28 April 2003 by

The story so far Chef Dean Eccles, 34, opened Strawberry's@theDoll at the Wooden Doll pub in North Shields, east of Newcastle, at the beginning of last year. He pays landlord Terry Mellor a flat fee for use of the kitchens, and revenue from drinks sales goes straight to the pub. To help establish the restaurant as a destination venue for eating out, Eccles has just started serving a slightly more elaborate evening menu.

It's springtime - the first weekend in April, in fact - and love is in the air. Dean Eccles, head chef at Strawberry's@theDoll, is hosting a wedding celebration for 32 guests and, as is usual on these occasions, everything is running a little late.

Not that Eccles is bothered. He has just taken £12.50 a head for a sit-down meal of three courses for 32 people and is looking forward to a summer packed with more family celebrations.

"We've had about one function booking a month so far this year," he says, "but we expect it to be more like one a week over the summer period - and that should include one wedding a fortnight at the busiest period."

Three more wedding parties are in the diary at Strawberry's@theDoll over the next few weeks, and Eccles is confident that more bookings are on the way.

Hang on a minute, though. At £12.50 a head for 32 covers, has the restaurant really taken more than it would have on a typical Saturday lunchtime?

"Probably not," Eccles concedes. "We'd normally expect 50 or more customers each spending about £7 on a Saturday lunchtime so there's not much in it. But most of the guests at a wedding party not have come here before, so there's the potential to impress a lot of new customers."

And Eccles is working hard to make sure he offers function guests more choice than his local competitors, many of which tend to have rather restricted menus for these occasions - his £12.50 menu includes three choices for each course.

While Eccles does take care to offer his usual menu to other customers when he's looking after a function booking, diners have to use the pub's bar area rather than the restaurant. On this occasion, there was hardly any demand. In part, Eccles says, that's because the regulars knew he was hosting a special event. The 12.30pm kick-off for the televised Premiership match between Manchester United and Liverpool might also have had something to do with it. Clearly, it pays to know your customers' viewing habits.

The new-look evening menu, introduced at the end of February, appears to have met with the regulars' approval. Eccles is now serving slightly more expensive dishes in a more formal style, and covers have increased as a result.

"They do seem to prefer it as more of a standardised restaurant menu," Eccles says. "People are coming in and having three courses, whereas before they would just have had fish and chips."

The restaurant served an average of 75 more covers a week in March, compared with February's figures, and most of the extra customers have been coming in the evenings.

Sadly, there's not much progress to report from landlord Terry Mellor's negotiations with Jennings, the brewery. Mellor has been hoping to convert his tenancy to a lease for some months now, but there are plenty of details to be pinned down: Jennings needs an exhaustive list of the necessary repairs, for example, and at the moment is looking at plans for a new extraction system. The financial side of the deal has all been agreed, Mellor says, but for the moment it's just a matter of playing the waiting game.

The good news is that NVQ student Chris Quinn, aged 16, has joined the kitchen brigade, bringing the cooking team back up to three. Eccles has started training up his new charge and is very pleased with his attitude to the job: "He turns up early and he doesn't mind staying late."

What more can you ask?

The Wooden Doll
Hudson Street, North Shields, Newcastle NE30 1DL

Tel: 0191-258 1235
Head chef: Dean Eccles
Opened: February 2002
Seats: 50
Initial investment: £5,000
Average weekly sales (March): £3,300
Average weekly covers (March): 400

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