On Running a Bed & Breakfast

By Posted on Apr 14 2011 | By

Owners of Foster Harris House Share Insights on Career Change

Diane and John MacPherson are native New Englanders who built impressive resumes coupled with world travel.  Their last port of call was Laguna Beach, California, where Diane was a business consultant and trainer, and John a design engineer. But their successful careers bumped up against the realities of corporate restructuring and left both of them feeling a loss of creativity.  They decided to reinvent their lives.

Diane MacPherson

The MacPhersons mutual love of food, wine and the outdoors set the stage for a way of life they hadn’t imagined.  “We had gotten to the point where we were both unhappy in our jobs and wondered if there was a way to make a living doing all the activities we enjoyed.  When we struck upon the idea of running a bed and breakfast in a wine growing region and offering cycling tours, we realized we’d come up with the perfect formula,” says John.  In less than a year, the MacPhersons were welcoming guests at Foster Harris House in Washington, Virginia. “It was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made,” says John.

Rappahannock County was a smart move for the vibrant and athletic couple.  The late presidential hopeful Eugene McCarty—a former resident of the county—once said the region was, “seventy-five miles and seventy-five years from Washington, DC.”  He might have also added it was a magnet for Washington’s overworked and overstressed denizens.

Foster Harris House

“Each year since we took over the inn, our business has grown.  We simply envisioned what we’d want in a getaway vacation and built the business on that model,” John states.  Based on guest feedback and repeat bookings, it looks like they’ve succeeded.

And what exactly is that model?  First, the MacPhersons strongly believe that both partners need to be involved in the operation of an inn.  Often owners are holding down other jobs or one of the parties is not as committed to the venture.  A B&B can function under such circumstances, but the physical and emotional demands are significant.  “For our guests to fully enjoy their stay, we’ve found it’s vital for both of us to be invested.  If one of us is not operating at full speed on a given day, the other one can step up and take charge,” says Diane.

Next, the setting must convey a feeling of comfort and convenience.  “People come to B&Bs to enjoy the ambience and intimacy of a place steeped in history.  A place with architecture and décor that are decidedly not hotel-like.  Yet guests still want the comforts and conveniences of modern hotel rooms.  That’s why we’ve made it our mission to make sure everything that physically touches the guests is high quality,’ Diane explains. “We pay close attention to our choice of towels and linens, the firmness of the mattresses and the ergonomics of a space designed for relaxation.  We’ve both traveled a lot for our careers, so we’ve designed the rooms around our own best experiences.”

The “breakfast” in “bed and breakfast” also became a focal point.  John, an accomplished chef and author of his own cookbook, creates a tasty array of morning treats, including pecan pancakes with caramelized bananas; wild mushroom, spinach and Gruyere frittatas; gingerbread waffles and paradise bacon, to name just a few.  The gourmet breakfasts also inspire guests to buy the cookbook, which includes recipes for all occasions following the same theme:  Fresh ingredients that are prepared simply and presented thoughtfully.

Compton Room

According to the MacPhersons, running a successful inn requires not only a strong partnership, but a constant push for greater efficiency.  “Small business owners know that time management is vital, so we consider it a victory each time we come up with a new way––however small—to save time or money,” Diane explains. “After six years in the business, we still have moments where we say, ‘Duh – why didn’t we think of that years ago?”

One recent example was a kitchen improvement.  As the food server each morning, Diane frequently delves into the freezer for ice cubes, but always had a tough time finding the ice scoop because it was clear plastic and blended in with all of the frozen goods.  “I spent about an hour online trying –without success — to find a brightly colored ice scoop,” Diane laughs. “Then John said, ‘Why don’t we just wrap the handle in orange electrical tape?’”  Now, Diane never has a problem finding the scoop.  “The time saved with this improvement is probably negligible, but the averted daily annoyance? Priceless,” jokes Diane.

Inn owners also must maintain a delicate balance between preserving personal space and making guests feel welcomed. “Proprietors have a unique challenge in that the line between home life and work life is more blurred than perhaps any other industry,” Diane explains. “To avoid burn-out, it’s crucial to set boundaries.”

“The kitchen had always been a conundrum in that regard,” says John.  “The doorway into the kitchen from the guest dining room is essentially the threshold to our personal space, but after breakfast service, we didn’t feel comfortable simply shutting the door, since we want to be available to guests if they have questions or want to check out.  Then John had the idea of installing a Dutch door. It provided the needed separation of the two areas but without making our guests feel, literally, shut out,” Diane explains.

John MacPherson

Another useful skill is the ability to perform as many home repairs and maintenance tasks as possible.  Frequently, as John’s apron comes off, his carpenter’s belt goes on. His home repair skills have proved invaluable.  Calling in a handyman to tend to the needs of a century old home can be expensive.  The do-it-yourself approach to maintenance means paying yourself, not others.

And what about getaway time for the proprietors?  Since weekends are consistent revenue producers, both vacations and days off center on weekdays.  The couple enjoys only a one week vacation in the winter and two five day breaks in the summer.  “One real advantage over most businesses is that we can schedule our workload.  We can slip away for a day here and there which provides a nice break.  It’s a demanding schedule, but far from overwhelming,” says Diane.

Perhaps the best fringe benefit of running the B&B is the enduring friendships that John and Diane have formed with many of their guests, some of whom are now like family.  “The annual visits of our regular guests mark the changing of the seasons and the heralding in of holidays,” says John, adding, “Our lives are richer, thanks to them.”

And to confirm the mutual respect, one only has to read reviews on Amazon.com for John’s book.  One comment comes from T.W. Barritt of CulinaryTypes.com who states, “The first time I stayed at the Foster Harris House I had a feeling of déjà vu, as if I’d met innkeepers Diane and John MacPherson before. Each room is elegantly furnished yet supremely comfortable. John is the chef who sees artistry in simple ingredients like eggs and bacon. Each morning is better than the day before. New guests whisper to me, have you gotten this kind of breakfast everyday.”

Need more be said?  Makes all of us want to consider a career change, eh?


Categories : WINE ARTICLES