My pub: The Staith House, North Shields

By Sheila McWattie

- Last updated on GMT

The Staith House, North Shields
The Staith House, North Shields

Related tags: Great british pub, British pub awards, Public house

John Calton, chef-proprietor of the Staith House in North Shields, tells Sheila McWattie about mastering the art of turning a quayside pub into a go-to eatery.

How we got here

I became a chef at 18 after a year as a kitchen porter and went on to work in three Michelin-starred restaurants, becoming a finalist in BBC’s MasterChef: The Professionals in 2010.

My business partner James Laffan has a front-of-house background, and became a chef after working with me at a Northumbrian pub, where we achieved an entry in the Eating Out in Pubs guide.

He had never cooked professionally, but is an extremely fast learner with great natural talent. My wife, Kimberley, has a background in financial services and is the reason we’re here today, having given me the confidence to realise my dream of having our own place and spotted the location.

Turning our pub around


We’d always loved the North Shields quayside location of the New Dolphin, as the Staith House was formerly known.

While it was in dire need of a facelift, the pub had enormous potential, and although the quay was bustling all year, it was missing a serious food-led pub.

The prospect of turning around this run-down, wet-led pub with no kitchen facilities felt daunting, but we decided to take on the Heineken/Star Pubs & Bars lease for three years, combine all our savings and take out a loan for fixtures and fittings.

Having to wait five months until the refurb started was a huge learning curve. In our first week, we only took £500 and some days were so quiet that we didn’t pull a single pint. We lost £6,000 just keeping the pub open — and while it was expensive in cash terms, we learned invaluable business lessons and have never looked back. Spending £300,000 on our refurb was definitely worthwhile.

On Thursday 7 November 2013, we reopened as the Staith House — its original name, dating back to 1807 — and our daughter Polly Mae was born three days later.

How we grew the business

We promoted our high-quality menus, my background and profile from MasterChef: The Professionals plus details of our refurb via social media, using good-quality photographs, to engage a wide range of customers.

We entered the Great British Pub Awards and launched a website and food festivals here to build interest and engagement. Having celebrated our first birthday on 7 November 2014 with a game-tasting night, we are very happy to be turning over around £700,000 per year, taking anything from £12,000 to £15,000 weekly, with Easter our best week so far at £19,000.

How we stand out


We are achieving our core aim of creating a pub environment with greatquality food in relaxed, informal surroundings — somewhere we’d like to visit ourselves to enjoy food.

The Staith House has become the only food-led pub of its type on the Fish Quay and our daily changing seasonal menus keep people interested and returning. Fish landed on our doorstep is our speciality and we’re very produce-driven, always buying fish locally and obtaining the best supplies of meat, poultry and game.

Gaining listings in a clutch of highly respected guides within our first year is one of our biggest achievements, including being recommended as the go-to place at the end of the coast-to-coast cycle route.

Our nautical theme is a nod to the Fish Quay’s industrial heritage and suits the area. The building is great — light in summer, warm and cosy in winter, with lots of reclaimed wood and an open pass giving a great view of the kitchen action.

We have ships’ charts on the ceiling and display maps of fishing grounds on the walls, and portholes as windows.

Smart marketing


Word-of-mouth advertising from customers leaving happy and satisfied is most effective for us. Completed comment cards build our 800-strong email database and our Christmas flyers are ready in plenty of time. Our social media interaction is key to our growth, with our competitions for free Sunday lunches proving our most popular.

The publicity associated with the Staith House becoming Best Turnaround Pub for the North East, Scotland and Yorkshire and highly commended national runner-up in the Great British Pub Awards 2014 has boosted our team’s morale tremendously.

Guide listings in our first year include:

  • Local gem in The Good Food Guide 2015
  • Good value-for-money entry in Michelin Eating Out in Pubs Guide 2015
  • Harden’s Guide 2015
  • Good Pub Guide 2015
  • Cask Marque award
  • Finalist in Heineken Best Food House/Best Use of Social Media categories (result due 27 November 2014)
  • Finalist in the North East Tourism Awards (result due 11 November 2014)

Aims for the next year


Make full use of the barbecue and our outdoor areas, possibly extending the pub to make room for private parties or weekend overflow.

Participate in local food festival and other events on and around Fish Quay.

Five best ideas

  1. Monthly tasting events with wine pairings, such as our Game Night, are extremely popular, attracting regulars and new faces. We can accommodate 40 covers at £50 per head.
  2. Three courses for £10 menu, o fered Monday to Friday, using tapas portions.
  3. The quality refurb, especially our open pass, gives the whole pub an engaging atmosphere.
  4. Live acoustic music from local artists during Sunday lunches increases dwell-time and wet sales.
  5. Competitions via our social media promote us widely for little outlay

Facts 'n Stats

  • Wet:dry split: 40:60
  • Turnover: £650,000 to £700,000
  • Number of sta ff: Seven full time; six part time
  • Covers: 40 inside, 20 outside
  • Meals per week: 550 to 600
  • GP: Food, 73%; drink 60%
  • Best-selling drink: Sauvignon Blanc Rio Rosa (£15.50/bottle; £3.50/125ml; £4.35/175ml)

In the know: Advice

Best business advice we’ve received:

Put your VAT aside and pay your suppliers weekly, never let things build up.

Biggest mistake:

Not making the kitchen bigger during our refurb. The con ined space can inf luence the speed of service and we have to be super-organised.

Sta ff training:

Our team is terrific, and everyone works extremely hard to ensure our collective success. Kimberley is constantly busy behind the scenes, while James keeps the whole operation rolling. We involve our sta f in wine tastings, brewery cellar training, perfect pint/cask ale training and motivate them with good tips, menu brie ings and bonus incentives.

Bar talk:

We’ve installed the smart dispense system: refrigerated lines using the latest technology, giving us what we consider to be a product superior to traditional methods.

On draught we have Birra Moretti, Tiger, Heineken, Amstel, Symonds, Strongbow, and Murphys, with three cask ales changing weekly according to the seasons.

Of our 10 red wines and 10 whites, three are available by the glass and we order specials for our blackboard dishes. We also stock two rosé wines, Prosecco, Champagne and Nyetimber English sparkling wine.

We have several single malts and Bourbons, as well as gins and vodkas, while our bottles include the Monteith Brewing Company’s collection, A ligem, and Old Mout cider.

Best piece of kit:

Without our walk-in fridge, our menu would be limited.

Biggest mistake:

Buying a top-of-the-range barbecue when summer was almost over because the weather just wasn’t good enough.

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