“This is the start of an empire”: Galtres Lodge talk expansion plans

Galtres Lodge Bedroom

Rebecca Hill and Chris Layton are embarking on an exciting hospitality journey. Three years after the acquisition and transformation of Galtres Lodge in York, the duo have secured their second site and have ambitious plans to grow their hospitality brand in the North. Boutique Hotelier sat down with general manager David Macdonald to discover the business overhaul so far to get Galtres Lodge on the map.

Words: Alex Rimmer

The last two years have seen a raft of developments and refurbishments rolled out at Galtres Lodge, an independently-owned 12-bedroom boutique hotel and restaurant in York. After being acquired by Rebecca Hill and Chris Layton three years ago, the duo set about converting the former café into a thriving nature-centric restaurant with rooms, marking a new venture for the first-time operators.

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Despite the pandemic, the hotel reopened in a strong position. After rebranding its Forest restaurant in July 2020, renovations and updates were also rolled out across the bedrooms, menus and a new outdoor dining area introduced as the couple looked to expand facilities and adapt to life after lockdown.

Its enviable position in the city, on the busy shopping street of Low Petergate and directly in front of the iconic York Minster, means its location is regularly teeming with footfall and business comes in strong from both locals and visitors to York.

General manager David Macdonald was officially appointed to lead the team in May 2021, having worked alongside the owners over the last two years during its build and development phase. He joined from his most recent role at The Talbot Hotel in Malton, where he opened a cookery school and wedding venue. His background also includes a 13-year stint with Malmaison and Hotel du Vin.

Macdonald’s position was designed to oversee operations and plan for the future success of Galtres Lodge, as well as drive new projects and launch new initiatives. Over the course of the next 12 months, the hotel will welcome new bedroom additions and install a prep kitchen, with evolution also happening within the wider Layton Hill Hotels portfolio, the parent company of Galtres Lodge.

This trail blaze has so far paid off; the York hotel was recently shortlisted in the Boutique Hotelier Awards 2021 among other hospitality accolades as the industry sits up and takes notice of this ambitious newcomer.

Expansion is already underway too. Earlier this year news broke that Rebecca and Chris had locked in a deal for their second site, acquiring The Old Deanery in Ripon armed with a substantial investment to turn the venue into a profitable wedding business.

We caught up with general manager David, who will also oversee The Old Deanery under his remit, to discuss how business has been over the past year and how the company has adapted to the changes brought on by the pandemic.

Galtres Lodge has made quite a name for itself over the past year. How did owners Rebecca and Chris come to acquire the site?

David: “Rebecca has worked in hospitality for a long time and Chris has been a property developer. So, they were looking for somewhere that had potential for growth and somewhere small enough for first time operators. Where we are, the location in the centre of York, right next to the Minister, it should have been a bustling, non-stop place, but the café faced extremely quiet periods especially after lunch. I came out of retirement in September 2019 when the couple said they needed help operationally, so I was with them one day a week, and we were training staff. We then brought in Stephanie Moon, who is the executive chef. Stephanie helped with writing the menus and getting the kitchen staff up to speed. I do a lot of work with front of house and it went from there.”

What impact has the aftermath of lockdown and the effects of Brexit had on business?

“I think in hospitality we seem to be in a bit of a recruitment crisis and supply crisis. You can’t get the food you want – and we are lucky tactically I suppose, we buy a lot local, from the coast and from Yorkshire, so to be fair in terms of supply we don’t have so many problems. In terms of customer reactions to restrictions easing there was just sheer joy as they embraced the new cuisine and drinks range. We adapted to the outdoor restrictions by installing heaters and maximising the outdoor garden space. We literally had these eight to nine tables and it was fully booked from 8 in the morning until 10 at night.”

How did you initially find bookings coming out of the lockdown? Did you see an immediate spike in demand or were customers more cautious?

“Last year was really difficult; no one wanted to stay initially due to the situation. We opened the bedrooms on May 17. Midweek was a little bit of a push to start with but then in the middle of June everyone was like, okay this is it this time. We’ve had so many delays and cancellations due to restrictions and we just delayed everything and rebooked. Rooms-wise we were generally full through the whole of July, August and September. In terms of the weekends, we are very busy right the way through to December, especially as York attracts an extraordinary amount of tourism in the festive season due to its abundance of fairs and events.”

How does your staffing structure work and how has this been impacted by the pandemic?

“The staff have all come along with us; the same chefs in the kitchen, the same front of staff house, they have all just been retrained. We used lockdown to provide specialist specific training to the core staff, for example in cocktail making. We’ve hired a lot of new people because we’ve expanded, and we’ve probably gone from having between 10-12 members of staff to 30-35 which has been challenging but actually the team here are phenomenal. ”

Is the restaurant performing well alongside the hotel?

“The restaurant has been tripling and sometimes quadrupling its revenue since 2019. I think this is down to the rebranding, refurbishment and retraining of staff and a complete overhaul of the place.”

Would you define the business as a restaurant with rooms or a boutique hotel?

“It genuinely is a restaurant with rooms and actually what we tried to do, was to almost separate the hotel and the restaurant, just physically so that when you do come and check in, it’s a bit more private and calmer. You save a bit of time and effort as opposed to what you find with a lot of restaurants with rooms, you may be checking in at the bar.

As well as the new green outdoor restaurant space, was anything else developed during lockdown?

“The three of us sat down after Christmas 2019 and discussed the fact that the café wasn’t making any money. It was paying the bills and ticking over, but it was not what they [Rebecca and Chris] wanted. So, in January 2020 we closed the hotel anyway. That’s a big thing to do and we didn’t want to risk losing the team. The lockdown really did make us look at all of the business. We knew we wanted to change the whole structure of the restaurant. We transformed the venue and provided specialist training for staff when restrictions permitted, applied for a pavement licence which allowed us to serve food from the windows and meant we could get to know local people of York and inform them about the rebranding and vision for the venue. We also implemented new technology throughout, which allowed for Covid safe contactless payments and efficient organisation.”

What does the future look like for Galtres Lodge?

“We’ve got two rooms that we still haven’t finished yet and some general finishing touches. As far as York is concerned, for me now it’s about solidifying what we’ve got. We’ve all been flying high in August, but what does the next two or three months hold? I’m not sure. I want a bit more of a structured team. We’ve built a development prep kitchen downstairs so I can have more chefs, and we can produce more from that. As far as the menu is concerned, I think we’re probably going to amalgamate; we’ve got a lot of menus on the go and now we know what works and what people want. Then we’re going to start having some more fun. There’s York Food Festival coming up so we want to get into some cocktail competitions.
There’s a lot we take for granted as a sector, we’ve got great local suppliers, so I think trying to celebrate more of that whilst driving this place forward. This is the start of an empire Rebecca and Chris are building.”

NEW PROJECT: The Old Deanery in Ripon

Rebecca Hill and Chris Layton, owners of York’s Galtres Lodge Hotel and proprietors of Layton Hill Hotels Ltd, purchased the Grade II-listed Old Deanery in Ripon earlier this year.
The venue was previously a popular wedding and events venue and comprises 11 bedrooms and several public areas which will be restored back to a country house and reopen later this year.
Discussing their plans for the hotel, Rebecca Hill said: “We are beyond excited to take on The Old Deanery. It is such a beautiful property in the heart of a beautiful city, and we cannot wait to become a key part of the community. The welcome has already been incredible, and we are so grateful for the kind messages that we have received so far.
“As we are still in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, we plan on taking a cautious approach and start by opening primarily as a wedding and events venue.
“We plan to be available for winter weddings and Christmas parties this November/December and fully up-and-running as a wedding and events venue from spring 2022.”

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Eamonn Crowe

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