Nathan Jones, one of the founders of contract caterer Harbour & Jones, has taken on more of a personal project with the Hog, a contemporary cool take on the seaside hotel in Suffolk. Emma Lake pays a visit
After 25 years in contract catering, Nathan Jones has returned to his hometown on the Suffolk coastline to open a boutique family-run hotel with the intention of attracting visitors to the less well-trodden areas of the county.
Last month he and wife Sally formally opened the doors of the Hog in the suburb of Pakefield, just moments from the pristine sands of Lowestoft seafront and 15 minutes from the attractions of Southwold. The hotel was named after the hedgehog, the favourite animal of Nathan's late father, Dave.
Nathan trained as a chef before co-founding contract caterer Harbour & Jones with Patrick Harbour in 2004. In 2017, the caterer merged with CH&Co, with both Nathan and Harbour remaining directors. A year on, and in search of a new challenge, he and Sally, who was Harbour & Jones' sales and marketing director, came upon the Fishers hotel.
Nathan says he first noticed the property while visiting his ill father. He explains: "I was driving past this place quite a bit; it had been on the market for three years and I always felt it hadn't really reached its full potential. I thought so much more could have been done with it."
The caterer has deep roots in the area. His parents owned a fish and chip shop called the Codfather just moments from the Hog and he trained as a chef at nearby Lowestoft College before leaving the area at the age of 21 for the bright lights and opportunities of the capital.
Like many coastal areas, Lowestoft's fortunes have been tumultuous in recent years, but it's apparent that the tide is changing. With Suffolk tourism valued at £2b for the first time in 2017, the fortunes that have already hit fashionable Aldeburgh and Southwold are making their way northwards up the coastline.
Nathan says he has a desire to help his hometown reap the benefits, explaining: "I
"Dynamics are changing, and the staycation is going to be the big thing in the next five to 10 years, with so much uncertainty around Europe. When the sun's shining there's no better place than the seaside, and I think Lowestoft, Aldeburgh and Southwold are classic English, heritage seaside towns."
Sally adds: "You can go horse riding on Pakefield beach, and we've paired with a brewery for tours, cheese tours, ghost tours. There's amazing birdwatching, a big cycling network - it's all making Pakefield a destination."
The husband-and-wife team purchased the hotel, originally a farmhouse, for just shy of £800,000 in August 2018 and have spent a further £1m renovating it. The dark wood, red walls and carpets have been replaced to create a bright, light, Scandi-inspired feel with plenty of nods to the surrounding landscapes under the eye of local designer Shelf Interiors.
The renovation included all public areas, the bedrooms and the kitchen, which will serve the restaurant, bar and conservatory. The room count has been reduced to 14 and two suites to allow for the inclusion of a fully accessible suite with wet room and private garden.
Rooms have been given three classifications: classic double, comfortable double and luxury double, priced between £130 and £190 in peak season.
The rooms in the 150-year-old property are all decorated in shades of grey, blue, green and yellow and these colours feature throughout the hotel. The rooms are differentiated by different wallpapers and artwork and include toiletries from Suffolk-based Loggique, Harpo beds and Heritage bathrooms.
Another cohesive theme is the presence of Dave the hedgehog, named for Nathan's father, who pops up in artworks and 'do not disturb' signs reading 'please groom my room'. There are further quirky design touches, including an attention-grabbing, colourful spiked mirror in the public bathroom. Sally explains: "We want people to take a picture of our fantastic mirror in the bathroom, of the wallpaper, of our do not disturb sign and Instagram it. We want it to be very personable but at the same time quite cool."
The hotel will be marketed through online travel agents including Expedia and Booking.com, but it's hoped that in time a marketing database can be built up, with the owners having set the aim of reaching 40% direct booking in its first few years.
Keeping it in the family
The Hog is a family affair and Nathan's sister Cathy has taken on the position of general manager. When Nathan headed to London, Cathy continued to live locally and explains that the neighbours are excited to have a new food and beverage offer in their community, adding that it is important to "make Pakefield proud".
While Cathy and her team are eager to showcase the area to tourists and want to continue to attract business travellers - the off-shore industries seeing a regular stream - they are also hoping local customers will come regularly to enjoy the food of executive chef Matt Catterall in the newly refurbished restaurant and bar.
Sally agrees: "Locals are very important; we want them to pop in for a scone in the afternoon and come and mark celebrations with us. We're also looking to open breakfast and brunch to the public. Nathan has written three letters to the neighbours - about 100 homes - and we've received about a dozen gifts. People are really pleased to have something new coming to the area."
Catterall, who worked for Harbour & Jones for more than a decade, will be developing regularly changing menus aimed at keeping locals heading back through the doors with the promise of something new. The hotel has opened with a Venetian offering, but this is planned to change on a rolling monthly basis, with the Greek islands, Mexico City and Bordeaux menus lined up for the coming months.
Nathan explains: "Our Sunday lunch menu will change week by week and our main menu month by month. We're going to do different regions, almost like we would do theme days in contract foodservice. The idea behind that is to get regular footfall. We will look to do a passport, so people can come and visit 11 regions during the year and then enjoy a free Christmas dinner."
The menus are inspired by Nathan and Sally's travels around the world and have been researched during visits to the countries before being refined. Catterall aims to emulate not just the flavours of different countries, but also the pace of a meal and a matching drink offering.
Alongside the restaurant menu will be a bar offering of local favourites, such as Lowestoft kipper with Suffolk rarebit and potted shrimps, alongside classic bar dishes including a club sandwich.
Similarly, an expansive drink offering has been designed to draw guests into trying something new. Local beverages have been championed throughout, from Frampaign - brewed at Shawsgate Vineyard in nearby Framlingham - to beers brewed by Lowestoft-based Green Jack. A wine list inclusive of new- and old-world offerings features house wine, white wine, red wine, 'posh white' and 'posh red', with notes of suitable accompaniments.
There is however a possibly surprising omission on the menu: "Only two items come with chips - that's a huge statement up here," Nathan says. "My mum and dad lived in the chip shop around the corner. We had that chip shop for 15 years; when I was at school or college, I'd be doing potatoes. So, having come from a chip shop, one of things we wanted to do was not to serve chips. There are really decent chip shops around here, so if you want chips, go to a chip shop."
For Sally and Nathan, it's a point of difference. Having invested heavily to banish tar-covered ceilings and tired carpets, they want to see locals and guests alike invest in their vision for the hotel. Hence, they have implemented a policy headed Dave's Rules, explaining that Nathan's father was an ex-military man who was a huge disciplinarian. Surprisingly for a seaside hotel, guests are asked not to wear sports colours, caps or flip-flops, as well as requested to drink in moderation. Meanwhile, payment is by debit and credit cards only and bar tabs are not offered.
Nathan continues to be a director of CH&Co, working several days a week with the caterer. He adds: "With my background in sales and finance systems and Sally's in sales and retail, we pack quite a punch. We've got a lot of skills we've honed in 25 years of contract foodservice, playing in a commercial market. With the right social media and the right stories we can create the interest to come and see us."
The food offering, design and outlook of the Hog all follow a desire to showcase this area of the East Anglian coastline; introducing people to not just beautiful countryside and beaches, but artisan producers, artists and a rich history, while planting the hotel firmly at the heart of the community and ensuring a sunny future on the Suffolk coastline.
Taste Venice menu Five courses for £45, featuring:
•Cicchetti: sat cod brandade, anchovies, roasted tomatoes, garlic and parsley
•Nonna's meatballs with tomato sauce
•Vongole: bigoli pasta with Palourde clams, garlic, chili, parsley, white wine and olive oil
•Roast hake and sliced Venetian-style potatoes
•Italian apple cake
Directors and owners Nathan and Sally Jones
Director and general manager Cathy Jones
Food and beverage manager Lou Neeve
Executive chef Matt Catterall
Front of house supervisor Aiga Migain
Expansion in East Anglia
Nathan and Sally have plans to expand to a string of hotels restaurants along the East Anglian coastline.
The couple said they would continue to focus on up-and-coming areas in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, as well as Kent - with Felixstowe already named as an area of interest.
The plan is for the group to share an ideology - and possibly the Hog name - but to each have an independent boutique feel, with the properties being kept as close to 20 rooms as possible.
The hotels will be financed privately until the group has three or four sites, with Nathan saying he would then consider looking to private equity to purchase a small group of properties.
If the expansion goes to plan, Catterall would take on a development role, with Nathan and Sally already looking to set plans in place to establish a streamline of talent.
Nathan said the business had been inundated with applications for the positions available at the Hog in Pakefield, but that finding the right people had proved difficult, with several chefs failing skills tests.
In response he has already taken on one apprentice in the kitchen - with the help of his former lecturer at Lowestoft College - and has plans to expand the scheme, not just to budding chefs, but also front of house positions.
Sally adds: "Hospitality is an amazing business to be in and we want to give it pride in the local area, rather than see it be a last-ditch attempt."
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