he doorbell rang at about 7 p.m. just as we were finishing dinner. From the kitchen we could peek out to the front porch, where we saw four people waiting expectantly. "You handle it," said my wife, Pat.
"No, you are much better with people."
"I'm too nervous," Pat said.
"Okay, I'll go," I said finally.
And this is how we met our first bed-and-breakfast guests. Even though the sign out front read "vacancy," it never dawned on us that we might actually get unexpected company; we'd assumed our first guests would have reservations.It was unnerving to realize that we were about to have four strangers sleeping in our house — and expecting breakfast in the morning.
My wife and I bought our piece of property on the coast in Gouldsboro back in the eighties as an investment, but we soon found ourselves visiting once a year for a weekend of camping. We joked with our friends, and ourselves, that we would someday build a B-and-B on the land and retire. It was easy to perpetuate that story because retirement was a long way off, and it's always fun to dream.
Eventually, though, the story somehow became the plan. It was only about three years ago that I realized how unprepared we were to actually build and operate a B-and-B. If we had to make a list of all of the things we didn't know, I'm sure it would have begun, "1. How to cook breakfast."
The one thing that turned out to be a significant benefit was that we were starting with a clean slate. We didn't have to worry about modifying an existing house to accommodate guests because we didn't have a house. Although we found a million B-and-B plans, we couldn't find anything that fit our needs. We were working in Quebec at the time and ended up hiring a delightful and unexpectedly inexpensive Canadian architect who was willing to take our hand-drawn floor plans and turn them into a set of blueprints. Oh, we were so proud of them. But apparently there are some things typically worked out on house plans in the United States that are not necessarily the custom in Canada. After much tsk-tsking, our builder said that, yes, he could probably build a home based on our cartoons.
So much for pride.
We moved in by the spring of 2004 and were determined to open for the season in the spring of '05. I don't think either one of us ever imagined how many things had to be done. We needed to set up a Web site, get a sign made, decorate the rooms, buy linens, design and order customized toiletries, put in a sidewalk, landscape the place, buy kitchenware, build a path to the ocean, add a sink, set up charge-card accounts, get a second phone line, etc., etc.
On top of all that, we still didn't know how to cook a breakfast. Beyond an occasional egg, neither of us had ever done it — especially not with the fancy garnishes and appetizers that go with a proper Maine B-and-B breakfast. So we tried many things many times before finally coming up with four core breakfasts (which means that if anyone stays five days they either get a repeat or an experiment).
We had our first dress rehearsal on Memorial Day, when we filled the guest rooms with visiting family. They were not very well behaved, having a habit of wandering into the kitchen while breakfast was being prepared and picking things off the plates. But our trial guests were much less critical of us and actually gave us a very high rating on the food. (They did have some suggestions, though, such as not having one cook yell "Get away from me" at the other cook.)
It was only a few days later that the four strangers appeared at our doorstep. My wife and I had agreed ahead of time that we would not let our first guests know that they were the first.
It was not to be.
Perhaps it was our panicked preparations to get everything staged that night, or the fact that we couldn't figure out how to get the credit card transaction processed, or any one of a thousand other clues. In the end, though, it didn't matter; they loved the place, complimented us on the breakfast, wrote nice notes in the guestbooks, and promised to return.
Over the years, we have had many people tell us all kinds of horror stories about running inns. They mention the incredible amount of work, the hidden expenses, the long hours, and the ball and chain of having to be there day and night. And, of course, they always have one or two horrible guest stories.
There were many times before we actually did this thing that we almost changed our minds. I'm glad we didn't.