My Pub: Ship in Distress, Mudeford, Dorset.

By Sheila McWattie

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Traditional community pub, Pub grub, Sauce

The Ship in Distress, Mudeford, Dorset
The Ship in Distress, Mudeford, Dorset
Sheila McWattie meets Maggie Wheeler, chef-proprietor of the Ship in Distress, in Mudeford, Dorset.

How I got here

I’ve worked in the hospitality industry since my late teens. Originally from Barnet, north London, I moved to Bournemouth in 1986 and operated a bed & breakfast as a family business.

After that I managed the restaurant at the Ship in Distress for 10 years, and the opportunity arose to purchase the lease in 2006. We are less than a mile from the fishing port of Mudeford, on the outskirts of Christchurch, and specialise in locally caught fish and shellfish.

Dating back more than 300 years, the pub is steeped in smuggling history and local folklore and has featured in films and literature.

How we grew the business

Taking over the lease was a culture shock, especially in the first two years, as the pub’s disrepair was so extensive, with leaking roofs, blocked drains and failing kitchen equipment, combined with an impending recession and the imposition of the smoking ban.

For the first six months it was just one thing after another. After our first Christmas things began to settle down and I was able to make my mark. One of my aims was to maintain the success of the seafood restaurant.

As manager I had seen the potential for improving communication, starting with the relationship between the kitchen and serving staff — easier said than done, but I persevered. It’s still hard work, but it’s paying off. With experienced and resourceful staff, things can only get better as long as we maintain our focus.

One of my biggest decisions was optimising the value of our kitchen operations and in July 2009 I took on the role of chef. With a lot of effort, long hours and enormous support from my family and locals, I now see a difference in turnover and more importantly plenty of returning customers.

Being part of the community is very important here and we are becoming increasingly involved in local activities and events. Profits are increasing steadily — about 25% so far and rising, since I went into the kitchen.

Business philosophy

To be one of the focal points of our village, offering a friendly welcome and good honest food.

Best advice ever given

Make your expectations very clear to your staff.

How we stand out

We’re the only seafood restaurant in the area specialising in locally caught lobsters and crabs. Our menu changes with the tide and is prepared according to availability from local boats. We are featured in Alistair Sawday’s Pubs & Inns of England & Wales.

We focus strongly on maintaining a traditional community pub atmosphere. Our locals’ vast range of backgrounds and skills add to the buzz here. With locals’ help, our raft was designed and built by carpet-fitter Baz Millward in the shape of a giant lobster for the RNLI race in July. Powered by my highly athletic staff, it reached the final and rightly won the prize for best-dressed raft.

We all pulled together for Christ-church Food Festival in May, where we ran a shellfish bar on the high street to sell our produce, advertise the pub and support local charities. We opened more than 1,200 oysters, cleaned by my husband, Eddie. Family, friends and locals all offered invaluable help, including flyer distribution.

Recommended websites

Pub facts

  • Licensee:​ Maggie Wheeler
  • Tenure:​ 10-year Punch Taverns lease
  • Website​:
  • Turnover​: £450,000
  • Wet: dry spli​t: 60:40
  • GP drinks:​ 65%
  • GP food:​ 62%
  • Total covers:​ restaurant 50; bar 30
  • Average covers per week:​ summer 350 to 400; winter 200
  • Average spend per head on food:​ £18 restauran


Our philosophy

Our menu includes sea bass, roast cod, whole lemon sole, tiger prawn stir-fry, black bream and a selection of steaks. Isle of Wight lobster and crabs are among the favourites.

For the less adventurous a wide selection of light bites, salads and pub grub is available in our 300-year-old bars, starting at £3.95 for bar snacks such as sandwiches through to fillet of black bream, scallops, and dill, cream & mustard sauce with sauté potatoes & fresh vegetables at £15.95.

Home-made beer-battered cod & chips served with peas and tartare sauce costs £10.95. Scampi, whitebait, fishcakes, salads, burgers, gammon and cottage pie are popular, with prices starting at £5.95. The light bites and pub grub menus stay constant; our seafood menu varies slightly depending on availability and season.

Best new dish

Whole line-caught sea bass stuffed with basil, garlic & lemon, topped with sweet butter, served with new potatoes & seasonal vegetables (£16.50)

Best-selling dishes

  • Starters​: Diver-caught scallops (four to five depending on size) cooked in garlic & herb butter and served in their shells (£7.95); Baked ham, fig, mozzarella, mixed leaves & pesto dressing (£5.50); Home-made fish soup, served with rouille, croutons & Parmesan (£6.95)
  • Mains:​ Fruits de mer: whole crab, mussels, crevettes, shell-on prawns, oysters, cockles & whelks, served with a shallot vinegar & dill mayonnaise (£25); Roast cod, chorizo, sauté potatoes, wild rocket & pesto (£16.50); Fillet of sea bass, dauphinoise potatoes, fine green beans & a saffron cream sauce (£16.50)
  • Desserts (all £4.50)​: Sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream & butterscotch sauce; Lemon posset, fruit coulis & mixed berries; dark chocolate & vanilla bean brûlée with mixed berries


Credit check

Streamlining the whole kitchen process from food-ordering to the actual cooking, and taking over as head chef, saved money on chef salaries. A trainee chef from the local catering college now works with me and I encourage him to deliver value for money.

Successful marketing and PR ideas

We advertise in several local magazines and websites including website magazines, such as and Of course the best advertising is via word of mouth.

Staff motivation

Since I’ve been working in the kitchen, my staff have the opportunity to take more responsibility in running the business, which also offers them the chance to come up with new ideas.

Three recommended suppliers

Mark Stevenson, Mudeford, Dorset: fresh lobsters & crabs

Chefs Mate: Christchurch, Dorset: 01202 476555

Seafresh: Poole, Dorset: 01202 621623

One idea that didn’t work

I introduced a Sunday carvery, but due to the size and shape of my restaurant I just couldn’t compete with other local businesses.

Couldn’t live without...

My blue seal double grill (£1,200) makes my life easier in the kitchen and speeds up service.

Bar talk

We are a Cask Marque-accredited pub with our ales forming 25% of our wet sales; we have four hand pumps made up of one resident ale from Ringwood Brewery and three guest ales from across the country, which change every three months. We have 17 wines on our list, made up of six white, five red, two rosé, three sparkling and a dessert wine.

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