Interview - Dan Stevens, co-owner, Staverton Bridge Nursery

A year ago, we visited Staverton Bridge Nursery in Devon, at a rundown site recently taken over by Dan and Steph Stevens, who had escaped London to develop a modern, alternative plant centre (HW, 24 September 2010). The nursery, near Totnes, offers homegrown plants and homemade food. We caught up with Dan to find out if they have been able to make a success of the business.

Dan Stevens, co-owner, Staverton Bridge Nursery - image: HW
Dan Stevens, co-owner, Staverton Bridge Nursery - image: HW
Q: How has Staverton Bridge developed in the past year?

A: We now have a functioning cafe, which has increased our customer base and our trade a lot. We've just started doing lunch and that's proved to be pretty successful. The response from our customers is that there isn't anything else like us around here and what we offer is not what they're used to getting from a nursery or garden centre. We've got a good coffee machine and I've trained myself to produce good-quality espresso. We're refining our points of difference all the time to make this a unique experience. It's very different to a year ago, it looks like a totally different place. We have a terraced garden where the drive was, down the middle of the site, with raised beds. We have terraced gardens at the back with a mix of perennials and shrubs in a black-and-white theme, but that will change next year. People say we are excellent, charming and unique. I'm trying not to sound too big-headed ...

Q: But are you actually making any money?

A: I don't know if we're making a profit, but we are covering our costs and the bank is not asking for its money back. In November that's not a bad thing because all the tourists have gone home, but we're getting a lot of locals who have taken us to heart. We wanted to be part of the local community rather than something that's for tourists alone. I've not had any holidays, though.

Q: What have been the biggest problems in setting up?

A: Getting the building finished and working to the timescale, which slipped hugely. We didn't open the cafe until the end of July and we wanted it open by April. That was not totally good, but that's just builders and planning, which is what happens to projects. And getting someone to fit the boiler was much more complex. With alternative technology, people are not necessarily set up to deal with it and that caused a few arguments. There's the graft of doing it all yourself when no-one else can do it, but we've stuck at it. You have to get up every morning and motivate yourself - that's not going to go away.

Q: What are your plans for the immediate future?

A: We want to expand the food offer. For lunch we have soup, bread and a savoury tart, which we make ourselves. We don't make the butter, but that's from a dairy a mile over the river. We want to expand and give five or six choices and open as a breakfast place with homemade pancakes and bread and organic butter and jam - simple, but with the quality of each ingredient being extremely good. We also want to hire out for events.

Q: And what about the plant side of things?

A: The nursery is still there and functioning. We're expanding our offer in terms of the sort of plants we're selling - things that other people aren't doing. We have different types of bedding, different dahlias and primulas, which seems to work. People like it, so we definitely have a good formula of food and plants.

Q: How else do you intend to differentiate your offer?

A: We want to do a Christmas-themed weekend pop-up shop for a couple of days. Local craftspeople come to the cafe and we've got to know them. It will be me outside with food on a brazier and crafts stalls. Local markets are a lot of work and a lot of people don't go to the market to buy plants. It's more for cakes, so it's a lot easier to do here.

Q: How important is new technology to the business?

A: We had to have the internet so we could have a card machine. We also have WiFi. People like it because no other garden centre had it around here and it's no skin off our nose to put it in. Apart from that, the only technology is the wood boiler from Atmos.

Q: Do you ever miss the rat race at all?

A: There aren't many days when I wish I was in an office in Teddington, no disrespect to my former colleagues at Autocar magazine. This is better at the moment, standing outside the cafe on a nice day by the woods with the river flowing by and birds overhead. I'd rather be here.

Q: What plants are selling best at the moment?

A: Presently, our bestsellers are penstemons, pansies and violas. We have sold a lot of vegetable plants and herbs, too. These are definitely outselling the ornamental plants. We sell six packs of four-week-old plants that we grow from seed and are ready to go out.

CV

1997: Worked on local newspapers

2003: Journalist, Autocar

2010: Co-owner, Staverton Bridge Nursery

2011: Opened cafe at Staverton Bridge Nursery



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