In just two years John Calton, chef-proprietor of the Staith House in North Shields, near Newcastle, has turned his quayside pub from a drinks-heavy local into a north-east culinary destination.
Recognition of Calton’s and business partner James Laffan’s turnaround came at the Great British Pub Awards (GBPA) earlier this month, when the pair won the coveted Food Pub of the Year award at a glittering ceremony held at the Hilton in London’s Park Lane.
Calton, who was overcome with joy after the win, says: “It’s quite emotional, winning awards like the GBPA’s Food Pub of the Year because we have worked so hard and then to get the recognition in a room full of heavyweights... it’s indescribable.”
Yet, the Staith House wasn’t anywhere close to success from the off. In fact, the business’s start was bleak and took just £500 in its first week after Calton and Laffan signed a three-year lease on the pub — which was formerly known as the New Dolphin – with Star Pubs & Bars in early 2013.
We lost £6,000 just keeping the pub open and while it was expensive in cash terms, we learned invaluable business lessons and we have never looked back
- John Calton
“On some days, we were so quiet that we didn’t pull a single pint,” Calton told the Publican’s Morning Advertiser in December last year. “We lost £6,000 just keeping the pub open and while it was expensive in cash terms, we learned invaluable business lessons and we have never looked back.”
But, after the pair spent £300,000 on a refurbishment and reopened the pub as the Staith House in November 2013, things started to look up. Last year, the 60-cover venue turned over £700,000 and was serving up to 600 meals a week.
As well as taking home the GBPA Food Pub of the Year award, the Staith House has gained listings in The Good Food Guide 2015, The Good Pub Guide 2015 and Harden’s Guide 2015, among others.
The Staith House was also a Newcomer of the Year award finalist at the Top 50 Gastropubs awards in January.
All of the accolades are down to his and Laffan’s hard work, according to MasterChef: The Professionals 2010 winner Calton. “We are always trying to better ourselves; it’s just a small team: me, James, a couple of full-time staff and some part-time staff too.
“But we work so hard and push ourselves. Earlier this month, we did a mystery tasting night where we fed 35 diners about 14 courses each,” he says. “The diners didn’t know what they were going to eat, and James and me ended up serving about 490 plates between the two of us from our tiny kitchen.”
The mystery dining night followed Calton’s and Laffan’s visit to Michelin-starred Hedone in Chiswick, west London, where the pair were inspired to create the mystery tasting menu, Calton says.
During the past few months after visiting, working in and taking inspiration from other gastropubs, such as Stephen Harris’s Michelin-starred Shepherd Neame lease by the sea in Kent, the Sportsman, the chefs have also worked on their menu to have fewer ingredients on the plate while providing more taste and flavour, says Laffan.
‘Stripped the menu right back’
“We’ve stripped the menu right back and have also started to make more of our own products, such as hams and we’ve started smoking our own fish and beef, and we’re trying to show who we are with our food more than ever,” he adds.
Charcuterie and other products made in-house, such as butter and salt, will also play a bigger role in the Staith House in the future, which will inevitably involve more investment.
Calton reveals: “Soon, there will be a charcuterie range and we are going to buy a climate-controlled fridge, which we want to get on show downstairs in the dining room to create a bit of theatre. We’re also pickling different things — fish and vegetables mainly, but we’re trying all sorts.”
Following the £300,000 refurbishment in 2013, the pair are now planning on pumping more money into the business, but only after they finalise the details of a 10-year lease with Star Pubs later this year, Calton adds.
When the new lease is signed, investment will be made in an induction cooker, new fridges and perhaps even a pastry room, he says.
If the right location comes along for a second site then that’s something we want to consider
- John Calton
“We need to buy the best equipment to stay ahead of our competition. The induction cooker will cost more than £30,000 — so you can gather what level we’re going to be investing to. But, until we sign a 10-year lease, we don’t want to put any heavy investment into the kitchen.”
After investing in new kitchen facilities, what’s next for Calton and Laffan? According to the former, the pair are planning on opening a second venue, as well as working on raising their profile in the industry further.
‘If the right location comes along’
“If the right location comes along for a second site then that’s something we want to consider,” Calton adds. “We have got a good platform [with the Staith House] to expand and do bigger things.”
But, most of all, it is Calton’s ambition to see the Staith House listed as one of the Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs next year.
“It would mean everything to make the list. We were at the awards this year and we want to achieve something there next year. It would feel like we had won a full house in 12 months if we managed to get somewhere on the Top 50 list.”
For now, though, Calton and Laffan will continue working to turn their quayside pub into one of the best places to eat in the north-east.
Meanwhile, the countdown for the Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs 2016 began last week when entries to the award’s three specialist categories opened. Find out more about the Top 50 list and the awards by visiting www.top50gastropubs.co.uk.
Top 50 Gastropubs 2016 is sponsored by Estrella Damm and associated partners include Appletiser and Schweppes.