The secret to Steel’s success as owners of famous fish and chip shop celebrate 40-years
7th February 2018
Star Wars is tearing up the box office, a government is precariously holding on to a parliamentary majority with an uneasy pact, Grimsby Town are plying their trade in the fourth tier of football – and Steel's Corner House Restaurant is only getting ten customers a day.
It could have been January 2018 until that last point, writes Mark Page, but we’re actually 40 years in the past, back when Paul McCartney was topping the charts singing about mist rolling in from the sea.
It may have seemed a tad gloomy by the seaside for Peter and Barbara Oliver too as they took the helm of Cleethorpes’ most famous fish and chip restaurant in January 1978 – a place that had already been serving up plates of our area’s signature dish since 1946.
But evaporating were the days of low-price fish “jumping into nets” and the lure of the British seaside was rapidly being eroded by jet engines as holidaymakers shunned the Costa del Cleethorpes for the Costa Blanca. Fish restaurants weren’t quite the draw they once were and a brave step into the dark was being taken.
Recalling how it all started for him, Peter said: “I was a partner in a company called Grimsby Frozen Foods. I was developing the catering side of the business and Steel's was one of my customers.
“We bought it off a Mr Cooper, a fish merchant, who had owned the restaurant for about two years, having bought it from Mr Steel, but he found that he couldn’t run two businesses.
“So, he said he was thinking of selling. I had a word with my brother Keith who was factory manager at Young’s Seafood at the time and we bought it between us. From that date, this place has been under the trading name Oliver Bros Restaurant Ltd.”
Keith stayed on at his job at Young’s as, in the early days of their ownership, Steel's was unable to support both brothers’ wages.
Taking on the restaurant “was a big gamble”, not only because of the financial burden, but difficult trading conditions partly brought about amid the economic turmoil of the tumultuous times leading up to Britain’s notorious Winter of Discontent.
But persistence was rewarded and, after four years of Peter and Barbara shaping the new era of Steel's, the loan taken out to finance it was paid off. Keith then left his job at Young’s and, with Peter, set up Oliver Bros Fish Merchants Ltd, which is now run by Keith’s son Martin and still supplies seafood to the restaurant.
And so, over the years with a steady ship on which to sail, the family battered thousands of fish and served up countless chips, and as they did, managed to cook up something which eludes all but the elite few – they maintained the lure of something that had long been popular and propelled it into a full-blown institution.
And, as I talk to the ownership team with barely a vacant table around me on a decidedly unremarkable Thursday afternoon in January, there is absolutely no exaggeration in using that word.
For the uninitiated few, it’s difficult to explain the appeal in words and pictures, not least because, for many, Steel's legendary charm is an experience built over time, which could as much stem from childhood memories of a grandma’s birthday meal as a summer daytrip from afar.
The “dated” style of curtains, colourful lampshades and carpets attracts its critics, but it’s an intrinsic part of its flair - an escape from the sweeping monotony of paint-by-numbers eateries around the country. You can’t design this with computer software and a focus group. It’s almost accidental and though it has been altered in places over the years, any drastic change would be rob the place of its personality. Even the menu is rock steady, rarely changing with even a swapping of teabags once provoking controversy from some regulars.
On this sentimental note, Peter reflected on a time he and Barbara found themselves in a restaurant on the other side of the world in Alaska where they happened upon a British family from Devon.
Chatting away, the southerners revealed they had family in Cleethorpes and enjoyed nothing more than a meal at Steel’s. “Have you heard of it?”, they asked. Pulling out a business card to them, and much to their astonishment, Peter revealed: “I own it!”
The two families, having met more than 4,000 miles away, later met up in Cleethorpes – connected purely due to a restaurant with a reputation reaching far beyond the borders of northern Lincolnshire.
It’s a place with history literally embedded in it; a time capsule is hidden behind one of the seating booths to be found in some unimaginable distant future when the charismatic furnishings and bygones fishing heritage photography may be ruthlessly replaced.
If it feels like something of a home from home, that may be because it was actually was once upon a time as Peter explained.
He said: “Mr Steel opened the restaurant on the ground floor, then he lived on the first floor, and then he moved the restaurant to the first floor and lived on the second.”
Back then is when Steel's identity was forged and it still resonates to this day – a crucial foundation Peter and Barbara built on to ensure a fade into irrelevancy was avoided in a world of 2-for-£5 meal deals.
“In the heyday in the Fifties and Sixties loads of coaches came into the town,” Peter said. “The car park near the train station used to be full every day. There’d be 40 or 50 coaches in there every day during the summer season.”
Mr Steel opened another fish restaurant across the road to cope with the demand but, as certain as the sunrise, “times change and people’s habits change”.
That cornerstone of any British town, the pub, where haute cuisine once amounted to little more than a bag of Space Raiders and a bowl of nuts with its own ecosystem, has combated the declining appeal of propping up the ale-stained bar with contemporary décor, a banishment of tobacco and chefs who can operate more than a microwave. As was so brilliantly prophesied in The Simpsons in 1995, “nobody wants to hang out in a dank pit no more”.
Peter said: “Everywhere there’s somewhere to eat now so we’ve got to keep on our toes and make sure we give top quality all of the time.”
The task of staying competitive when the local alehouse can fry up a fish, however, was passed to Rachel and Ian Stead who entered in 2004 as Peter and Barbara “took a bit of a back seat”.
Ian is realistic about the cultural shift towards restaurant polygamy, but it has done little to stop the now traditional queues forming outside Steel's during peak periods. He said: “Do people eat the same place every week? We don’t, though we do get people who come here every week.”
Steel's, though, could hardly be described as a diamond in the rough, as the standard elsewhere is far from poor these days.
So what is the secret? Peter says it’s really quite simple: “Best quality fish at all times. We will never substitute quality for price. And our frying method – we will only use vegetable fat. We will never fry in dripping or in any inferior cooking fats. We fry in top quality, all day every day. Those pans are cleaned out every day and filtered and topped up with fresh fat. That, basically, is the secret. Maintaining the standard.”
But is that all there is to it? It’d be all-too simple to conclude that a loftily-elevated bar held firmly in place for more than a few seasons would be enough to amass a solid reputation. But, as any seasoned restaurant-goer would attest, the food is just the script in the whole theatre of eating out. A heady spark of the magic is in the performance and the setting.
It takes talented chefs, dedicated, attentive staff and a striking, unique atmosphere to bring it all together into something which will plant the seed that grows into a blossom of fond nostalgia, and this is the real secret of Steel’s.
“It’s not just us who are family, the staff are family. We have generations of staff,” Ian explained.
The average length of service for staff at Steel's is around 20 years – an extraordinary statistic in an industry where tenures are often measured in weeks and months, rather than years and decades.
Two members of staff even pre-date Peter and Barbara’s arrival with Rob Cox having worked at the restaurant for 43 years while Hazel Patterson is set to reach her milestone half-century in September.
And so, while there are those for whom Steel's will simply be a place to have a decent fish and chips, there are others who will treat it like an old friend, turning up to say hello to the familiar faces and relive their youth with a bit of Arctic roll or trifle.
Summing the whole saga up, Peter said: “We’re like a family, we have our ups and downs but we always come out the other side.”
Though the people may change and times move on, it’s not hard to imagine the same will be true in another 40 years’ time.
News Courtesy: www.humberbusiness.com