking hub for both business and visitors throughout the day from across the Bath and Bristol area.
Be it for morning coffees, business lunches, adventurous afternoon teas, pre-dinner cocktails, to a full blown dining occasion in its new restaurant, The Allium, to hosting black tie events and full blown weddings.
“It was a case of starting from scratch and daring to be different,” says general manager, Andrew Foulkes, who was brought in two years ago to put the transformation plan fully in place.
Even during the time we were there during a busy Saturday summer afternoon, the hotel was coping with a coach of Japanese tourists coming for afternoon tea as well as locals popping in from their shopping, couples checking it out as a wedding venue and guests lining up for a cheeky afternoon cocktail.
It certainly makes for an interesting life for Foulkes and his team. “We are importantly not just a hotel. But welcome a broad church of people through our doors every day of the week. We want to be seen as a destination outlet.”
So that means pushing the boundaries a little, and looking to do things differently than the intense Bath competition. For example, its afternoon teas have become an event in themselves, based as much around how they are presented – with sandwiches and cakes perched on different levels of a mini-tree.
But any hotel is ultimately judged on its occupancy rate and with a score of 96% it must be doing the vast majority of things right.
The Allium: hotel fine dining
We were principally there to check out the eating, dining and drinking options and its new restaurant, the Allium, boasts a wine list designed and drawn up by local prominent wine buyer and consultant Angela Mount.
For all her experience running supermarket wine departments and consulting major wine producers around the world, this was actually her first restaurant wine list.
She explains how she got involved: “Ian and Christa Taylor have an incredible sense of style and like to do things differently. They brought in a former Michelin-starred chef, Chris Staines, who has a unique touch and style, and we needed a wine list to do his food justice. I looked at the existing list, and went back to basics, working with the team to create a point of difference in Bath.”
Her brief, she says, was completely open. “It was to create a list that was unique and different. Bath is a city full of restaurants, so it was important to create a list that didn’t replicate wine lists across the city. I’m fortunate, in that I get to go to just about every generic and distributor wine tasting, so I can work out what’s right for the restaurant. We worked, as a team to bring together a collection of over 100 wines, which tell a story, at every price level, and match the menu. The wine list has been built in stages, covering all price points and styles. The list is sorted by style, rather than country, which is more relevant to customer selection.”
She adds: “I hope that we’ve created a list that is comprehensive, eclectic, fun, and pushes the boundaries. We don’t want wines that are available elsewhere in the city; we don’t want safe wines. There is an incredible amount of knowledge and enthusiasm in the team at the Allium, and the staff have, or are all going through their WSET training. We run training sessions every three weeks, and focus on the lesser known wines, and the wines by the glass, of which there is a wide variety.”
Adventurous wine list
It is certainly interesting to see more adventurous wines and grape varieties on the list, which is not what you might expect. Mount explains why: “The Allium doesn’t go for the safe option. It pushes the boundaries, and is willing to take risks. One of the best selling white wines on the list is a Godello, from Mara Martin, and in terms of reds, Spice Route Chakalaka is a by the glass winner. We have recently introduced a Slovenian Malvazija, which is starting to sell well. The Ixsir Lebanese wines are also new on the list and we also have a strong South African contingent.”
Mount works closely with all the front of house staff to keep them engaged, and interested about the wines on the menu. The confidence, she believes they need to go out and sell it. But with nine whites and nine reds by the glass there is a lot of scope for diners to explore and the team to suggest.
Wine has been a key part of the turnaround story at the Allium. As well as what is on offer at the bar and in the restaurant it also runs a series of wine events and tastings which have proved popular in re-connecting the hotel with locals.
It, not surprisingly, has close ties with Great Western Wines, the city’s main wine distributor and wine merchants, which helps put on and host events at the hotel. Enotria&Co, owners of Great Western, is its main wine supplier, with Liberty Wines also contributing a number of wines to the list along with regional players such as the Oxford Wine Company.
As for spirits the Abbey mainly works with Matthew Clark and is also considering options from Enotria&Co.
Partnerships with suppliers
The key for Foulkes is working with drinks suppliers that he can have confidence in their range, but also offer a consistent and reliable service. A relationship that is more of a partnership so that it can benefit from visits from winemakers, spirit brand ambassadors and to organise special buying and tasting trips.
“We want to work with suppliers that can keep us with the latest trends, that will help us go to the top tastings in London. We want them to bring flair and theatre to the business,” explains Foulkes.
“But we will do a lot of prep work before going to say a big Enotria tasting so that we can go and look for gaps in our list. It can also be a good incentive and treat for the team as well.”
Where possible the Abbey team will also visit other leading hotels and bars, particularly in London, to see what is being offered elsewhere. “We will go to the Artesian at Langhams or the Rosewood hotel. Go and see and experience their bars,” he adds. “After all those are the bars and experiences that our customers will be going to as well.”
It is also keen to work with drinks producers and wineries to put on tastings, and run special promotions be it in the bar or out on the popular terrace outside the front of the hotel. Ridgeview, for example, were in the midst of a by the glass promotion when we paid a visit.
To be worthy of any wine list the Allium needs to have decent food and is assured of that with Michelin-star chef, Chris Staines.
Not that the Allium is setting its sights at Michelin stars. A few AA rosettes will do thank you. Instead it is looking for what might you might call grown up rather than fine dining. It wants to deliver high quality, interesting, through provoking food, that is easy on the palate and the wallet.
Staines’ style is a combination of modern European food with an Asian, fusion twist. Mixed with classic hotel dishes and family favourites, but done to a high level.
Staines is also keen to worth with Mount and the front of house team to ensure his menu reflects what customers are buying most from the wine list.
Wine and foodtraining is also a key part of the staff development programme with all serving staff expected to be familiar with the wine list and to be able to pick out highlights and food matches from it. Staff training also falls under the wing of Mount.
Incentives and training
Foulkes runs a series of incentive schemes with its waiting staff to ensure they are on their toes and looking to offer different wines and choices.
During our visit there was a staff incentive programme on sparkling wine and helping to promote Ridgeview wines by the glass. Again a great opportunity for Ridgeview to get more involved in the business and the staff.
Foulkes is a very unusual hotel general manager in that if the chef fell sick for the day he can happily step in, as he is a trained chef himself, having worked for three years at the likes of the Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, where he was number two in the kitchen.
But his real desire was to work with people and staff front of house. “I love training and love the management side of working with people,” he explains.
But he believes his two years at the Abbey “have been the best two years of my career”. Primarily because the owners, the Taylors, give him a complete free hand.
Ultimately good hotels, he argues, work when all the staff are pulling together. It is not easy to do, but it is that passion to truly serve and make your guests and visitors feel special that he hopes shines through in any visit to the hotel or Allium restaurant.
It’s worth putting them to the test.