Sunset at The Guardhouse Cafe in Brixham

Taste of the West is the largest independent regional food group in the UK and was set up to help promote and support fantastic food in the South West of England. They champion food and drink producers in the West Country, as well as all the places that serve and sell them, to prove that when it comes to what you eat and drink, it really is best in the South West.

Through their annual awards scheme, businesses are recognised for their quality, integrity and provenance. The English Riviera is home to some fantastic food and drink producers, as well as cafes and restaurants that serve these delights. One of the recent winners is The Guardhouse Cafe in Brixham.

Best Southwest Cafe Winner 2018 - The Guardhouse Cafe, Brixham

The Guardhouse Café located on the stunning Berry Head in Brixham has recently been selected by Taste of the West as the “South West Café of the Year 2018”. We caught up with one of the owners, Alex Foley, to hear how they have developed the café since they took over, what it takes to win a gold award and what he loves about his job.

I took over at the Guardhouse Café in May 2014 with my wife Lucy. We had moved to South Devon to change our lives as our previous jobs kept us from spending much time together and found the Guardhouse was for sale at the perfect time. We fell in love with it from the moment we first saw it, in particular, the stunning location! We also felt the previous owners had done a lot right, and we didn’t have to change very much when we took over. Which was excellent, as neither of us had ever worked in a café before so in the first few months we had a huge amount to learn, from making smart coffees to hiring staff to writing new menus.

A special location

View of Berry Head and Guardhouse Cafe from above

The Guardhouse is a very lucky café, as it has a spectacular location, inside a well-preserved Napoleonic-era fort on Berry Head. There is a real cannon outside, battlements, cliffs with great views on three sides, rare wildlife, a couple of miles of walking paths… whatever your interests are, there is something for you on Berry Head! As a result, on nice weather days, hundreds of people come to visit the headland and we just have to make them feel it’s worthwhile to stop at the café. We do everything we can to live up to the location.

Within the café, we serve breakfast, lunch, coffee and tea, amazing cakes, ice creams. Our food menu is split between traditional café food like bacon sandwiches and fish goujons (which we make ourselves), and our specials, which vary every six weeks or so – they are unusual, home-made, seasonal dishes which you probably wouldn’t see in many cafes. Sometimes we also do special evening meals; a local colony of Greater Horseshoe Bats means we can’t do these all year round!!

Built on some core principles

Coffee at The Guardhouse Cafe in Brixham

We had a few principles we wanted to instil within the business from the first day we were involved. The first is that it’s not about us but about building a fantastic team who are able to run the café without us being there every day. We were really lucky that an amazing lady called Diane had been hired a few weeks before we bought the café; she quickly became our first manager and has held the café, and Lucy and me, together ever since! Shortly afterwards we hired Brenda who has been promoted several times to joint manager with Diane. It’s not fair to just pick out these two – the growth and success of the café has relied on loads of other people, some who have moved on and several who are still working with us.

The second core principle was that we wanted to provide wonderful, friendly customer service to everyone who visits. That suited our personality and made our daily working lives more enjoyable! I hadn’t quite realised how sociable the job would be, and am still pleasantly surprised at how many local people we have got to know just because we see them in the café. Building repeat business from the local community has been by far the most important reason our café has flourished.

Thirdly, we wanted to focus on excellence, and keep improving at everything we did. From latte art to local suppliers, tastier and more seasonal specials to reducing our plastic waste, we keep pushing each other to try new things which might lead to better quality service, food and drinks. Of course, not everything works but overall the successes make us better and the failures get replaced by something else. For example, we tried about four iterations of improving our milkshakes – initially, they were based on a synthetic, fake powder and now we make them from ice cream, fruit and milk.

Using local suppliers

Fresh food at The Guardhouse Cafe in Brixham

Wherever possible we use local suppliers for all our food and drinks. All our fish is caught in Brixham and we buy it from Stefan, the local fishmonger. We buy fruit and vegetables from Jake Fairall, on Brixham’s Fore St; milk and dairy supplies come from Dartmouth Dairy; beers and ciders are produced by Bay’s and Hunts near Stoke Gabriel; our cakes are made by two local ladies in Brixham and Paignton. All of these are within five miles of the café! Also within South Devon are our suppliers of meat, coffee, flapjacks, ice cream and soft drinks. Supporting local suppliers in this way keeps our food miles low and supports the local economy – but most importantly we get fresh, high-quality produce to use in the café.

We started entering competitions in 2015; we didn’t expect to win but we thought we might get into the finals and a Bronze or Silver award would be good advertising material! Also, we wanted to see how we compared to other good cafes and wanted the impartial feedback from judges (for the same reason from time to time we get mystery shoppers to visit the café!). Initially, we entered the South Devon and Devon tourism awards, and had some good successes: to our astonishment we won the Gold award at the Devon awards in 2015. This has spurred us on to push our standards higher each year and led to more awards in South Devon, Devon, and the South West. I’d really recommend entering these local awards to other businesses, it is time-consuming but I feel you get a lot from it, not just the feedback, but the process of trying to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of your business.

Joining Taste of the West

The Guardhouse Cafe Taste of the West awards

In 2017 we became members of Taste of the West. This is a large organisation promoting quality food and drink across the South West, with Prince Charles as it’s patron. You have to pay to be a member – it costs £145+VAT each year. However, this includes entry into their judging competition and they do a mystery shopping visit of every member. One really attractive feature is that they give out lots of awards – so if you are good enough, you can get a Silver or Gold award even if there is another excellent business nearby. This can give you some excellent ammunition for the next 12 months’ advertising! We were delighted to get Gold in 2017 and 2018 but even more astonished and humbled to receive their award for best café at the end of the year; there are currently 95 café members so to be picked out as the best is astonishing.

After all their hard work, it was fitting that our managers Diane and Brenda were able to attend the award ceremony at Exeter University to receive the award. They and the whole team are so dependable, and so skilful in their various roles, and so friendly and caring even when under huge pressure. Lucy and I can’t say thanks and well done enough to them!

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