Canteen enjoys a great year
TRADE at the River Cottage Canteen and Deli has exceeded expectations in its first year, with the restaurant attracting up to 2,000 diners a week and pumping about £1million into the economy.
Bosses had thought they were taking a risk opening in Plymouth what was only the second in TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's growing chain of restaurants.
But now they say the Royal William Yard restaurant has performed "above expectations" with the 120-cover eaterie constantly busy.
It has created 35 jobs and, bosses estimate, had an economic impact of about £1million, in spending terms.
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And the firm, which prides itself on using local produce and being a "community hub", is hoping for even more success in 2013.
"People are going out of their way to come here," said managing director Rob Love.
"The year got better and better and with more people arriving in the yard it's going to get better still."
Mr Love, a former TV executive, helped formulate the successful River Cottage model after meeting Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall in 2002.
Growing from the TV chef's on-screen work, the first River Cottage restaurant was opened in Axminster five years ago.
Its success prompted management to search for a second location in the South West – though Plymouth was not originally considered.
"Plymouth was not on our hit list, but we were looking at lots of locations," said Mr Love.
"We kept hearing about the Royal William Yard but still didn't think Plymouth was the right city for us.
"However, people kept twisting our arm, so Hugh and I came down here, saw the buildings and found out the naval history.
"Then it became a no-brainer. This is an amazing venue. Plymouth went from not being on the list to being at the top of the list.
"It was an easy decision once we found the right place."
The River Cottage canteen was opened in the Brewhouse late last year, with room for up to 120 covers inside, another 40 outside, and space for private dining too.
Its success, achieved without the TV exposure its Axminster equivalent has enjoyed, is helping fuel further expansion for the River Cottage brand, with plans to open canteens in Bristol and Winchester soon.
Mr Love said the Plymouth branch is set to grow too, with plans to increase private dining, corporate events and to attract tourists.
"There's more to come next year for us," he said. "We can fit more people in, and we have some private dining facilities, and will see more of that going in.
"More companies have been talking to us about running events."
He said that as the diner's reputation grows more customers will be attracted, to River Cottage and Plymouth, including tourists.
"If you are coming to Devon on holiday you must come to the River Cottage," he said.
And he believes that draw will be enhanced when three new restaurants launch in the yard next year.
Noodle chain Wagamama, Latin America-themed Las Iguanas and French cuisine outlet Le Bistrot Pierre are all due to open early in 2013.
But rather than being seen as competition, Mr Love said: "The Royal William Yard is putting Plymouth on the map as a food destination, and more people in here will be good news."
River Cottage prides itself on using locally sourced produce. This year it was named the most sustainable restaurant in the UK by the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA).
"River Cottage as an organisation is about more than food. We want to have an impact in lots of other ways. Sustainability is key," Mr Love said.
He said that includes encouraging people to use the water taxi which services the yard, and to enjoy a more adventurous menu.
"We try to get people to try something they would not normally, but nothing too scary," he said.
And Mr Love is also proud of River Cottage's involvement with Peoplefund.it.
The crowd-funding website was launched by KEO digital, makers of TV's River Cottage, Hugh's Fish Fight and the associated energyshare eco-scheme, and encourages people to back business ideas.
In Plymouth, the restaurant has been working with Plymouth University to encourage students to urge city entrepreneurs to add their projects to the website and promote their success in return for a fixed percentage of the funding target
"We didn't expect that to grow so fast," Mr Love said.