When John and Kimberley Calton took over an old quayside boozer in North Shields, people thought they'd bitten off more than they could chew. But three years on, the Staith House is picking up accolades left, right and centre, including this year's Newcomer Award at the Cateys. James Stagg reports
Founders might refer to their business as ‘my baby', though few would countenance opening a fledgling restaurant at the same time as caring for a newborn child. But in the case of John and Kimberley Calton, the launch of the Staith House in North Shields was a family operation in every sense.
"On 7 November we'll have been open three years and our girl was born on 10 November, so we'll never forget how long we've been open," Kimberley explains. "If someone had suggested we'd have a baby a couple of days after opening our restaurant, you would say absolutely no way, but when it just all happens at the same time somehow you're three years down the line and you've done it. We just got on with it."
For John and business partner James Laffan it meant working all hours to get the business off the ground.
L to R: James Laffan, Kimberley Calton, John Calton
"I'm being serious when I say I can't remember anything until about March," John adds. "One day I just slid down the wall in the office upstairs and fell asleep. I was up all night, we were in here all day, everyone wanted to see us fail. People don't like change."
The pub they took on was an old boozer, known as the Dolphin, situated at the end of North Shields quayside. It had been frequented by local fishermen, but had fallen into disrepair and needed the passion of locals like John, Kimberley and James to see the potential.
'Everyone thought we were mad'
"John and I grew up in South Shields over the estuary, so we've always had a bit of affinity with the area," Kimberley says. "We wanted something that stayed true to the produce. It's a bit of a unique location. Originally we thought we could just tart up the inside a bit and everyone thought we were mad."
The trio had to prove themselves to pub operator Star Pubs & Bars before it would consider any investment, so they continued to operate the pub as the Dolphin for six months, losing £1,000 each month in the process.
"There were days when we wouldn't even pull a pint," John confesses. Having demonstrated their determination to make it work they then took on the lease, along with a loan for fixtures and fittings, to turn the pub into the Staith House.
The pub was completely overhauled, with a refurbishment that subtly references the area's fishing heritage with details such as reclaimed wood cladding and a few portholes hiding lighting, while a ships chart dominates the room.
Though it sits at the end of a strip of pubs and bars on North Shields Fish Quay, few are as food-led as the Staith House set out to be, so it wasn't immediately accepted.
The value of confidence
"In the beginning everyone said people didn't want food in pubs round here," John adds. "But we were confident about what we could bring. You've got to be thick-skinned at the start."
Kimberley's background as a mortgage advisor gave John and James the confidence to know they weren't likely to go too far wrong financially, while they could get on with developing the menu and overseeing service.
"I spend the money on the food and stuff like that and work out what to sell it at," John says. "But if I want a new piece of equipment she'll say 'not now, wait till next month'. She's great with things like that; she's a positive person as well, because she knows what hard work it is."
Meanwhile James had originally been front of house, but became a chef, having joined John in the kitchen of the Duke of Wellington pub in Northumberland seven years ago.
"The way he followed what I showed him to do, it was like he'd been cooking for years. And then it transpired a few weeks later after giving him a job as a chef, he had actually been front of house," John explains.
"He'd done a little bit of cooking but not much. Since then, I thought, this guy has got something because you don't come across chefs very often who just copy everything the way you want them to. He's got a very delicate touch, and a good eye for detail. I'm glad there's three of us in on the business; if it was me by myself I'd be tearing my hair out by now. Three heads are better than one."
The dishes that John and James prepare from the small kitchen - they had to build a kitchen in the pub and the only suitable space was fairly tight - have put the business on the culinary map and helped it pick up a slew of awards along the way. This year the Staith House won the Newcomer Award at the Cateys and made the final of the Seafish Restaurant of the Year, while John picked up the title of Gastropub Chef of the Year. That's to add to the title of 2015 Food Pub of the Year at the Great British Pub awards.
Grilled local hake with Morecambe Bay brown shrimps, pickled fennel and grapes
As you might expect, given its location, the Staith House menu is dominated by fish, with the best local produce featuring in daily changing dishes with clean, pure flavours designed to let the main ingredient shine. Typical dishes include grilled fillets of local mackerel, cucumber, yoghurt, beetroot and red onions; turbot, girolles, nut brown butter and squash; and cod, smoked Cheddar terrine; plum tomato sauce, basil and extra virgin.
It's not all based around produce from the sea, though; in a rooftop smoker James and John create charcuterie and smoke game, beef and cheese along with fish. The menu also includes beef, lamb and duck, as well as game when it's in season.
"We sell loads of game in the winter, which surprised us," John says. "And obviously the shellfish is at its best then as well. The scallops just get bigger and bigger in the winter. The only thing we don't source locally is the cheese, which we get from Neal's Yard, while duck and poultry is from Johnson and Swarbrick."
As long as it's local and the quality is right, the Staith House is interested.
"We charge the prices accordingly," John adds. "We always try and aim for 75% GP, though it comes in a little under that. It's also value for money; you're not going to get small portions here so it is going to be a wedge of turbot.
"Customers want value, but I always say to them, we could buy cheap beef and sell it a bit cheaper. I'd rather go into service with confidence and every time I cook a steak, it's cracking; it's really good steak. One time I got beef from elsewhere and we had a few complaints and I said never again. If the beef doesn't come in I just take it off the menu."
As for the fish, John has total confidence that he is only serving the freshest available.
"We get a call from our fish supplier around 7am, who tells me what's great and what we should get," John says. "And it's pretty much all local. We get the best crab and if it's not landed in Shields it comes from Whitby.
"We pay our fish man every week. We don't owe anyone any money. We said from day one we would pay everything up front. If we closed tomorrow we wouldn't owe anyone anything, and we'd have had a great run at it."
It's that honesty that has helped drive the business, with the chefs forging relationships across the industry. They both take regular trips to other operators to learn their secrets and bring a few tips back to their own business. In fact it's tempting to call them culinary magpies - not just because of the Staith House's proximity to Newcastle - but given the inspiration they take from other operators.
"For me it's about putting all the best available ingredients on a plate," John adds. "I've never been into technique for technique's sake. Things like the curing, the charcuterie, the simple fish techniques, the brining - which I learnt from Tom Kerridge's place. I went to work there this year."
Oven-roasted Stanhope Moor grouse, celeriac, charred hispi, blackberry compote and roasted walnuts
Learning from the very top
It's clear from spending any time in John's company that he's got a passion for the industry and a willingness to learn, even while he's worrying about running his own operation.
"I make time. It's not always easy," he adds. "This year I went to Nathan Outlaw's and Tom Kerridge's. You evolve new ideas. If you stand still, people will lose interest. I get bored as well, I'm always thirsty for knowledge.
"With Nathan Outlaw it makes sense to go and work with the best guy that cooks the best fish, while the Hand & Flowers is the best pub, and we're a pub. The idea is to go and work with the best and see what we can bring back."
James is similarly keen to get out of his comfort zone and learn from those at the top of their game. In the past year he has spent time at L'Enclume in Cartmel, Cumbria and Dominic Chapman's the Beehive in White Waltham, Berkshire - which was shortlisted alongside Staith House for the Newcomer Catey.
"It's a bit of a challenge to manage but you have to make the effort," he says. "It keeps you thinking. When I went to L'Enclume it's very different to what we're doing but it's more the ethos and respect for ingredients we're interested in. It's impressive to see the organisation and level of detail too."
John adds that the trips also help them get an insight into other operation's business procedures. "It's not just about nicking ideas for the food; it's about how people run a business," he says. "I'm always looking at logistics and little tips to help make life easier."
And it's not all one-way traffic - the Staith House is keen to return the favour. One of its initiatives includes hosting four guest chef nights a year, which not only gets locals talking about the business and returning, but also provides a platform for like-minded chefs from around the country. So far this year the Staith House has held sell-out dinners with Steve Smith from the Freemasons at Wiswell, Anton Piotrowski of the Treby Arms in Sparkwell, Devon and Andrew Fishwick from the Truscott Arms in Maida Vale. This week it hosts Andrew Pern from the Star Inn at Harome.
"They're always fully booked," says Kimberley. "People come to one and really enjoy it, so they want to come to the next one. It's getting to the stage where it's the same people coming and no one else can get a look in because everyone else wants to rebook."
Furthermore, the relationship with other top chefs allied to the affirmation created by the awards means that locals are now more willing to give dishes a go that they might not have ordered elsewhere. John explains: "At the moment I sell a lot of whole grilled plaice. When I first opened people wouldn't go for fish; they didn't want it on the bone. Now everyone wants it on the bone.
"I think people will try things that they've never tried before in here. The staff are also good at being able to say 'try it, try something different', talking people through the menu."
The business has now struck a positive balance between locals and those who have travelled as a result of the recognition it has received, says Kimberley.
"We have a really good demographic of customers. We wanted somewhere that was informal, where you can go and have a really nice plate of food, but it doesn't have to be stuffy service," she adds.
Three years after what might be considered a difficult birth and the Staith House has matured into a highly regarded local business, with very proud owners.
John concludes: "When I think back how hard it was at the beginning, it was crazy. Really tough. I just can't believe our little business that was losing money three years ago has become this massive award-winning operation."
Staith House at a glance
- Covers 60 (including 20 outside)
- Employees 14
- Turnover £700,000
- Food GP 70%
- Chilli pig's head broth, slow-cooked pork belly, peas, broad beans, squid, £8
- Beer battered scallops, squid ink aÁ¯oli and coriander, £9.50
- Whole grilled local plaice, chive and anchovy butter, Morecambe Bay brown shrimp, £17
- Thick slice of bass, samphire, tartar sauce and handcuts, £19
- Vanilla panna cotta, strawberry soup, £6
MasterChef - The Professionals inspiration
Though ironically out of work by the time the show aired, John Calton was a finalist in MasterChef - The Professionals in 2010, narrowly beaten by Claire Lara in the final. The experience gave him the confidence to start planning for a future striking out on his own.
"I was unemployed while MasterChef was on. I had been working in a place where we achieved two rosettes along with dealing with around 120 weddings a year, but assurances I had been given weren't followed through," John explains. "So I left and I'd had a few drinks and I'd seen an online application form for MasterChef. I didn't really know what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go so I went for it."
After the exposure of the TV show, John and Kimberley realised it might be time to consider working for themselves.
"John had done MasterChef and he was making a lot of money but for other people," Kimberley says. "He's the one with the talent and I've got more business acumen. If I was really talented at something I'm sure he would support me. Supporting him to do what he wants to do is the best thing I've ever done."
For John, Kimberley and James, it was something of a homecoming, though James was in the uncomfortable position of telling his current employer that he was opening up over the road.
"It made it look like we'd done a number on him but we hadn't," John explains.
"He still doesn't speak to us, which is a shame as we could be in there having something to eat and his staff could come in here. At the time I was sick of working away; I wanted to do something myself."
57 Low Lights
North Shields Fish Quay, NE30 1JA
You need to be a premium member to view this. Subscribe from just 99p per week.
Already subscribed? Log In