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The Steins on 40 years of the Seafood Restaurant

14 September 2015 by
The Steins on 40 years of the Seafood Restaurant

Having come through a very public break-up, Rick and Jill Stein are as united as ever in driving forward the family business, which this year celebrates its 40th anniversary. Now, supported by their three sons, they are entering a new era of expansion. Janet Harmer speaks to all five Steins together in Padstow

While four members of the family are now involved in the business full time, Rick continues to travel the world making television shows for the BBC and, until recently, spent a good chunk of the year living in Australia. Youngest son Charlie, a geology graduate, also comes and goes as he divides his time between his role managing the on-trade business at the Vintner wine company in London and the West Country.

The Seafood Restaurant, Padstow

So I am fortunate to get to speak with all five of them in one day to discover how the family has reached the point where they feel comfortable about expanding beyond the county where the business was founded 40 years ago.

It is something of a surprise that, having the benefit of a globally recognised name, that it has taken this long for the company to move beyond Cornwall. The arrival of John Jackson as non-executive chairman of Seafood Trading appears to have been the catalyst that has enabled the Steins to take the plunge, with the opening of Rick Stein in Winchester, Hampshire, in December 2014.

L to R: Ed, Jill, Jack, Charlie and Rick Stein

However, having had periodic contact with the Steins over the years - my first visit to Padstow was in the late 1980s when the Seafood Restaurant was accompanied by only a deli - I can understand why it has taken an outsider to make the family believe and recognise the value of the brand, which today encompasses eight restaurants, four shops, 40 bedrooms, a pub and a cookery school.

Rick and Jill had no expectations when they opened the Seafood restaurant in 1975. "It was simply a means of paying the bills when we lost the club licence," says Rick, referring to the nightclub they had to shut down after encountering problems with keeping law and order with a bunch of unruly fishermen. "But it seems that we tapped into our customers' demand for simple, grilled fresh fish at a time when most places were buying it frozen and deep-frying it."

Turbot and hollandaise, the Seafood Restaurant

Drumming up business

The Steins worked incredibly hard in the early years - getting the restaurant up and running alongside juggling life as parents bringing up their three sons, Ed, Jack and Charlie - that they almost didn't have time to eat. They would drum up business by putting notices on vehicles in the local car parks and caravan sites, as well as announcing details of the restaurant through a loud hailer.

Yet as success came their way, initially through winning awards for the restaurant and Rick's books and later through wider television exposure - the first BBC series, Taste of the Sea, was screened in 1995 - the couple remained grounded and almost bemused at the attention that came their way. When Rick was asked to deliver a speech at the Chef's Conference, hosted by The Caterer, in the early 1990s, he did so with a graciousness and warmth which endeared him to delegates - and highlighted his natural ability at being able to perform in front of an audience. But behind the scenes, he suffered nerves and doubts about his abilities.

Rick Stein Porthleven

Ultimately, an in-built caution, together with a lack of ego, has held back the spreading of the Stein wings until now. There was also an unwillingness to create a management structure for the business as Rick and Jill were initially unwilling to let go of day-to-day operations. "I was terrible in my 20s and 30s, I couldn't delegate, I thought I was the only one who could do it," says Rick.

But, of course all that changed in the run-up to the divorce in 2007/8. By this time Rick, winner of the Catey Chef Award in 1999, was spending a great deal of time out of the country, either on TV work or with his new partner Sarah, who he married in 2011. Jill was ever-present, involved in the growth and marketing of the business, as well as designing new restaurants or bedrooms. However, it became inevitable that managers would need to be appointed. As a result, the daily operation of the business was taken over by David Sharland, who looked after food production and front-of-house service, while Rupert Wilson oversaw the bedrooms, retail outlets, cookery school and sales and marketing.

Taste of the Far East, Rick Stein Porthleven

Complementary skills

Today, following the departure of Sharland and Wilson, the management team comprises Jack - the middle Stein son who has a degree in psychology - as executive chef, Ian Fitzgerald as operations director and two operations managers, Salar Brock and Sameer Shetty.

"We don't run the business like we used to as we now have a wonderful operations team to do that for us," says Rick. "We oversee the style and quality."

Last year, Ed - the first-born Stein son - joined the business to work alongside Jill, overseeing new outlet designs and on-going refurbishments. His background as an artist and sculptor, studying historic stone carving, has stood him in good stead for designing the expanded Cornish Arms in St Merryn and helping create the look of the Winchester restaurant.

With Charlie supplying a large bulk of the wine list for the various elements of the business, and talk among various family members that he may one day come on-board full time - possibly as food and beverage director - it seems possible that one day the entire family will be working together. Such unity after what at the time was a traumatic marriage break-up is to be admired. How has this been possible?

Padstow Seafood School

Jill makes it very clear that getting through the split is probably the greatest achievement of a career that has recently seen her achieve recognition in her own right. In 2012 she received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Women 1st Shine Awards, and last year she was presented with an OBE for services to the restaurant industry. Jill has also established herself as a successful interior designer working for private clients beyond the Seafood Restaurant.

"The split was very, very difficult," she tells me. "I did think many times about taking the money and running and, in fact, so many people advised me to do that. But why should I? It was my business, which I had been equally involved with Rick in building up. I had a huge emotional connection to the restaurants and didn't want to let them go. What would I have done if I had gone?

"I don't think Rick wanted me to leave - it made it easier for him that I remained. I'd always looked after the business while he was away. I provided a sense of security and held it together. I eventually got over it and came to terms with what had happened. I decided I had to stay and preserve the businesses for the children. The split has made me stronger and tougher."

Certainly, the Stein sons recognise their mother's strength in keeping the company on an even keel. "It was tough for everyone, but Mum was absolutely dogmatic about keeping the company together," says Ed.

"The restaurants are Mum and Dad's lives," says Charlie. "I could not imagine it without both of them."

St Petroc's hotel and bistro, Padstow

Expanding ambitions

The business has not only remained united, but is now growing at pace, with five major projects launching within 18 months of each other. As well as the expansion of the Cornish Arms and opening of three restaurants (Fistral and Porthleven in Cornwall and Winchester) last year, Rick Stein will open in Sandbanks, Dorset, in the autumn.

"Mum and Dad have had offers from everywhere to open restaurants, including within London hotels, but they have always said no - often because they didn't feel they had the right personnel in place," explains Jack. "The arrival of John [Jackson] has made all the difference. He has been instrumental in convincing us of the integrity of the Rick Stein name."

Jill admits that left to Rick and herself, launching restaurants outside Cornwall would probably never have happened. "We were always too nervous," she says. "Neither of us had formal training and often felt that we weren't good enough. I still don't think I have any special skills, but I think that is typical of many women who sell themselves short."

Rick agrees that he has been equally cautious about growing too fast, put off by witnessing the rapid expansion by some well-known chefs. "It is important to have food, personnel and cost controls in place. John has ensured all these things are in place and has brought discipline to the business."

Jackson, former chief executive of the Jamie Oliver Group, was instrumental in securing the Winchester site. It was previously occupied by Union Jacks, the British brand from Jamie Oliver that failed to capture the imagination of the British public.

Huevos rancheros, Rick Stein Fistral

Cautious steps

"Winchester has proved to be a great location for us as it is a reasonably wealthy city with lots of London commuters who like to eat out," says Jack. "It has also introduced us to a new business model, where the restaurant is busy all year round, which is very different from Cornwall where businesses are more seasonal - although Padstow does well most of the time."

Rick Stein in Winchester is described as a smaller version of the Seafood Restaurant, but with a similar, laid-back vibe at a cheaper price point. All the fish served at the Seafood Restaurant is wild, with an average spend of £54, while the reliance on more farmed fish in Winchester brings the price down to £36.

The next restaurant is in the wealthy coastal resort of Sandbanks. Located on the site of the former Café Shore, the 200-seat venture will become the largest restaurant in the group to date. "I'm quite nervous about it," says Rick, who explains that the restaurant will offer reasonably priced dishes to people coming off the beach as well as turbot and Dover sole.

Jill and Ed, supported by Ed's wife Kate, are currently working on the design of the project in conjunction with London-based architects, Stiff + Trevillion. The look of the Sandbanks restaurant will be slightly more urban than previous outlets, with local Portland stone with fossils and shells being very much in evidence.

"It will be quite pared back, with the use of lots of natural, organic materials," explains Edward, who tells me that he has a very good working relationship with his mother, enjoying open discussions with her.

"That's very different from how I work with Rick," pipes up Jack, who tells me that his father still oversees every menu. "He tells me what he wants and that's the end of the discussion. I can get my ideas through, but I have to manage him in a certain way."

Rick later told me: "I'm letting Jack get on with it more. I want him to have a bigger say."

There was never any expectation from either Rick or Jill that the sons should join the business. "I actively tried to persuade Jack not to go into the kitchen as it is such a demanding and all-encompassing job. But he convinced me that the bullying that once went on is so very different now," says Rick.

Jill tells me that she wanted the boys to choose their own path in life and encouraged them to go off and do other things before joining the company. "We are of course delighted that they are now working with us. They've always understood our strong work ethic and have slotted very well into the business. They are well-respected by the staff and have no sense of entitlement in any way."

Rick Stein Fistral

Bearing forward

Looking ahead, it is expected there will be more restaurants on the horizon. Jill explains that a group of seaside hotels has been considered, but ultimately they believe they are restaurateurs rather than hoteliers, despite a collection of well-received bedrooms across Padstow. "We will look at market towns and coastal towns across the south," she says. Rick says expansion will be steady: "We don't intend to open tons of restaurants."

While it is unlikely there will be much further expansion within Padstow, there is one new project on the horizon. St Petroc's, the 10-bedroom hotel that became part of the company in 1988, is to be extended into the adjoining 16th-century building to create a bar with a private dining room upstairs.

The boys have all inherited their parents' cautious nature about over-stretching the business. "The recent expansion has been pretty intense," says Jack. "Whatever we do, it is important that we maintain the quality."

What is certain is that Rick is now likely to be in Padstow and the new locations much more than in recent years, having relocated his main home from Australia to Chiswick.

Jill is pleased that he will be around more. "He has always been involved in the big decisions, even when he hasn't been here."

It is not unusual for marital splits to occur when a husband and wife are working within their own business within the industry - the unsocial hours, combined with the constant need to chase customers, creates extraordinary pressures. What is rare though, is keeping a business together through the trauma of a divorce and coming out the other side.

It has not been without its complications, but Rick and Jill have worked to ensure the business will continue for years to come. While the sons are ready to take over, it doesn't look as if their parents are taking any steps to retire. Both now 68, they are as active as ever in the operation, although Rick does concur that it will eventually be handed over. And now there's a third generation in the mix: the first grandchild - Ed's son Hugh - is three years old.

The Stein empire

Annual trading of Seafood Trading £15.3m

Staff Average full-time equivalent, 285

Annual wage bill £5.8m

Padstow

The Seafood Restaurant 120 seats and 16 bedrooms

St Petroc's Hotel and Bistro 50 seats and 10 bedrooms

Rick Stein's Café 32 seats and three bedrooms

Stein's Fish & Chips 40 seats

St Edmunds House Six bedrooms

Prospect House Four bedrooms

Bryn Cottage One bedroom self-catering

Padstow Seafood School

Stein's Deli

Stein's Patisserie

Stein's Gift Shop

The Cornish Arms (in St Merryn) 140 seats inside, 100 outside

Falmouth

Rick Stein's Fish 68 seats

Porthleven

Rick Stein 90 seats inside, 20 outside

Fistral

Rick Stein 100 seats

Winchester, Hampshire

Rick Stein 65 seats

Sandbanks, Dorset

Rick Stein 200 seats, opening autumn 2015

Dover sole meunière

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