Squee!!! I’m super excited for this post. Why? Because I get to update you on the success of Planches & Plonk!
Planches & Plonk is the dream business of our friends Graham and Damon. Graham and I got to know one another years ago when we started blogging at around the same time. When Scotty and I last caught up with them for lunch in Lille almost 2 years ago, Graham and Damon were deep in the planning phase. Their goal was to open a boutique bed and breakfast, that also happened to be a wine and cheese bar in the French town of Belvès. And today Planches & Plonk has just celebrated its first anniversary.
Graham in particular is no stranger to the Distant Francophile community. You might remember him from Episode Four of The Franco-Files. And I’m grateful to Graham for saying ‘yes’ when I reached out and asked to interview him again.
I really hope you enjoy this update on a dream come true.
Planches & Plonk – A Dream Come True
For me your move to France and the success of your ventures is a story of dreams come true. How long had you planned the move and what made you go all in on bringing your dream to life?
Cheese and wine are our passions and we started thinking about making a career out of them around 10 years ago, after we began holidaying in France frequently.
We enrolled on courses and generally went about upskilling. After all, as two Brits selling cheese and wine to the French, we wanted to be sure we knew what we’re talking about.
The Brexit vote was the final spur. The only good thing I can say about its outcome is that it encouraged us to bring forward our plans by a few years. We figured we should go for it while we could still move to France and set up a business easily.
Can you please share a little bit about the beautiful village of Belvès? And what should travellers from as far afield as the Australia and the United States expect to find if they choose to visit? Any absolute ‘must dos’ you’d recommend for visitors?
Belvès is classed as one of France’s most beautiful villages, so it’s great to explore. The medieval market hall in the central square is definitely worth a visit and the troglodyte caves beneath the village give a fascinating insight into lives centuries ago.
Flying, ballooning and canoeing are all popular local activities. Ramblers and cyclists also say they relish the challenge of Belvès’ hilltop location.
The Saturday morning market is a must if you like to sample local delicacies. Or you can simply unwind on a terrace outside one the village’s many bars and restaurants and watch the world go by.
Tell us about Planches & Plonk, what makes it special?
Several things make us stand out. Firstly, we’ve brought some city style to a rural village, so people love to come to us for date nights or special occasions. Secondly, we’ve really focused on offering quality, artisanal products – most of our cheeses, for example, are made using unpasteurised milk in small farms. Thirdly, we offer almost all of our 60+ wines by the glass, which is unusual.
Finally, I think people have really taken to us on a personal level and are keen to support us.
Ok, it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty. Can you please tell us what life has been like since the grand opening of Planches & Plonk? I’d love to learn about the highlights and the challenges, recognising that you opened a tourism based business in the middle of a global pandemic.
We got off to a flying start last July. If anything, the bar proved more successful than we had expected and we were busy from lunchtime through into the evening.
Perhaps surprisingly, finding good suppliers whose products we could be proud to serve and who had the capacity to supply us proved challenging. Now, a year in, we’ve built a good base of suppliers who trust us and whom we trust.
The greatest challenge was that, three months to the day after opening, France went into a second lockdown, and bars and restaurants had to close.
That was hard. Christmas in particular was very tough, not knowing if we would make it through. But here we are, now at the end of our second summer.
I’d love it if you could share what the locals have thought about the two of you coming into town and opening a wine and cheese bar in a country renowned for wine and cheese?
On the whole, people don’t seem to mind what nationality you are, provided that you have the knowledge and the passion. That said, of course, there have been a few raised eyebrows – and a few wry comments – but we just laugh them off.
Now, your episode on The Franco-Files obviously spurred you both onto bigger and better and things. The story of your move to France was featured on the Channel 4 series 6 of A New Life In The Sun. Can you share a little bit about what that experience was like?
We’d watched all the previous series of the show and had been inspired by some of the people who shared their stories, so we applied to take part. We had a telephone and then a Skype interview and were delighted when we got to call to say Channel 4 wanted us for the show.
The producers love an element of suspense, so there was a constant will-they-won’t-they aspect to the storyline. The crew kept asking us on camera how many days or hours to go and what needed to be done in that time.
The series aired in February, when the UK and France were both in lockdown, and it gave hope to viewers – and to us. Its timing couldn’t have been better.
Being on the show has been terrific for the business. Every single day somebody who watched the show stays with us or comes in for lunch or dinner. We couldn’t have bought publicity like that.
Has Planches & Plonk settled into a rhythm yet? And are you getting more than four hours sleep you were getting when you first opened?
We’ve found our rhythm, but we work long days, especially during ‘the season’, as it’s known. We’re serving breakfasts from 7.30am and often we don’t get to shut the doors of the bar until 1.30am…
Readers might be surprised to learn that within a year of opening… you opened a second business in Belvès. What prompted the opening of Plonk et Plus?
France went into lockdown at the end of October 2020 and bars and restaurants had to close for what turned out to be six months. To keep our heads above water, we starting offering takeaways and acting as a wine shop, or as cavistes, as they say here.
That showed potential, particularly around Christmas time, so when, out of the blue, we were offered a shop space on the village’s medieval central square, we jumped at it. Our cave à vins opened in June 2021 and so far, so good.
The village has a marché gourmand every Wednesday night in summer on the central square, so we’ve become the go-to place for wines each week.
I heard on the grapevine that after A New Life In The Sun there was one topic on everyone’s lips – the awesome shirts that you and Damon both wear. For our gentlemen readers, can you please share what you look for in a quality shirt, and is there a brand you would recommend?
That’s hilarious… but true. Galeries Lafayette and Massimo Dutti are among our favourite shops for men’s clothing.
We both like a tailored look, especially since losing weight as a result of running back and forward to serve people in the bar. We tend to go for either block-colour linen or cotton shirts or heavily patterned, often flowery shirts.
Colour-wise, I always head straight for royal blue, navy or turquoise, while Damon prefers earthier tones.
How’s Damon’s French coming along? As you know, I’ve been struggling to learn French for years, and I’m wondering if he has any tips for me?
Evenings with French-speaking friends were the hardest for him. He came to realise that if he waited for the perfect sentence, the conversation would have moved on and he’d end up sitting in silence. He found that frustrating, so he’s stopped holding back and just gets on with it. What he says may not always be grammatically perfect but people understand him easily.
It’s also good for the business, as 80% of our customers are French. I tend to do most of the front of house, but he’s able to speak to customers too. He can now even answer the telephone in French, which is a big help.
Can you recommend your favourite wine and cheese varieties we should be trying to seek out no matter where we happen to be in the world?
Perhaps surprisingly, we’ve both been taken with some blue cheeses. For Damon, it’s Roquefort – he’s become a big fan over the last year. For me, it’s Crémeux au Bleu, a creamy Burgundian cheese that has been sliced open and had a filling of Bleu d’Auvergne inserted, rather like a sandwich. The sharp blue hit against the creaminess of the rest gets me every time.
That’s to say nothing of the local truffled Brie…
As for wines, I’ve found I’ve taken to drinking rosé this year, which is a first for me. The Bergerac vineyard that we work with most closely, Château Montdoyen, does a light, fresh, provençal style one called Un Point C’est Tout that I’ve happily quaffed throughout the summer.
I’ve also fallen back in love with Sancerre. We serve a delicious one called Les Chasseignes from Domaine Fouassier.
What’s next for you two? Any further plans to expand Planches & Plonk?
We’re starting to offer more wine-tasting evenings, particularly private events, where we go into people’s homes and teach groups of six or more how to taste wine like professionals.
We’ve also ben approached by a wedding planner about doing something similar with wedding parties next summer, which we’re really looking forward to.
One final question… Do you have any advice for anyone wondering if they should chase their dream – French inspired or otherwise?
Do your homework first but then go for it – and give it 100%! Life’s too short not to enjoy what you do.
Making a big change of the kind we’ve made can be scary but if you’ve researched it and got the right skills and attitude, you’ll make it.
A great big thank you to Graham for all of these insights into Planches & Plonk and running a business in France. I’m curious – do you ever dream of moving to France? And have you ever visited Belvès? Please let me know in the comments section below.
And until next time – au revoir.
Photos supplied by Graham Welch