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All in the family: the next generation of the Stein empire

28 October 2020 by

While Jill and Rick might be the most recognisable Stein names, the events of this year have seen Ed, Jack and Charlie take a step up. Emma Lake finds out how the younger Stein generation is preparing for the new era.

When coronavirus struck at the end of the long winter season, the Stein family's empire faced a "dog fight" for survival.

Sons Ed, Jack and Charlie have all been made directors of the company that their parents, Jill and Rick, have grown over 45 years, starting from a single restaurant in Padstow and were on the frontline of the battle. While the years have seen outposts pop up in the likes of Barnes, west London, and Marlborough, Wiltshire, the Stein empire continues to be based predominantly in Padstow, and relies on the hordes that travel to the south-west coast over the summer months.

Like many others emerging from the off-season just as the pandemic hit, March's lockdown came at a time when the company's reserves were diminished and unable to provide a buffer, requiring the family to pull together for that "proper dog fight".

"It was a survival thing," explains Jack. "It was extremely stressful and also cognitively difficult because you're constantly thinking not just about numbers, but also that if we went under, it would have meant 500 to 600 people losing their jobs, at a time when nobody could afford to lose them because of the way things were going with Covid-19 and the economy."

Seven months on from the initial lockdown and almost four months since July's reopening, the business has survived, minus only its Porthleven site, which was sold to Michael Caines, and has even seen a successful late season.

"Everyone in the teams and the family did an amazing job," Jack continues. "In March I would have bitten your hand off for the position we're in now and that's not withstanding the fact the insurance case is still ongoing. We just have to keep fighting."

At one point the directors had feared redundancies could reach three figures, even if the business had survived. But, after taking a microscopic look at the way the company had been functioning and making difficult decisions as a family, under the guidance of chairman Penny Searles and financial director Anthony Clare, about 30 roles were lost, including several long-term team members who opted to take voluntary redundancy.

"It was a big piece of work looking at every part of the business, including the parts Ed, Charlie and I were involved in, and saying, "Is this going to help the business?'," Jack says. "There was a lot of soul-searching. After being in the top 100 employers in The Sunday Times last year, to have this straight afterwards has been tough."

Charlie adds: "It was incredibly hard making these decisions. It felt like we were on the phone every 10 minutes. We were in lockdown and it was a very depressing, worrying, claustrophobic time. To make those decisions quite quickly without seeing your family, to have that emotional connection, was very hard."

To make those decisions quite quickly without seeing your family, to have that emotional connection, was very hard

While both Jill and Rick have experience in guiding a hospitality business through tough times, they agreed the challenges of 2020 have required fresh and clinical thinking.

Ed, Jill, Charlie, Rick and Jack Stein
Ed, Jill, Charlie, Rick and Jack Stein

Jill explains: "In our 45 years we've been through three or four recessions, but this has been very, very tricky. In a way it came at a time when we had to have a cold, hard look at our business and decide to get rid of what wasn't working, I think every company like ours has to do that periodically."

Rick faced the additional challenge of being in Australia when lockdown hit. He says: "It was not very nice. I think initially we just thought we were going to go under, because, like so many restaurant groups, we had expanded a little bit too much and got a little too optimistic about the future. The lockdown really drove home to us that we were not in a great position with the bank, that we had too big a workforce and too many restaurants.

Like so many restaurant groups, we had expanded a little bit too much and got a little too optimistic about the future

"One thing Anthony noticed was that the business's bones were good, its foundation was good – it just needed a lot of cost-cutting. The thing about Covid is that it's a great leveller – you couldn't afford to be emotional about things, because it was either be brutal or lose your livelihood."

The restaurateur-turned-celebrity-chef estimates that the business lost around £7m in turnover during the months it was closed and, in common with many, come July its future prospects were dependant on a strong end to the season, which it was hoped could be extended into the autumn and winter months.

Bouncing back

While the outlook has been made murkier since the introduction of the government's three-tier system earlier this month, the R rate in the south-west remains low and visitors have clearly sought the rejuvenating appeal of the coast after those long months of confinement.

Jack says: "We are booked up until October half-term at a summer-like capacity. If people spread their plans a bit wider, that might help us out. We're still concerned about the winter – that's always going to be a concern because of the nature of a seasonal business – but we have got some money in the bank, which might see us through. We're making hay while the sun shines, but we're not out of the woods yet."

The return of visitors to Cornwall was abrupt and saw the family's flagship Seafood Restaurant go from "zero to 100 overnight", and they have all credited the teams across the business who made it a success.

Jack adds: "We were all just trying to get through. The team was quite rightly nervous, but we've got through it. Our staff have been fantastic; they really have worked as hard as they've ever worked this summer, because they understand we're all in it together."

Strength of demand and some goodwill in the form of a rent reduction from their landlord also allowed the family to backtrack on their decision to permanently close their restaurant in Marlborough. "That was a really positive story in a sea of closures," Jack explains. "It was a marginal call. It was a relatively new restaurant and we really liked the town; it was just that the numbers didn't quite stack up. All of us brothers felt it had been just the wrong side of keeping it open.

"Being able to reopen it was a real positive, because it's not all doom and gloom in our industry – although there's definitely some huge challenges to come."

Charlie adds: "We can't thank the majority of our landlords enough. We were hopeful they would help, but they went out of their way." Before Jack continues: "Our suppliers have been amazing too. We owed them a lot of money when we closed down, which we've paid off now, but they were so good to us."

The future

Should a second lockdown, circuit-break or otherwise, be announced, the business is in a better position to respond quickly, having launched Stein's at Home food boxes, which continue to sell 1,000-2,000 meals a week, as well as an online wine business, spearheaded by Charlie.

The business also has 36 bedrooms, which have provided another source of income in recent months. Restrictions on overseas travel have seen a wider, and younger, demographic head to Cornwall for a break this year, and the brothers are hopeful that the area can provide opportunities through the leaner months ahead.

Ed explains: "We have space, room and fresh sea air here. Essentially, we're in the right place and we've benefitted from our location.

"We've had some interest from burnt-out Londoners wanting to holiday with us in January – they're seeing it as a time to come when it's really quiet. I can see the attraction in the wildness and ruggedness of the coast.

"I think there could be some room for retreats in some of our accommodation and I wouldn't be surprised if the season runs through to January and February."

This ambition may well be helped by the fact that in January, Rick will be back on television screens with a new series celebrating Cornwall (see panel). Within the group, plans are also afoot for an alternative Christmas festival which, following in the footsteps of similar events during lockdown, will bring together chefs and suppliers to celebrate hospitality and, of course, the festive season.

The three younger Steins can rely on their parents' guidance and support, with neither planning on stepping away from the business they've grown over decades, but the mantle of responsibility to keep the Steins serving seafood on the south coast for generations to come is clearly being felt.

Ed says: "We've all got greater responsibility. We're all directors now, so it's down to us to drive the business forward and keep an eye on it. The responsibility is much greater than it was and our mum and dad have given us their blessing to do that."

Rick adds: "Let's not make any bones about it: Covid has been and is continuing to be a stressful and very difficult time for everybody. But one of the bright things for me has been taking time, with some advice, on getting my sons much more involved in running the business.

"At one stage years ago I didn't want them to be in the business, because hotels and restaurants are so tough. I just thought we did well off it and were able to give them a good education to go off and do something different, but in their own ways they've all come back.

"You know if you keep a business in the family you've got loyalty – no question about it. That's really important. Trust is a given thing in a family business and it's great that we all think together in the same way and are all very keen on looking after each other."

Developing roles

Ed Stein

Ed, who has a background in art and design, had previously been heavily involved in new openings, developing the look and feel of rooms and restaurants as well as overseeing maintenance. However, with capital expenditure on hold, he explains that he will oversee a broad brief in the coming months, filling in where necessary, including keeping a keen eye on the food offering and the look and feel of the restaurants.

He says: "My brothers and I have needed to get stuck in because we haven't got the support we enjoyed pre-lockdown, being slightly reduced in numbers. We need to be adaptable – I have worked in every aspect of the business and I am going to be getting involved across it from a director point of view."

Charlie Stein

Prior to the coronavirus crisis, sommelier Charlie had been working for the company in a consultancy role developing the wine offering.

"This crisis has bought me back into the family fold, which has been great," he says. "Me and Jack are overseeing marketing, I've just project-managed the website, and I'll always look after wine and beverage, which has included an exercise of changing around suppliers and cutting down wine lists to make it more efficient."

Jack Stein

Jack had been executive chef of the restaurant group for a couple of years before becoming a director. He says: "I'm helping out Charlie with the marketing and I have my usual focus on food. We've been simplifying menus and concentrating on what we know people like. A challenge like this makes you look at what you do well and concentrate on that – there are very few people who don't like a piece of turbot with hollandaise or a lobster."

Jill Stein

Jill Stein
Jill Stein

After more than four decades at the helm of the business she launched with her ex-husband, Jill Stein has no intention of retiring, but she is excited to see how her sons can build on their success and entice a new generation of guests.

"When Rick and I ran the business together… it was a lot smaller than it is today, but we did everything right. That sounds very arrogant, but we did it slowly, it was organic, we only grew when we had the money to do it and it worked – it really did.

"We bought a lot of property in Padstow at a time when we were able to and expanded our business in small ways that have proved very successful. We had a game plan and we just did things when we felt instinctively we should do them.

"Now I think there are great opportunities, which our sons will see, where Rick and I, at our age, might have said ‘oh, I'm not sure about that'.

"They've got to take the risks now. Rick and I took many risks in our career and they've got to do the same. I always think as an entrepreneur that you have to get up every day and feel nervous – that's the thing that drives you forward. They've got to be able to do that.

"I still want to be a big part of the business. I don't think I'll ever retire, but it's very important our sons have a voice now and they start putting their mark on the business. Rick and I have done our bit – we've done 45 years of it – and they're young, enthusiastic and very knowledgeable. It's their turn."

Rick Stein

Rick Stein
Rick Stein

Rick Stein spent his lockdown in Australia, after restrictions stranded him during a trip to visit his two restaurants on the continent. While the distance made communication challenging, it did give him an insight into the post-lockdown consumer habits ahead of his return to Cornwall.

He says: "From a hospitality point of view, everything happened a little quicker in Australia than it did here, so I was able to tell people back home that restaurants would be busy. In the early days there were pieces in the newspaper saying restaurants as we know them are finished, people won't want to go back, it's too risky. But, in Australia, as soon as the restaurants reopened, everybody wanted to come back, because restaurants are so much part of our lives these days."

Back in Cornwall there had been some nervousness from locals about the return of tourists. Rick says: "Obviously businesses like ours, which trade on attracting visitors to Cornwall, could have been targeted, but they weren't. People were very decent – they might have had a few goes at second homeowners, but I think there's an understanding that, for better or worse, tourism is the industry in Cornwall and it matters."

The celebrity chef will be back on television screens in January, in his new programme for BBC Two, Rick Stein's Cornwall.

He explains: "We talked to a lot of producers and chefs and did a lot of cooking, but we also brought other things into it, like art, literature, music, quirky stories – it's good fun. I think the BBC felt we all needed a bit of cheering up. We're very lucky, it's sort of a great hymn to British life and how many great things there are to be found in any part of Britain. It's not political – it's not a Second World War ‘keep calm and carry on' broadcast, but there's an element of saying ‘let's not be too depressed'. It's not for no reason it's coming out in January."

The restaurants

Padstow

  • The Seafood Restaurant
  • Seafood Bar and Fishmongers
  • Rick Stein's Café
  • Ruby's Bar
  • St Petroc's Bistro
  • Stein's Fish and Chips
  • Stein's on the Quay

Cornwall

  • The Cornish Arms, St Merryn
  • Rick Stein – Falmouth
  • Rick Stein – Fistral, Newquay

The UK

  • Rick Stein – Sandbanks, Dorset
  • Rick Stein – Winchester, Hampshire
  • Rick Stein – Barnes, west London
  • Rick Stein – Marlborough, Wiltshire

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Jacobs Media Group is honoured to be the recipient of the 2020 Queen's Award for Enterprise.

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