Oliver Trezise opened his restaurant, The Yurt, in Thornham in rural North Norfolk, in the summer of 2009. He retraces the steps he took to turn his unique idea into a culinary crowd-puller
“I’d worked in the catering and hospitality industry for seven years, managing various hotels and restaurants. I wanted to do something of my own.
“A yurt is a portable, felt-covered, wood lattice-framed structure in which nomads in the steppes of Central Asia traditionally live. They’re fantastic. My mum runs a cottage rental business and she emailed me details of yurts she’d found online. She thought they’d make an unusual additional shelter for the garden.
“Then I met Andrew Jamieson, owner of Drove Orchards, who wanted to open a coffee shop in his grounds. I suggested a restaurant as an alternative and he liked the idea. Three months later, my mother, step-dad and I opened The Yurt.
“I was born and bred in Norfolk, knew the ‘foody’ scene and identified a gap for something simpler and cheaper. Having a restaurant in a yurt is different; therefore it has novelty value. Buying one also costs significantly less than a permanent building or trying to find premises on the main coastal road here in North Norfolk.
“We approached King’s Lynn and West Norfolk Council’s planning department and invited Environmental Health in. The Yurt is so unique that it didn’t fit into to any of the council’s definitions, but eventually we made a full planning application. We also had to apply for an alcohol licence, which was delayed somewhat, so initially we only had a weekend licence.
“We researched a few yurt-makers but a company in Cumbria offered the best quality and most practical solution. Soon they began to make the Yurt, which they later erected onsite in Norfolk.
“I sought general business advice from my mum and a few people I knew who ran their own businesses. We put together a rough business plan and sought advice from an accountant. We didn’t borrow from a bank, but used our own savings and did what we could to minimise costs. For example, we used timber from a scrap yard to make tables and bought some chairs on eBay for £5 each. Most things we bought were second-hand.
“I did some free food safety training at the local council under their ‘Safer food, better business’ scheme. They sent us a pack that included cleaning schedules and a diary to record details of products we would throw out. Then if there’s a problem, we can show it wasn’t because we’ve used out-of-date ingredients.
“We also carried out a health and safety risk assessment. Obviously, because I’ve managed restaurants, I already had a good knowledge of food hygiene rules and best practice, as do the people I employ. Hygiene is essential when you run a food business — you can’t leave it to chance.”
“Our customers are a mix of locals and people with second homes in the area. Many people saw the yurt from the road and stopped to have a look. Quickly, word spread and interest grew.
“I also wrote and distributed a press release one month before opening. The Eastern Daily Press wrote a full page about us. Obviously, the people who come to visit the Orchard and its farm shop are told about the restaurant and we get a lot of business this way.
“Our main marketing initiative was a launch weekend for locals. We put flyers around the two local villages and spoke to more than 500 potential customers in the area, telling them more about their new local restaurant and its food. We’ve been full every Friday and Saturday night since.”
“We’ve got 15 regular staff and take on more at peak periods. Staffing was our main challenge, because you have to find the right people. We advertised in local newspapers and approached the catering college in King’s Lynn. At first it was just two chefs, two waiting staff and me, with my mum and step-dad helping out occasionally. Recruiting staff became easier the more we became established.
“We work closely with the Orchard and use its fruit and vegetables, as well as benefiting from its good reputation. Our mussels and crabs come from Brancaster and we use two local butchers. Offering delicious, rustic dishes made from wholesome local produce is very attractive to our target market. It also helps to keep costs down.
“Our menus are seasonal and our evening menu changes daily. I produce the menus on my PC, but we paid a freelance designer to create our website. We print our menu inserts and slot them into an outer card, which we had printed by a company in Norwich. They also do our flyers and business cards.
“The Yurt is doing very well. In fact, we’ve done so well that we’ve now taken over the Deepdale Café in Burnham Deepdale.”
Oliver and the team at ran The Yurt until September 2011, when they left the Drove Orchards site and the business was closed down some time later after a suitable alternative site couldn't be found.