Where I live, you can get to NYC or Philadelphia in 35-90 minutes (depending on traffic). But when I am in the mood for an incredible dining experience, one of my favorite places is a little inn in the idyllic farmland of Bucks County, Pennsylvania. I first discovered the Restaurant at Barley Sheaf Farm five years ago, and yet I still remember vividly our first dining experience there.
After driving up a long path, you approach a stunning manor house, dating back to the 1700s. The cobblestone roundabout and lovely fountain in front signal the luxury that awaits. Inside, we enter the welcoming lobby, decorated beautifully with antique French furniture, upholstered in serene shades of blue and green. A beautiful throw pillow (embroidered with a bird) sitting on the chair next to me catches my eye.
As I sit and wait for our table, my favorite thing to do is flip through a large book of cartoons from the New Yorker. Cartoons spanning decades of American history make me laugh and laugh, as I share my favorites with my husband and my Instagram followers. It feels fitting to laugh out loud when you’re at the former estate of George S. Kaufman, iconic American playwright and Marx Brothers collaborator.
When it’s time for our meal, we are brought to dining room unlike any other. The ceiling is painted in the most vibrant sky blue, with an Art Deco pattern on the beams. The sky is filled with pink clouds, whimsical butterflies and birds. Anyone who sees it can’t help but smile and feel 100lbs lighter. With the light flooding in from the large windows, the airy space is perfectly romantic and matched to the bucolic Bucks County atmosphere.
We sit in large, comfortable chairs at tables covered in white tablecloths. There is a large stone fireplace next to the open kitchen, where you can see the chefs preparing their next dish. All the colorful garnishes are neatly lined up in the pass, which I admire as I review the seasonal menu offerings. It’s a small yet inventive menu, which says to me that all the ingredients are deliberate and fresh.
When it’s time to place our order, the servers are knowledgeable and friendly. They help us with recommendations, describing any ingredients we may be unfamiliar with. And they are attentive to us throughout the meal. The owner himself checks in on us several times to make sure we are enjoying ourselves. He is always there to ensure we are 100% satisfied, no matter the meal or occasion.
And while dinner is always a delight, brunch goes above and beyond. For $35, it’s made-to-order all you can eat, with seasonal plates like strawberry pancakes – made with fresh strawberries from the farmers market. They start your meal off with a mimosa and a basket full of the most incredible pastries. And don’t worry if you’re a light eater – when I knew I couldn’t eat an entire plate of pancakes, they made me silver dollar versions. This made me so happy because I hate wasting food, which can be a common occurrence at an all-you-can-eat brunch!
When a Barley Sheaf meal is over, they will always surprise you with some sort of takeaway, like freshly baked cookies at dinner or a sugar doughnut at brunch. Perhaps they do this so when you arrive home with treat in hand, you are eager to pencil in your next visit on your calendar 😉 Before you leave though, you can take your to-go treat and do a nice walk around the property. There are farm animals to visit (like goats, sheep, pigs and miniature horses) and a gorgeous iron gazebo in the garden. On a nice day, it’s the perfect way to end a meal.
Why did I tell you about this experience in such excruciating detail? Because there’s a reason I keep going back here and telling all of my friends and family about this restaurant. And it’s not ONE reason, it’s the dozens of little touch-points that come together for the ultimate fine dining experience. The food is terrific, yes. But when so many restaurants are cooking up great food now, you can’t survive on delicious food alone.
The Restaurant at Barley Sheaf exceeds baseline expectations through all the senses, evoking a variety of positive emotions. And even the smallest of details (like the book of New Yorker cartoons) produced some of the highest emotions, turning what can be a boring part of dining (waiting for a table) into a fun one. And at very little cost!
The owners of the Inn at Barley Sheaf Farm have found the key to unlocking unique experiences, and with it, all the benefits that come from putting the customers first: loyalty & increased customer lifetime value, reduced cost of customer acquisition through referrals and word of mouth, improved quality of work life, attracting & retaining the best talent, reduced marketing costs, and more. This is why people will leave the cities, bypassing dozens of other fine dining eateries along the way, to get here.
The problem with most hospitality organization is that this innovation, this attention to detail, is usually accidental. The only way to ensure consistent, positive experiences, is to be deliberate about creating them! Recently, in a book I was reading (What Customers Crave: How to Create Relevant and Memorable Experiences at Every Touchpoint) I bookmarked this passage:
“A well-known anecdote tells us that if you place a frog in hot water, it will leap to safety, but if you place it in cold water and then slowly heat the water, it will be boiled alive. In the second scenario, the frog presumably doesn’t notice the temperature is increasing and it sits calmly, blithely unaware that it’s about to be boiled to death. While scientifically this story is not true, it aptly demonstrates what happens when good companies don’t pay attention to the changing environment.”
While a bit morbid, I believe this accurately describes the current state of the hospitality industry, especially for independently owned fine-dining restaurants. Put bluntly: innovate, or you will be subjected to a slow, painful death-by-competition.
When you think of the ultimate dining experience, which restaurant memory comes to mind? I’d love to hear about it!