Rick's food empire reels in village pub
FOOD history in Cornwall and the rest of the country might have been very different had it not been for the Western Morning News.
In 1974, a young Richard Stein was about to join the paper as a journalist, planning to use this as a stepping stone to a career with the national Press. But then the three-day week was introduced and the WMN decided not to take him on.
Instead, he and his then wife Jill bought a nightclub that became the Seafood Restaurant the next year. More than 30 years later, another chapter is added to that history, as the Steins have become tenants of the Cornish Arms in St Merryn.
It is a double first – their first venture outside Padstow and their first partnership with St Austell Brewery. "I'd always liked the idea of a pub as part of what we do, as an essential part of British life," Rick explained. "It seemed to us to be a good craic. It's a great pub and I've been coming here since I was old enough to drink."
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He and Jill, who remains his business partner, approached the brewery some time ago to express an interest in what has been their local pub for years.
"We had the idea for the pub as a nice addition to what we already had," said Jill. "We had already approached the brewery and said if they ever wanted to change from a managed to a tenanted house, we would be interested. Then at the end of last year, they offered us the chance to take it on."
The partnership with St Austell Brewery endorses managing director James Staughton's aim of creating a series of pubs with high-profile chefs.
"It's an idea that's becoming more popular, so this is a timely opportunity," he said. "The informal branding of a well-known chef gives an extra kudos, marketing and PR value. Anything that entices people into the pub will be good for both of us."
The Cornish Arms gives the Steins a broad-ranging set of businesses, from the fine dining of the Seafood Restaurant to St Petroc's Bistro, the café, delicatessen and fish-and-chip shop – and now a pub, which Rick described as a good fit.
"My philosophy is to present a whole quality eating and drinking experience, which can be anything from fine dining in the Seafood Restaurant or fish and chips or a pub. I enjoy the whole business of eating and it cheers people up.
"During the recession, people are a bit short of cash, so if they don't want to dine at the Seafood Restaurant, they have the option of a pub which is different and affordable."
But he said he had no intention of turning it into a gastropub. The only visible difference is a lick of paint and what Jill described as "a bit of a tidy-up outside".
The food remains traditional pub grub, the difference being that it is all freshly prepared either in the inn's kitchen or in their other kitchens.
So the menu includes scampi in a basket – with freshly breaded scampi tails, nothing frozen or bought in – a steak and Tribute pie using the brewery's most popular ale, and Goan curry and Tywardreath sausages with mash and onion gravy. There is also a short children's menu.
Head chef Julian Lloyd, who has worked in various Stein kitchens for more than 10 years, has a daily specials board which this week included the first English asparagus and grilled Cornish sardines. He said: "Everyone was expecting Seafood Restaurant prices, but some things are cheaper than before."
What advice does Rick have for other publicans to help beat the recession? "I can see why a lot of pubs are struggling, but if they get the throughput, then they should be pubs that will attract customers.
"They probably need to look to the food and keep the beer lines clean," he said.
"The other thing is trying to be part of the community, which is how we see it.
"This pub must be a vibrant part of the rural community, warts and all. You are only the custodian of a pub, not really the owner."