Lincolnshire Life Taste of Excellence Awards

Although the 2019 Taste of Excellence Awards night was only seven months ago, the world could not be a more different place today.
Our launch date of April for the 2020 competition has, of course, been postponed but we have been speaking to some of last year’s award winners. Our stories illustrate the devastating impact on these outstanding businesses but also the resilience owners are trying to show during these extremely difficult times for everyone in the Food, Drink and Hospitality sectors

Washingborough Hall – WINNER OF WEDDING VENUE OF THE YEAR 2019
The beautiful country house hotel and wedding venue, located three miles from Lincoln, has been owned by Edward and Lucy Herring for approaching 12 years. The addition of the elegant orangery in 2015 and conversion of Church House in 2018 expanded their capacity to host weddings and private functions for up to 150 guests with 20 individually designed en-suite bedrooms. Edward and Lucy decided to take the difficult decision to close the Hall, just prior to the lockdown, because of government social distancing instructions.

“Hospitality is centred on social interaction and celebration and social distancing requirements left us with no other option,” said Edward. “We hosted two wakes to fulfil these important family events already booked that week and then closed. Our staff have been on furlough since then and Lucy and myself have been dealing with everything else.”

As the busiest time in the wedding season approached Lucy spoke to disappointed couples who had been planning their special day for many months.

“There is a knock-on effect when trying to re-schedule dates that many spring and summer weekends in 2021 have been booked already,” Lucy explained. “Most couples have been very understanding and have chosen mid-week dates. It is heartening that they still wish to be married in this setting despite having to postpone the day.”

The impact on income has of course been devastating. “We have reverse income and at present it is hard to imagine when this will change,” continued Edward. “We await more government announcements. We’re hoping to be able to introduce socially distanced serving for smaller scale functions and of course we have wonderful landscaped gardens for hosting events outside. But I am looking to 2021 before the situation really improves for us as a privately owned family business.”

The business opened in 2017 offering luxurious self-catering accommodation in a rural setting in Dunholme, seven miles north of Lincoln. Owners Natalie and Tom have thought of every consideration in the five converted barns, each of which has its own private swim spa and five bedrooms to accommodate up to 10 people.

“We feel great sadness that the current pandemic is preventing our guests from travelling to stay here at Ashlin Farm Barns for their holidays, many of whom have been looking forward to their breaks for months or even years now. I have been in close contact with all of our guests affected by the pandemic and it has been heart-breaking to hear of the quality time with family and friends as well as the celebrations of special occasions that will be delayed,” said Natalie.

“We have been using this time to ensure that when guests are able to travel, their experience here will be the best it possibly can be. Living on-site, we have been working hard to maintain the gardens and outdoor space to keep things looking lovely for when our guests are able to return. We have been in touch with our local partners and have also reached out to new Lincolnshire producers and businesses to bring something different to the experience for our returning guests. We already have very stringent cleaning methods and standards but we are looking at ways that we can undertake even more measures between guests to ensure that our guests are reassured that every aspect of their barn is as hygienic as possible for when they are able to visit us again.

“We were due to be attending two national awards ceremonies in the coming months; one was the ‘Visit England Awards for Excellence’ and the other for ‘Family Business of The Year’. Whilst we are disappointed that the events will no longer be going ahead at the planned venues, we very much look forward to the virtual awards evenings and being recognised at a national level.”

The gastropub and bed and breakfast business which overlooks the Humber estuary at South Ferriby closed its doors on 20th March. Chef patron Slawek decided to start H&A at Home, a phone and collect dining service prepared and cooked by Slawek alone which is available at the following times: Thurs and Sat 4-7pm collect, delivery Friday 3-6pm (surrounding villages £5 surcharge) and a Sunday Menu is available to collect 11am-2pm.

“The menu changes weekly,” explained Slawek. “A system is in place to ensure that social distancing is maintained at all times with spacing of collections to keep everyone safe. I have just launched a key worker nomination giveaway as I wanted to thank a key worker in our area for their hard work by cooking them a three-course meal for two, to be eaten safely in their own home. I just wish I could thank them all.”

The local community has not been forgotten either with 20 meals donated in May which were delivered by a volunteer to 10 locally nominated vulnerable people who are isolating in the village in South Ferriby.

Despite these initiatives, this remains a difficult time but there are gift vouchers available for £109, valid for a year which will secure an overnight stay for two in one of the Hope and Anchor’s luxurious bedrooms, with a three-course meal from a special set menu and continental breakfast the next day. Slawek and his staff are a family who are still together, despite being apart. Their motto is ‘one team – one dream’ and they cannot wait until they can come together again to welcome you to the Hope and Anchor.

Charlotte and Steve Bennett have operated Healing Manor for three years and have already made great inroads into refurbishing and establishing the Manor as a versatile wedding, conference, pub, dining and hotel venue for north Lincolnshire.

Charlotte explained: “We were originally affected in February, as many of our mid-week customers travel from overseas for business. This ultimately hampered our sales in the Pig & Whistle as guests of the hotel would always opt to dine in our onsite pub. Whilst we’ve kept open our bedrooms in the courtyard for key workers, all other aspects of the business have closed down and our team have mostly been furloughed.”

Steve, the chef/patron has been running a small takeaway menu since lockdown sourcing fresh fish, locally sourced meats and vegetables which have still been widely available.

Charlotte and Steve also began a campaign, #NominateYourNeighbour, to help members of the local community. They have been able to deliver hundreds of free meals to vulnerable or isolating neighbours, as well as key workers nominated by their families. A Go Fund Me campaign aimed to raise £10,000 to purchase ingredients to supply thousands of free meals for local charities including St Andrews Hospice and We Are One Foundation. The couple had worked with these charities prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and last month the total balance raised exceeded £23,000. This has been thanks to incredibly generous personal donations, as well as donations from local companies.

Despite all their efforts, the couple are still agonising whether they are doing enough. “Every day is a constant battle of morals,” Charlotte continued. “Do we ask some of our team to keep working, or do we close down completely. Are all of these extensive measures which we installed back in February enough, or do we need to add more procedures in?

Are we doing enough to support out team mentally and are we doing enough to help those in need? Our team have mostly been incredible. Before the announcement of furlough, members of our work family even offered to work for free for a month, which was beyond heart warming.”

Meanwhile, Healing Manor are working on some new medium-term offerings to protect the loss of business whilst the pub and restaurant is either closed down, or restricted to the amount of guests they are able to serve at any one time and they will look to continue to offer a takeaway service.

Doddington Hall – WINNER OF FARM SHOP OF THE YEAR 2019
Claire and James Birch have created a multi-faceted business accommodated in the estate and grounds which serves as a heritage tourist attraction, Farm Shop, country clothing, interiors and cycle retail outlets, wedding and events venue as well as an award-winning café and restaurant.

Claire explained that the effects of the pandemic have been extremely dramatic. “Overnight all the other businesses/sources of income at Doddington (except the bike shop) were closed down. The furlough scheme prevented lots of redundancies. In the first days it was absolutely crazy with people panic-buying – we did several days’ sales that were comparable to Christmas with people buying whole sacks of potatoes, flour, pasta, fresh produce… it was extremely stressful for all the staff but as the weeks have gone on things have settled down and although it is still extremely busy, the lovely feedback from happy customers is rewarding for our team. Running a Farm Shop is a frontline activity during the Covid-19 crisis, and our staff are brave, selfless frontline workers, really contributing to quality of life for so many people.”

In the early days Doddington Hall set up a delivery service for shielding and self-isolating vulnerable people along with what they called a ‘Chat and Collect’ service; their lower tech version of Click and Collect. A member of the team who is completely familiar with all the stock in the shop, speaks to the customer on the phone and goes through every item on the list, often making suggestions for alternatives and suggesting extra special things like sprouting broccoli from the kitchen garden, or wild garlic from the wood, while often having a bit of a general chat which feels so important when lots of people are missing their normal social interactions.

The previous delivery service was dropped in favour of Chat and Collect as most people who had been asking for deliveries were able to find a friend or neighbour to collect their order for them. The service is now working as efficiently as possible and currently there are four staff working full-time on it – two on the phones and two picking 35-40 orders a day.

“We do not think that this is going to slow down for many months; many of our customers have been telling us that they hope we will continue the service into the future, perhaps until there is a Covid-19 vaccine and they feel safe to go out shopping. We have also changed things inside the shop too. Our sales have gone up a lot, but the number of customers per day has gone down; people are coming less often and spending more. We use a brilliant ozone-based sanitiser on our baskets and trolleys between every customer, everyone is asked to use it on their hands on the way into the shop, all contact points are cleaned down hourly and we have erected Perspex screens by the tills.

“It has been interesting to watch how what people are buying has changed over the past few weeks. Initially it was all staples, dry goods and huge amounts of fresh veg as well as cook frozen meals; then people seemed to get bored and started to buy more treats, and ingredients for more interesting meals – nice beef and lamb from the butchery, baking ingredients [Doddington still can’t get hold of yeast, but are thinking about selling sourdough starters].”

One of the most difficult decisions was to close the deli but there is still a wonderful selection of cheese, olives and savoury snacks available prepacked. They wanted to keep the Farm Shop open for their customers and their staff were determined to make it work. It has been an incredibly steep learning curve, but over a matter of days an entirely new mode of operation has been created, all the systems have been changed and there are new rotas to make it work. The whole team have had to learn to be incredibly nimble on their feet, working around stock shortages, reacting to demand and keeping customers (and their safety) at the centre of everything they do.

Customers have been very appreciative that staff are putting themselves at risk everyday by coming to work. “There have been wonderful ‘thank yous’ at the tills, to emails and cards, and shoppers have been so good humoured about the changes we have had to make to keep everyone safe. I must say a special word also for our local suppliers who have continued to supply us, in many cases with far more stock than normal, and been so flexible to help us keep stock on the shelves. James and his team from Maud Foster Windmill deserve an amazing holiday at the end of this! They have supplied us with a year’s worth of flour in six weeks.”

At the moment the Café is being used as the Chat and Collect hub; and another space will need to be identified once the Café is able to open again.

“We want to continue to offer this service as long as there is the demand for it. We are having to think ahead to Christmas too, queuing outside the shop will not be so much fun in the cold, and we also need to anticipate whether we will be busier than usual, about the same, or less busy since if we don’t place our orders for Christmas products now we won’t be able to get them… a tricky call!

“Finally, we have the feeling that our efforts to support our customers through such a challenging time will be rewarded with loyalty when we eventually get back to the new normal. We have seen lots of new customers coming to us too, and we hope they will continue to support us, and other local shops, in the future and enjoy the other facilities we have when we can reopen.”

Pin Gin (Bottomley Distillers) – WINNER OF PRODUCER OF THE YEAR 2019 & Amy Conyard – LINCOLNSHIRE’S CHAMPION OF THE YEAR 2019
Amy Conyard and Alan Bottomley founded Bottomley Distillers in Louth four years ago, making them Lincolnshire’s oldest established distillery. Their Pin Gin label has become an award-winning market leader in the craft spirit market and recent developments included the opening of a gin school, shop and tasting room.

“The onset of the pandemic meant the immediate closure of our visitor experiences here,” said Amy, “but the upscaling of our commercial production of alcohol, specifically to make hand-sanitiser. We have not had to furlough any of our staff but have taken on two more to meet demand.”

The antibac hand rub is being supplied on a commercial basis to organisations across the county including Lincolnshire Police, Fire Service, prisons, NHS and care sectors; Lincolnshire Co-op is retailing the sanitiser in its stores and local charities LIVES and St Barnabas have benefitted from the donations Bottomley Distillers have been able to make to support the continuation of their work.

“We took in a donation of beer from Ferry Ales Brewery and Lincolnshire Brewing Company which we were able to convert into alcohol and donate the batch of antibac to organisations and individuals who were in urgent need. Some of the requests we have received via social media have been heart wrenching and it has been very worthwhile to be able to help to relive their stress.

“Our contract clients, where we distil on their behalf, have continued to see a nice demand for their products and our own online sales of Pin Gin have increased. This has to be balanced with the loss of sales through the licensed trade and some other distributors.”

This has been a challenging time for Alan, Amy and their team but they have risen to the extraordinary circumstances of lockdown and are beginning to see some signs of businesses re-opening.

“We expect the demand for hand sanitiser to continue and will carry on fulfilling those orders but the demand for artisan gin and especially Pin Gin has remained encouragingly strong. We look forward to working with even more of our long established partners and outlets in the weeks and months to come.”

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VOTE FOR YOUR FAVOURITE IN THE CATEGORY BEST RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR! We need your nominations – Celebrating Lincolnshire’s food, drink and hospitality businesses in our Taste of Excellence Food and Drink Awards 2024. Click here to vote date for nominations 31st August 2024. ... See MoreSee Less