The Grand hotel, a converted railway office in York, is already an award-winning, glamorous hotel, but now it has added fine dining restaurant Legacy
"Smooth seas don't make good sailors", says Simon Mahon, general manager of the Grand hotel and spa in York. He joined the five-AA-star property in 2020, navigated the choppy waters of Covid-19, and is now facing the headwinds of a cost of living crisis and rapidly climbing prices across the board.
But, despite rough seas his crew has overseen a successful recovery from pandemic lockdowns, the opening of fine dining restaurant Legacy under head chef Ahmed Abdalla, the expansion of the cookery school programme under director Marc Williams, and been named Hotel of the Year – Group at the 2022 Cateys.
Mahon says: "The industry in general is facing some massive headwinds and that's not easy. I think part of what a general manager has to do is navigate a way through that while also sheltering, protecting and caring for the team and making sure the product and the overall service don't suffer."
The maritime metaphor, while apt for the last few years, is rather out of place in a feature about the Grand, which occupies the former head office of the North Eastern Railway, built in 1906 and converted for use as a hotel in the early 2000s.
The Grade II-listed Edwardian building showcases the grandeur of the city's industrial past and the riches brought by the railway. Imposing doorways and acres of wood panelling give way to large windows framing the ancient features of York's landscape, parts of which date back to Roman times. It's a history celebrated at every turn, be it through the new fine-dining restaurant or the artwork produced by city students on many of the hotel walls.
The nature of the conversion from business premises to hotel means rooms (classic, executive and family) and suites (heritage, grand heritage and penthouse) each have an individual layout and aesthetic. The boardroom, which once held the largest table of any in the country, now hosts weddings and events, and the spa occupies the former vaults, with those heavy round doors forming part of the aesthetic.
In 2018 an extension added 100 rooms, taking the room count to 207, through the conversion of neighbouring council offices as well as the addition of the cookery school (see panel) and beehives. In the original historic building are two bars, Legacy and the Rise restaurants, and the White Rose Lounge, a private function space.
Emerging from the pandemic the hotel took time to examine its guest profile. Leisure travellers account for 80% of visitors and, to help draw them back to the North East, it created a number of experiential packages that have contributed to its record-breaking occupancy levels, which stand at 80% year to date.
These include the Dark Skies package, which sees guests travel to the Yorkshire Moors with an astronomer who will talk them through an evening of stargazing in one of the best spots of the country. A sightseeing Discover York package provides insight into the town's historic treasures, while spa experience packages offer opportunities to relax and unwind. Mahon has also recently taken delivery of three Velosophy bikes, which may soon feature in a new Grand experience.
The opening of Legacy and the continuing success of the cookery school have established the hotel as a foodie hotspot and several packages have been developed around this.
The name of the 26-cover restaurant, which welcomed its first guests last month, reflects the heritage of its surroundings and notable figures from York's history including George Hudson, a pioneer of the golden age of railway, women's rights activist Anne Lister and confectioners Joseph Rowntree and Joseph Terry. Head chef Abdalla explains the desire to build on the city's illustrious past and contribute to the writing of a new chapter: "It's about paying homage to what the building was and the history behind us. We're moving forward without taking anything away from the past and at the same time trying to leave our own legacy for York's food scene."
Abdalla joined the hotel 12 months ago as a junior sous chef in the Rise restaurant. He knew Legacy was in the planning and set out to impress in the hope he would be handed the reins. He adds: "If you do the right things, anything is possible."
The restaurant will celebrate the produce of Yorkshire with a focus on sustainability, but at the forefront of Abdalla's plans is creating a memorable evening for guests.
"I want to offer an experience," the chef explains. "I introduce myself at the beginning of the meal with the canapés and begin the guest's journey. We bring the honeycomb to the table for the cheese course, grate truffle and sauce at the table, meet the guest at the halfway stage to check in. We're trying to stand out. The setting is beautiful, York is amazing and we just have deliver on the plate and through the service. "One thing we've learned is not to overcomplicate things. Opening in a five-star hotel is a pressure and you try to think out of the box, but when it comes to it, you just want to have that one core ingredient and marry everything around that."
Locally sourced produce – including oysters, venison, lamb, strawberries and rhubarb – provide the backbone of an eight-course menu (not including canapés and petit fours). A venison dish that has just been added sees the protein smoked with lapsang tea and served with a pickled blackberry gel and grated Valrhona 70% dark chocolate, as well as a silky parsnip purée and British pickled girolle mushrooms. Adballa had the idea to use lapsang following a tea-tasting held at the hotel and explained that he works with his team, including host and guest experience manager, Emma Huddlestone and restaurant manager and sommelier Derek Scaife to create a menu that suits the surroundings and clientele.
He adds: "My cooking is modern British but with influences from other places, and marrying it with what we have here. Notes are constantly circling in my head, I'll have 10 ideas and then it's about hearing people's opinions and working on them. I'm still learning my craft, and there are a lot of people here with a lot of knowledge."
Back on course
Despite 2022 not providing the summer staycation boom of 2021, the Grand saw revenue per available room growth of £20.82 against 2019.
With Brits once again heading overseas for holidays and a recession on the horizon, Mahon says a key focus now is to entice international markets to York, with the weakening of the pound against the dollar making America a target. He says: "We have not yet seen the full rebound of international travel into the UK. We have sales representation based in America through Preferred Hotels and they do a wonderful job for us. There's a lot of opportunity in the American market and I'd like to see the City of York working with New York to do something. In America, Australasia and particularly China the pull to cultural heritage cities, like York, is really evident."
Like many across the industry Mahon would like to see a VAT cut from government, to help boost tourism and support hospitality. He says: "I was very disappointed with the mini budget. That for me was the opportunity for the government to reflect that they understood the cultural, social and economic impact of the industry and what they did was they make sure bankers could receive larger bonuses. I think what it demonstrated was that the government either don't understand or don't care what's happening to small- and medium-sized businesses and actually to hospitality en mass.
"I haven't put any business targets in place during the first year of the recession deliberately. So all we need to do is keep surfing and stay on the board. We don't know which direction the waves are going come from and I think agility in the modern workplace is actually no longer a soft skill, but a core hard skill. We're walking down corridors with chefs saying ‘well, hang on a second, let's have a quick conversation about three or four things that should or shouldn't be on the menu based on pricing'. And then you're walking into a briefing with HR about the right thing to do for our people."
The hotel, which is owned by Splendid Hospitality Group, has an enviable retention rate and offers multiple reward and benefit schemes alongside opportunities for training and development.
As well as an employee assistance program and a team of mental health first-aiders, the Grand makes sure it celebrates success, offers payday treats and complimentary meals as well as running a housekeeping lottery where two team members win a £500 prize fund every month.
A recent initiative was born out of the hotel's placement scheme, which sees hospitality students spend a year of their degree courses on-site (see panel). A series of masterclasses were designed for the students on subjects including human resources, health and safety, marketing and sales and revenue. When a masterclass was offered to the whole team of 28 people showed up, and their interest has seen a programme rolled out for all, which is reaping rewards for the wider business.
Mahon is exploring further development ideas for the property. He's recently added a serviced apartment to the Grand's offering and says he will consider more if it is successful. The renovation of rooms in the historic hotel building and the subterranean spa are also on the cards, while a team of staff constantly drive forward sustainability goals with Mahon harbouring an ambition of one day achieving B-Corp status for the hotel.
However, as the waves start to build once again, he says his focus is on doing the right thing by the team, the hotel's guests and its beautiful setting to ensure a legacy is left that future generations can build upon.
The Grand has been welcoming a cohort of university students to spend a year of their degree at the hotel.
For Mahon the decision to offer the scheme was an obvious one, particularly in the face of the industry's recruitment difficulties, as it was during his own placement at St Andrews that he fell in love with hospitality.
He says: "For me it was a confirmation that I was in the right profession. I felt that purpose and that I could do this. It was the first time I had seen a five-star environment and I just thought ‘this is amazing'. I learned new life skills, I met my best friend and I developed a support network that has lasted through my entire career."
This year five students from various universities will be joining the hotel and while they will spend the majority of their year within the HR and marketing departments, they will experience every area of the hotel, spending a week working in the maintenance team and two weeks with the housekeeping team. They will also take part in masterclasses and be given a project to manage, linked to the industry or a charity.
Host and guest experience manager, Emma Huddlestone took part in the first placement scheme and is now mentoring one of this year's students. The majority will return to university following their placement year, but Mahon says he is hopeful some may return to the Grand on graduation.
The hotel also has nine apprentices, one whom is receiving support to study for a degree from Leeds University.
The cookery school
Marc Williams joined the Grand as director of its cookery school three months ago. The state-of-the art venue has 16 fully stocked stations (one of which is wheelchair accessible), a dining area, meeting or presentation space and prep kitchen.
He explains that it was the initial wow factor of the school that drew him to the role. The space, which puts MasterChef kitchens to shame, offers the opportunity for everyone attending a class to cook their own dish or menu from scratch.
Williams says: "It's all about the experience and I want to shout from the rooftops to get this place out there, because as soon as you walk through that door and see it, it's unbelievable."
In his 60 days in the role Williams has increased the classes offered to 26 and counting, covering everything from the secrets of Michelin-star menus to pub classics, curry clubs and the perfect beef Wellington.
He's also devising programmes around Ready Steady Cook and Great British Bake Off formats to inject some competition, particularly for event and corporate bookings.
- Parkerhouse roll, cultured butter, goats' herb butter
- Jersey Royal velouté, oak smoked Cheddar, chicken skin
- Barbecue langoustine, carrot, ravioli
- Celeriac, black garlic, truffle
- Halibut, cauliflower, mousseline sauce
- Trio of Yorkshire lamb, turnip, courgette
- Annabel's strawberry, lavender, chamomile
- Grand honey, Yuzu, elderflower
Images: Olivia Brabbs Photography
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