Originally a farm in the 1950s, James Barbour took over the land that is now Box End Park from his father in the 1990s. But as floodplains impeded the possibility of growing produce, James worked with what nature had provided to open a 100-acre, purpose-built watersports and leisure park in 2007.
Box End Park has continued to evolve over the years and currently comprises the Corner 5 Restaurant and bar area, offering guests a lakeside setting in a stunning building with panoramic windows, along with corporate and conference facilities, and a ‘special occasions’ element, which caters for weddings and functions. Box End Park is licensed for civil ceremonies and partnerships.
Still a family business, the day-today management is handled by James, who is also responsible for the indoor hospitality. Brother-in-law, Russ, heads up watersports, while James’s wife Hannah, runs the accounts. And speaking of accounts, James is pleased to report that takings for autumn 2020 were up against 2019, despite the pandemic.
“Last year we were doing £6,000- 7,000 per week, but this autumn we were taking £9,000. We were completely shut for the first six to eight weeks during lockdown, until May when we found out that we could restart watersports. With open air swimming slots bookable at £5 per session, we were back open and operating with minimal staff and a lifeguard, and getting up to 100 visitors a day! “We’re essentially selling space on a lake with people able to come and go as they please.”
The park and its facilities attracts a broad spectrum of visitors – from the more mature customers to the younger hobbyists, along with parents who bring their children to play on the water. “It creates a melting pot of people, which could be a source of conflict where the restaurant is concerned, as people are there in wetsuits and board shorts, but it all works well.
“People enjoy observing the sports, and it creates a relaxed atmosphere.” (James mentions that the lake’s popularity got a massive boost during the London 2012 Olympics, when the Brownlee brothers, medal winning triathletes, became poster boys for swimming.)
As the warm, early summer of 2020 arrived, it was clear to James that their watersports facilities would once again make a big splash. They welcomed 600-800 people a day at one point. As soon as the trading restrictions allowed, they went for a ‘soft’ reopening of the Corner 5 Restaurant. “We have always printed our menus on A4 paper, which makes it easier to change our menu, depending upon the ‘special’ on offer from our suppliers.
“We keep very low stock levels and tweak our orders daily, if needed. We’ve been finding everything lot easier with 95% of customers booking, compared to a normal summer where we might have had 20 people booked for lunch but end up doing 60+ covers.”
To make the most of all ingredients, the menu has a returned to a ‘comfort food’ offer and uses ingredients grown on their own land – a nostalgic nod to the Barbour’s farming days.
“Working with our Chef, Shaun, we have started serving homemade pies, which yield a fantastic GP: we have pulled pork with a honey mustard filling, or a minted lamb filling. The pork and lamb uses trimmings from our roasts – a great way to repurpose left-overs. With a short-crust case, puff pastry topping and a rich stock to go inside, they’re substantial and amazingly flavoured.
“Desserts are also a great way to utilise our own produce and cut costs. We have an apple crumble that’s made from apples grown on our trees and blackberries picked from the farm’s hedgerows. This all helps produce a great margin, but it is also lovely to have our own produce on the menu.”
Making the most of home-grown and left-over ingredients, James is able to maximise the profit on the £7 average spend per head for a light lunch. And while customers are enjoying comfort food, James has noticed that many are keen to treat themselves to top-end products.
“From the moment we reopened, we found people were so much more appreciative of us, after three months of home cooking! Spend per head has gone up in the evenings, with guests increasingly interested in our small, but niche, wine selection.
“Customers are treating themselves and going for the more expensive bottles, like Champagne and Châteauneufdu-Pape. We’ve probably sold more ‘high-end’ wines in the past couple of months than we have in the last two years,” says James, adding that driving return visits was also key. “Encouraging people to return not once, but twice or more has been our main focus, so we’re looking to introduce a loyalty card. For instance, on your second visit, you’ll get a bottle of wine, the third a free dessert. I’ll let you know how it goes at the end of January!”
In the place of corporate bookings, they are offering gift vouchers to companies to give to their staff compensation for missed Christmas celebrations. But rather than a blanket email to all customers, James prefers to tailor offers for each group (corporate, sporty and restaurant goers).
“Our online booking system is run by a local business, Avenista, which helps us capture email addresses. We have a database of 6,000 contacts, which we import into Mailchimp for our email campaigns. It costs us £40 to £50 for an electronic campaign, but you immediately know who has opened/clicked through.”
There’s plenty at Box End Park to keep James and the team busy and by the time you’re reading this, they will hopefully be back at the Corner 5 Restaurant, refreshed after their break and getting ready for whatever 2021 will bring.