Renovating Your B&B - Robert Mahan

Renovating Your B&B – Robert Mahan

– by Robert Mahan, Owner of Aldrich Guest House

Renovating anything in your B&B or inn can be intimidating. From the design, to the contractors, to whether or not to close your inn during the process, to DIY or hire the work out there are lots of hard decisions to be made. In the end, though, it is worth all the time, effort, and money. My husband and I have owned and operated the Aldrich Guest House for eight years and have made countless changes along the way. We just finished renovating our kitchen, and here’s our firsthand experience.

First of all, you need to pay just as much attention to the back of the house as you do to your front of house.  While it may seem easy to put things like a kitchen renovation on the back burner, the benefits of keeping even non-guest facing areas in tip top shape has a significant impact on your overall operations. 

With all of the thought and effort we put into the front of the house and guest-facing areas, it’s easy to forget about the back of the house. Let’s face it, the best part of being innkeepers is entertaining our guests and chatting with them.  However we spend the majority of our time in non-guest facing areas.  One of the places we spend the most time: our kitchen!

At a place like Aldrich Guest House, the kitchen really is the heart of the house and without it, half of ‘bed and breakfast’ simply cannot exist.  But we do a lot more there than breakfast.  Fresh homemade cookies are baked daily, special treats for celebrations are cooked up, as well as the hors d’oeuvres that we serve with drinks every evening for guests.  When you factor in prep work and clean up, it’s not unusual to spend 4-6 hours a day in the kitchen.  Add to that most inns or bed and breakfasts are in homes that do not have a commercial kitchen meaning that residential kitchen is taking a lot of wear and tear.

It’s easy to forget or put off renovating areas that aren’t guest facing or feel like they don’t have a direct impact on guest experience.  After all, will cookies taste any different when baked in a new oven?  Will the bacon be any better cooked on a new stove?  Will a guest notice a difference in a breakfast prepared in a renovated kitchen compared to your current one?  Will the impact of a kitchen reno be worth the cost?  Well, as we’ll dive into, the answer is a little bit yes and a little bit no.

We wanted to renovate our kitchen almost from the time we bought the house.  While Aldrich Guest House has been an operating bed and breakfast since 1984, the kitchen had not had any significant updates or renovations since the late 1960s.  Which isn’t as bad as it could have been considering the house was built in 1845.  There was nothing wrong with the kitchen per se but it wasn’t as good as it could have been.  Sure, the appliances worked (most of the time) and the space itself was alright but it was tired and, even worse, inefficient.  The stove was your regular 4-burner stove with an oven and a half.  The dishwasher generally did the job pretty well, but it was not unusual to have to hand wash some items after each cycle.  There was a big dining table in the kitchen that was helpful but was too low to be of much use as it was too low to use for prep, especially as one of us is six and a half feet tall.  And while the layout wasn’t all that bad, the countertops were broken up with a sink in an awkward place and the upper cupboards were too low making it difficult to see what you were working on.

So we started the kitchen renovation where most good things start: with a dream and a sketch!  Just like when you made your business plan for your bed and breakfast (you did do a business plan, didn’t you?) we made a list of everything that we wanted.  We drew out a rough floor plan for the design and then did something that we never did before.  We hired someone to help us.

A small aside for context.  We have renovated our entire house in the nearly 8 years that we’ve been the innkeepers/owners at Aldrich Guest House.  We took off wallpaper from every wall, replastered, sewed Roman shades, changed light fixtures (and only electrocuted ourselves once!), we’ve installed gutters, moved gardens, planted trees, hung picture rail molding, installed ceiling tiles, and loads of other things.  But short of installing HVAC, tuckpointing, and paving a driveway, we do all the renovations ourselves.  So hiring someone was a big step for us.  But our advice is to definitely hire someone for a project like this!

We used a local company for the design and layout as well as the purchase of the flooring, tile, and cabinetry.  This was critical as everything was measured and re-measured to make sure that during the installation there were no surprises which is why we highly recommend using a service like this. We also used a local company for the granite countertops and they were a joy to work with as they not only helped make sure that we got exactly what we were looking for, but they provided just enough education to help us make the most informed decision for what would be best.

For the actual renovation work, we used local contractor Norm Davis.  Working with him was one of the best parts of the whole project!  We knew that we were in good hands as Norm has done work on nearly every house in Galena at one point or another and is very familiar with working on old homes.  Watching this guy do his work was like being in the presence of a genius!  His philosophy lined up very well with ours in the mantra that there is no such thing as a problem, which is a very good motto to have when renovating 177 year old homes.

When it came to the appliances, we did lots of research both online and in person.  Robert is a chronic over-researcher so getting in-person feedback and ideas was a necessity.  We talked a lot with Fred Grzeslo, owner and chef at our favorite restaurant Fritz and Frites. His extensive knowledge of kitchen appliances was crucial in making sure that we were investing in not only quality but also practicality.  After all of our research, we decided to utilize ZLine appliances for the rangetop, hood, dishwasher, sink, and two electric convection ovens.  To say that we are thrilled with the performance of everything would be an understatement.

For the actual renovation, we went back and forth on whether we should stay open or close for the duration.  If we stayed open, we wouldn’t have been able to make breakfast which would mean sending guests out into the cold winter morning for breakfast on Main Street.  Plus there would be noise and dirt and lots of workers coming and going.  

In the end, we decided to be closed for most of the month of January.  Normally we take a week or so away in February to rest and recharge our batteries so we moved that downtime into January instead.  Working with Norm, we felt confident that he understood everything that we wanted so we wouldn’t have to worry about that.  Plus, it’s 2022 and for better or for worse, there’s always a way to get in touch should any problems arise or for any questions.

Coming back from vacation, we walked in just as Norm was doing the final dusting. It was like being in one of those HGTV shows at the big reveal!  Norm welcomed us to our new kitchen and walked us through everything that was done to make sure that we didn’t have any questions or concerns.  After that, it was figuring out where all of the supplies should go – you don’t realize how many dishes, spices, and smallwares you have until you need to find a place for them in a ‘new’ kitchen!

So, was it worth it?  The answer to that question is a resounding yes!  Our two electric convection ovens are some of the most even baking ovens we’ve ever used.  Plus they hold a perfect low temperature which is perfect for making macarons!  Think you’re okay with a regular 4-burner stove?  Just wait until you have 7 burners, although it took a little bit getting used to the significantly higher output of them.  Dishes clean right out of the dishwasher seem like a given, but man, these sparkle!  And the updated layout makes everything much more efficient.  And that’s not even mentioning the intangibles.  The look is clean and classic, having plenty of prep space means no more piling things on top of each other, and being in a space that is designed for the workload of a busy bed and breakfast instead of a single family home is priceless. And it’s important to feel happy and comfortable in a space that you spend so much time in.  Happy innkeepers = happy guests!  Additionally, while we aren’t planning on selling Aldrich Guest House any time soon, being able to showcase a kitchen that is updated and designed for the work of a B&B will be a great selling point when it comes time to entrust Aldrich Guest House to the next innkeepers who will continue the legacy.

Thinking of a kitchen renovation or any other back of the house work?  Keep these in mind:

  • What is your ultimate goal for the space? How do you want it to feel? What do you like about it now and what would you want to change?
  • Work with a designer and contractor unless you’re REALLY good at renovations.  While it costs a little more, it frees you up to run your business and when surprises pop up the professionals know how to handle them.  Just remember that it’s your job to relay your vision to them so that they can make it come to life.
  • Do lots of research!  Of course online is great, but reach out to other innkeepers.  Maybe someone in your town did something similar and they know of a great contractor or have advice on appliances that they like or maybe even mistakes that they made they’d be willing to share.  Ask lots of questions of the people you’re working with.  They’re professionals and have a lot of knowledge.
  • BUDGET!  And then plan on spending more but that should also be budgeted in.  Be realistic with what you’re able to invest and stick with it.  Spreadsheets are your friend here.

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