Behind the Blueberry

The innkeepers at Blueberry Cove Inn, Narragansett, RI invite you to their world of innkeeping. This is a behind the scenes look at their version of innkeeping.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Not all that long ago...

Not all that long ago we blogged three times a week whether anybody read it or not. Then December came along and two milestones disrupted our lives. Blogging, among other things, became a sporadic event.

The first milestone was Seely's entry into the academic world as a last minute Adjunct Professor at Johnson and Wales University. She was asked to teach the Small Properties Management class during the Winter Trimester. The course covers issues related to running lodging establishments between 3 and 40 rooms with emphasis on the 10-20 room inn. The class was larger than expected (36 students) and has been quite challenging at times. The class meets on Monday and Wednesday afternoons but much time is devoted to correction assignments and preparing lesson plans.

The second milestone was our decision to do some kitchen remodeling after our old stove died. This project has been put off repeatedly over the years yet materials had been collecting for it. The gutting for the flooring went quickly but the delay over the stove went on for (seemingly) forever.

We worked out a routine: Seely would go to class and Dave would destroy part of the kitchen. Seely would come home from class, compliment Dave on his work, and rebuild part of the kitchen. It was quite the system.  At this point 14 of the 16 cabinets are installed, the flooring still looks wonderful, the commercial fridge and freezer are in place, and all the other appliances have homes. The only big job left is installing the new laminate on the new counter but at least it is on order. Not a stylish space but functional and we like it.

The class? Well, they still have to turn in their group projects although most of their rough drafts show promise. There is one more paper to write. Then there is the final exam which they probably dread as much as I dread making it up. There's only a few weeks left in the trimester and a lot for all of us to learn.


Monday, November 23, 2009

The Kitchen

The stove is dead. The floor isn't getting any prettier. The new stove is in the wings. Everyone who thinks this is the time to put in a new floor raise your hand. Everyone who thinks that putting in a new floor found on Craig's List at half the price of retail is a better idea raise your hand. The rest of you, go read some other blog.

Now don't get overly excited. We aren't shooting for a show place kitchen here. Most of our guests and readers have nicer kitchens than we want or need. Karma often presents itself on Craig's List. This time it was in the form of a high end thick vinyl flooring in a flagstone pattern that was remarkably similar to the flooring we had selected for our kitchen in Houston. The price was right. The size was right. Seely's drive almost to New Hampshire to pick it up on a sunny Sunday afternoon was quite pleasant.

The first day we removed everything from the kitchen floor: knee wall, cabinets, appliances, and plumbing.

The second day the old flooring and subfloor were removed and the new subfloor was put down.

On the third day of fun the vinyl was rolled out and allowed to rest (as were the workers.)

The fourth day we brought the cabinets and appliances back in and waited for the plumber to move the sink lines. The plumber didn't actually arrive until the fifth day which was a very good thing since we had guests that evening and were beginning to worry about how we were going to cook breakfast without a sink.

And that's how you get a new kitchen floor in five days. After the stove arrives the cabinets will be placed in their final positions and we'll have some new photos.


Monday, November 16, 2009

The Kitchen

We've done a lot to this building over the years. Our focus has always been on the guest areas and the basic infrastructure (roof, boiler, the basics.) Our kitchen is another matter. There are limits to what you can do with a 14 x 14 ft. space that is broken up by four doors and four appliances while respecting food safety guidelines and the balance in the bank account.

Beth, our beloved sister and Marketing Director, will have us committed if we publish any photos with this post. Words alone could give you nightmares.

The first two years we invested in a stove and dishwasher but used the existing counter. We had an old metal desk on top of a small rolling platform that we used as an island. I added a larger top made from clearance Formica and scraps of wood from the garage. It was ugly but functional. (Over time it also moved about until we found the most practical placement.) Counter space and storage were extremely limited.

We had a very small, stainless, standard double sink. Within a year we found a used sink that was bigger and deeper but also stainless steel. That lasted for several years until Seely saw the sink of her dreams on Craig's List. On Long Island, NY. Since she was going to visit Beth in Baltimore anyway it was just a little side trip. The treasure is an old porcelain double laundry sink with deep wells. It has amazing character and utility for $50.

Over the years we have gone through four dishwashers. Household dishwashers just aren't meant to run six to ten loads a day. Seely found a bargain commercial dishwasher on Craig's List that should last pretty much forever.

We have had two full sized fridges, several under the counter fridges, and under the counter freezers. Some died, some were sold, some went to the basement. Over the years the appliances migrated around the kitchen but we finally have a layout that works. We now have an undercounter fridge, a full size fridge (no freezer) and a full size freezer in the kitchen. Since they are all commercial (even though we got them at auctions or Craig's List) we hope they last a long time too.

Our Amana stove died recently. It was an OK stove, the oven was too small but the burners were nice. Our next stove is a commercial Garland but it won't be picked up until November 30. It is gorgeous. I will show you its photo after it is installed (just don't tell Beth.)

The one thing that we have avoided is dealing with the floor. The yucky, commercial vinyl tile floor that didn't look clean even after you got on your hands and knees with a steel wool soap pad. The floor that is one of the big reasons no one is allowed to see the kitchen. Should I tell you how I really feel about this floor?

To be continued.....


Monday, November 9, 2009

Corvette Club Caravan

A few years ago a New York Corvette Club stayed with us. Very nice people to say the least. And the cars sure made our parking lot look nice.


Monday, November 2, 2009

Shoehorn Architecture

One of the first priorities for remodeling was to have one bathroom for each guest room. The Age of the Shared Bath was pretty much over for Americans who were exploring B&Bs. The challenge was how to make the plan work out.

Now the easy way out would have been to call an architect to figure this out. Yes, a real professional with experience and knowledge of all the building codes known to mankind. And a fee schedule to match. So much for that idea.

Instead Seely cleared areas and used Dollar Store sidewalk chalk to outline the new walls. Then the fixtures that were purchased at a going out of business sale in Houston were placed in the new "rooms." The plumbers explained code and adjustments were made. One sink swapped with another to make the best fit for the spaces. Once Seely and the plumbers were satisfied with the layout, walls went up and plumbing began in earnest. In the end, even the Building Inspector was happy.

For the most part the "fly by the seat of our pants" design plan worked out well. Some of the baths are on the small side, some have whirlpools, all have showers and none of them look alike. Although three of our rooms have baths down the hall no one shares with anyone. Some guests are nervous about the "down the halls" until they actually stay here and realize that it isn't a big deal.


Monday, October 26, 2009

A Little Thing That Meant a Lot

One of my favorite guests was newlywed from a small town in Kentucky who stayed with us for four nights a few years back. Her father had made the reservation, and she and her new husband were clearly traveling on a budget. But money was the last thing she was worried about. She couldn't have been older than 23, and she had once of those radiant personalities that make you want to smile whenever she walks into a room.

When I was fluffing their room on the first morning of their stay, I noticed a set of a half-dozen or so sheets of computer paper stapled together with the words "My Honeymoon Journal" printed neatly on top page. At lunch I mentioned to Seely what a shame it was that she didn't have something a little more sturdy for such important memories.

Like any good customer relations specialist, my partner sprung into action. She headed down to the Dollar Store and bought a small diary with a bright flower print on the cover and left it on top of the homemade journal as an alternative.

The next morning at breakfast our new bride was ecstatic, and made sure everyone in the dining room knew how thoughtful their hosts were. She promised us everyone back home was going to get the whole story so they would know where to stay when they visited New England.

And she was as good as her word. She wrote a glowing review on trip advisor, bought souvenir mugs and in the following year we got two more reservations from that little town. Not a bad return for a 10-minute shopping trip and $1 purchase. Of course the smile on our newlywed's face would have been enough to make the effort worthwhile.


Monday, October 19, 2009

One Small Detail

The first summer we were open for guests, 1999, was a unique experience because we were still renovating parts of the building even as we began our new careers as innkeepers. The dining room wasn't finished yet, so we served breakfast at a small table by the window in the living room at scheduled times, since no more than four could be served at a sitting.

When breakfast was done we whisked away the dishes, put a fresh cloth on the table, topped with a vase and we had a living room again. We then changed out of food service attire, put our construction clothes on and went back to renovation work. We had two rooms open in May, two more open by Fourth of July and were working on the Whirlpool Suite, which had been rented for the first weekend in August.

With the deadline looming, we began working until well past midnight, taking care to do the quieter tasks while the guests slept. We were still painting in the bathroom the day before the guests arrived, but by 3:30, a half hour before check-in, we were congratulating ourselves for getting everything ship shape.

That is until I opened the windows in the Suite sitting room and realized that we had neglected to put in the screens. One window didn't have a screen to start with. The others had been taken down to be scrubbed and rinsed, but we had neglected to put them on the list of things to be done before check-in so they were leaning up against the garage where I had put them to dry.

Since we had no air conditioning in those days, opening windows was essential for air circulation and cooling in the evenings. Unfortunately the mosquitoes were quite content to spend their evenings indoors with the warm bloods. Fortunately, the guests headed for dinner immediately after arrival, allowing us enough time to haul out the ladder, put the screens up and hammer few nails into the window frame to hold them in place. If the guests noticed either the deficiency when they arrived or the improvement when they returned, they were polite enough not to mention it.

Eventually we gave up on restoring all of the original windows and installed energy efficient (and bug proof) units. And everyone except the mosquitoes has been happy ever since.

Posted by Innkeeper David


Monday, September 7, 2009

Rooftop Rabbit

Several of the memorable events during construction and the early years of operation here at the Cove have involved animals, both wild and domesticated.

But none was more bizarre than what I saw as I returned from a trip to Home Depot late one autumn afternoon. This was at the end of a long day of destruction -- removing plaster, pulling out lath and dead wiring. While the dust settled, I made a run for supplies to be used in the ensuing reconstruction.

I pulled into the driveway at about 4:45, just as the sun was sinking below the tree-line. As I stopped to look at the rosy sky off to the west, a far more interesting sight caught my eye. Huddled in the middle of the roof over the front porch was a rabbit.

I was so stunned by the vision, which would not go away no matter how often or how hard I blinked, that it took me a minute or two to realize that the bunny perched on my porch roof must be Theo.

Theo was a pet rabbit kept by Lawrence, one of the tenants we inherited from the previous owner of the property. What we didn't know at the time was that Lawrence considered Theo to be a free-range bunny, often letting him roam the second floor while he was at work.

The weather that November was unusually warm, prompting the upstairs tenants to open the windows at either end of the hallway, neither of which had a screen. In the spirit of adventure, Theo had apparently hopped out to catch the cool breeze coming off the water.

Or maybe one of Lawrence's floor mates, who wasn't crazy about sharing the public spaces with a furry friend, put him out there. We never found out for sure. But we did institute a new policy limiting Theo to Lawrence's room while his owner was off the property.


Monday, August 24, 2009

Honest, Officer: I paid for the sheetrock

For Thanksgiving of 1998 Dave came back to Narragansett from Houston, where he was working to help finance the remodeling. In addition to some quality time together, he got to help out with some construction. This was our second episode of having a "commuter marriage" (the first was when Seely was in grad school).

Our biggest task was to move 20 sheets of wall board from the front porch to the third floor. It was a tricky job, as 8-foot long rectangles aren't the easiest thing to maneuver up two flights of steps and around corners in the hall.

About the time we got to the sixth board we stopped on the second floor landing to take a break. Glancing out the front window, Seely noticed police cars in the road. A few officers were going around toward the back of the house. Two others were headed up the front walk. All had their weapons drawn.

It turns out that one of the tenants we inherited from the previous management had been knocking over ATM machines and Narragansett's finest wanted to relocate him to a new place of residence. We should have suspected something was up when he gave us two weeks rent in advance. (Demonstrating a keen sense of priorities, Seely's first question was whether we got to keep the advance rent he'd paid us.) We never saw him again, though the police did let us know after they picked him up. He would get his lodging from the state for the next 2-7 years.

We attract a much better quality of guest these days.


Monday, August 3, 2009

Let the destruction begin!

After purchasing this wreck in September 1998 the work began. Dave had returned to Houston to continue earning while I started the demolition, lining up plumbers, and rebuilding. Narragansett, RI, is beautiful in September but I saw it only through safety glasses and a massive hepa filter mask. The first of our eight huge dumpsters arrived with a very loud thunk.

Most of the first dumpster was filled with trash, broken furniture, and all manner of abandoned things found tucked away in the basement and garage. That was the easy dumpster.
A few walls were destined to be removed to make way for much needed bathrooms. Taking down horsehair plaster is not a difficult job. In fact, it can be down right fun. Moving all of that plaster from the third floor to the dumpster? not so fun. And so the "Debris Slide" was invented.

The "slide" was a huge tarp that I secured to 2x4s that were lifted by rope to the third floor windows. The bottom of the tarp was weighted down inside of the dumpster. My plan was to toss everything out of the windows and have it gracefully float to its final resting place. Plaster with angel wings so to speak.

Reality check: when you toss heavy plaster down a slide it tends to catch in a pouch outside the dumpster. You then get a great treat because you can pretend it is a giant pinata as you poke the mess from underneath with a broom to try and flip it into the dumpster. If you poke just so you can wind up with all the plaster on your head. If you add a plank to get the plaster farther out on the tarp it works much better. Eventually I learned how to secure the tarp so the junk actually slid the way I hoped. Just a few tips if you ever try this job. First lower the tarp to the ground at the end of every work day so a drunken tenant doesn't try to slide down it. At the very least, take in the plank lest someone try to walk it. Second, don't plan on working if a Nor'easter is starting to blow in from the North Atlantic. Third, be prepared to be the talk of the town.


Monday, July 27, 2009

The Gulag Era

I mean no disrespect to those who suffered in the Gulags but as the magnitude of the work ahead of us hit us in the face this became a work camp.

You know how everyone in the family suddenly wants to see your new home even if you have sheets for curtains and unpacked boxes for coffee tables? Well this place was even more of a gawker's paradise.

My parents followed us from TX as we moved the second load of furniture and a car on a trailer north. They should have turned around when the trailer tire caught on fire just out of Dayton, OH and they sailed past us as we were on the shoulder hoping the car didn't catch on fire. Hot tip: if a trailer tire is on fire don't waste your valuable thermos of tea trying to put it out. You have to get the fire department.

The look of horror on my parent's faces as they toured the building the first day was almost comical. They tried to say it had potential but balanced that with questions about whether we could get out of the sale. My sister and her partner were much more supportive but pensive. My brother gagged. Dave's family would visit later while we were under construction and were equally dumbfounded.

What really tickled the family was our willingness to recruit them to do grotty work for as long as we could keep them on their feet with their only reward being a trip out to a nice dinner which they got to pay for. We always had a place for them to sleep but they had plenty of work to do.

And, they came back repeatedly to help. For which we are eternally grateful.

Beth on demolition; Jim hanging Sheetrock in the Shells bath; Dad pulling nails as viewed through new studs; Peg on break; Mom rebuilding kitchen soffit; Peg working on Suite bath; Mom learning to hang Sheetrock. Secretary Sophia; Dad and Dave mud wall repair in the Crow's Nest; Dave cuts hole for new closet door; Matt and Sam demolish the porch steps; Beth painting the Suite ceiling; Mom sewing; Seely installing Suite tile.

One classic example of how this became known as the Gulag involved most of the family. One night my parents went to sleep on twin cots in what is now the Whirlpool Suite bedroom. About 11 p.m. the work crew showed up: my sister Beth, her partner Peg, my brother Jim, Dave and I. By morning the dingy whitish walls had four coats of jewel toned red paint. My parents never budged and were somewhat frightened when they woke up and didn't quite know where they were.

And that was only the first all night work session.....


Monday, July 20, 2009

And so it begins

Sorely disappointed that the property we visited in CT was completely unsuitable for our plans and then coming to Narragansett, RI to see something that was a hundred times more unsuitable put a damper on our vacation mood. Being optimists (or stark raving lunatics depending on who you talk to) we shrugged it off and moved on to a well deserved break.

Returning to humid Houston reminded us of how much it was time to continue planning for a different future. Since we didn't have any other properties to visit I decided to do a fake business plan for the Narragansett dump. As a Social Worker I had been involved in writing grant proposals to fund various projects. Essentially a a grant proposal and a business plan are the same thing. Both involve extensive research, numbers crunching, projections, budgets, and a lot of time. The main difference is that you don't have to justify the moral and social impacts of your loan application to sway a bank officer. Cookies and muffins will suffice.

So after a few weeks of calling Narragansett town hall, the state Health Department, other B&B owners in the area, and lots of time on a very primitive computer (circa 1986) I had a plan.

Surprisingly, the business plan said to buy it, fix it and eventually live comfortably.

After months of negotiations with the owners and bankers we finally owned the property. Burning all our bridges behind us we loaded up the first truck of furniture and headed North. I'd say we never looked back but that would be a stretch since Dave was to stay in Houston for the first few months while I started on the renovations.

And so the Gulag era began...


Monday, July 13, 2009

Monday Memories

Guests always want to know why we came to Narragansett, RI after living in Houston for so many years. Eventually we will get around to that question in Friday FAQs. Their other questions revolve around the building: why this building, was it a B&B, what kind of changes have you made, how large is the mortgage, how much do you pay in utilities, where do you live?

A few of those questions are just a little too much but it is time to share the building's evolution. Welcome to Monday Memories.

We saw an ad for this place a few days before we were to evaluate a property in New London, CT. We had plans to leave CT, have lunch in Narragansett at Champlin's and then vacation in New Hampshire in the late Fall. It seemed natural to stop in to see the building since we were going to be in the neighborhood.

And what a building it was. It was being used as a $50 a week boarding house. Cars and trucks parked on the lawns at random. Scraggly little hedge by the sidewalk (which disappeared before closing.) Broken front door. Peeling paint, broken porch banisters, and ripped screens. And those were the good parts.

Well, in for a dime, in for a dollar, time to look inside. The broken door opened into a filthy little hall and an empty front room. Looking up the stairs you were immediately impressed by the lack of a ceiling at the first floor landing. At least there was a fan with a light up there. It was the only hall lighting other than the emergency exit signs.

The first floor had one boarding room and a two bedroom apartment. The apartment tenant had cats, rabbits, and ferrets which gave the unit a unique aroma. The second apartment (also 2 bedrooms) was an addition at the back of the building.

You are lucky a computer doesn't have a scratch and sniff option as the atmosphere in the rest of the house was exceptionally aromatic. In addition to the expected trash, mildew, and dirty clothing was the piquant blend of recreational inhalants.

The second floor had four boarding rooms and one "working" bath. The second bath had big "do not use" signs on it but clearly the tenants were choosing to be illiterate. One of the rooms had a dinky half bath in exceptionally good condition if you didn't mind your knees hitting the wall when you used the commode.

The third floor featured three boarding rooms, one "sort of working" bath, and the "fire escape room" that was full of trash and weight lifting stuff. The fire escape door consisted of a piece of plywood on broken hinges.

The basements were delightful. Beyond the trash and mildew you could see the original granite boulders that formed the foundation of the original buildings. Amazingly ineffectual plumbing repairs dripped like the seepage in Mamouth Cave. The "finished basement" beneath the second apartment had flooded more than once because of a faulty sump pump. No one had bothered to remove the ruined walls or furniture.

If you wanted a museum that featured the history of plumbing and electricity this was the place to buy. If you wanted an early 20th century coal boiler that had been converted to oil this place had two. If you wanted original antique windows (although some panes were actually Plexiglas) your search was over.

We walked away thinking, "what a great location but no way we would buy this dump."

(to be continued......)