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Celebrity Chefs & the Local Economy; 
The ‘Rick Stein Effect’
by Barry Napier, May 2007

Build a Disneyland anywhere and the local economy picks up dramatically. It seems that celebrity chefs do the same for small villages and towns. It is difficult to quantify the financial rewards for a locality, because the only way to do so is to remove the celebrity and see the difference!

Does a celebrity chef draw visitors - consistently - to small villages and towns and boost their tourism income? In this article we will take a look at Padstow, Cornwall, England. Although he is not keen on the title ‘celebrity chef’, Rick Stein is a famed chef specialising in fish cuisine, with a worldwide following. He has several food outlets in this small harbour town that are so favoured each has to be booked in advance (except for the fish and chip cafe).

Padstow, like other Cornish seaside villages and towns, has always been a visitor’s destination, so quantifying any influence from a resident celebrity chef cannot be done with absolute clarity. That is why I asked as many locals as possible - and the overall impression is that there is certainly a significant influence. And if that is so, it suggests that similar small localities could benefit from celebrity chef involvement. In Rick Stein’s case he has a readily identifiable ‘package’ spread throughout the tiny harbour area.

There is an indication of applicability to other villages, in the published minutes of a variety of English local parish council meetings: council leaders suggest they look at how Rick Stein has brought more visitors to Padstow, so that they can try to repeat the success and regenerate their own localities. 

Personally, I cannot think of many non-chef celebrities who could bring in tourists. There are villages that benefit from being TV soap-series film sets, etc., but chefs appear to be top of tourist lists. Even so, it would be a good idea for local councils to look at any kind of celebrity status they can muster and push it in their marketing! Local businesses - especially hotels - would certainly profit, so long as the ‘celebrity’ was accessible in some way. Not necessarily personally, but at least under his or her named banner.

Is there a downside to all this? When researching for this piece I came across the ominous word ‘saturation’ in connection with Rick Stein. (And is the local reference to Padstow as ‘Padstein’, good humored or nasty?). For a writer, that kind of word is a definite magnet, so I let it attract me…

Before we look at the specific topic of Rick Stein, in the form of a loose case study, I will give a broad overview of this holiday venue, so that you have a background picture. 

Rick says the best time to go to Padstow is in between tourism seasons. As one of my specialist topics is ancient British villages and towns, I agree with his suggestion. But, in the British winter, what you don’t get is the buzz of social interaction, or the breadth of outside events. That, though, is by the way, and it does not properly apply to Padstow, whose tourist seasons are prone to fewer fluctuations.

Padstow

Historically, Cornwall – that bit on the map that pokes out into the Atlantic pointing towards America – humorously denies any knowledge of England, to which it is attached. Cornwall has its own Celtic language, and until a bridge was built just outside Plymouth, it was happy to be isolated from seats of government and interference from customs men, who took a dim view of shipwreck scavenging, or wrecking itself. Now, like everywhere else, Cornwall is building up its tourism base. Known as a surfer’s paradise, it has much more to offer, by way of scenery and old village life.

Padstow refers to itself as the premier resort in North Cornwall and yet it is still relatively small in size. St Ives, for example, is much larger. Most of the small towns and villages in the area suffer from parking problems at the height of the summer season, but it is worth the visit. My advice to anyone visiting villages and small historic towns in the UK, is to use the ‘Park and Ride’ buses found on the outskirts, if they have them.

The tourist information centre is on the North Quay, and you can book accommodation with them (email: padstowtic@btconnect.com). American visitors will probably find Padstow’s summer offerings ‘quaint’, being typically British. For updated information of events, go to www.padstowlive.com

Compared to the rest of Britain, the weather is relatively good all year, and because of its sheltered harbour on the peculiarly named Camel River, it is usually calm and warmer.

Centrally, old buildings occupy the winding gently-hilly narrow roads towards the harbour, where you find cafes, restaurants, inns, boatways, craft, gift and food shops, and holiday lets. In the way old British villages grow, Padstow was not planned and has buildings dating back to at least the Middle Ages. It tumbles this way and that and so, for me, it is delightful. The pace of life is slow and, as the tourism blurb puts it “The traffic moves slowly because it has no other option”! It is not an industrialised area, so people are “governed by the tides, the seasons… and the farming calendar.”

Most activities revolve around the harbour, and for those with weary feet there are plenty of seats. The museum is small, but if you want a flavour of old Padstow and its heritage, give it a try. For church services, there is the Methodist Chapel. The walks in the vicinity are superb, with stunning views and plenty of fresh air. Surfers are well-catered for along the coast, and there are plenty of lovely small villages to visit.

Padstow is a working harbour, with a variety of brightly-painted fishing boats that can be heard chugging out to sea at night and returning at first light. Smaller inshore crabbers come in daily with fresh crabs, lobsters and crayfish. Larger boats are usually trawlers working the coast and Atlantic. Unloading of these trawlers usually draws a big crowd. Some of the fresh catch will end up on your dinner plate if you dine in Padstow, but most of it goes to Europe. The harbour itself is just in from the sea, on the River Camel, so you can see the opposite shore from Padstow. 

The town’s tourism website names one of Rick Stein’s eateries, the Seafood Restaurant, in its official information, and this implies that his presence makes an impact. It does not mean all visitors eat at his places. In fact, that would be impossible, because they require bookings. 
 


The Seafood Restaurant

Padstow Seafood School

There are other eateries in Padstow, all of excellent quality and service; one or two are owned by chefs who once worked for Rick. Another reason visitors may eat elsewhere is that Rick’s food costs more, which one expects at a top restaurant. 

Having said that, other eateries in the area can charge just as much. Good food cooked well is bound to have premium prices, whether the chef is well-known or not! As I walked the village, I took note of prices, and, to be fair, many of Rick’s prices are no more than you will find in good country pubs.

In cities, most financial institutions tend to bunch together geographically, as do lawyers. Far from bringing in fewer clients, ‘bunching’ brings in more. Likewise with Padstow. I am not sure if top restaurants and good cooking flourish because Rick Stein began a trend, or if they do well simply because top food places attract more top food places. Only a fool would open a dump of an eatery in the midst of fine restaurants!

During off-season, walking along the Camel Trail, you pass an area containing many migrating birds. An additional attraction to tack on to lovely views. Most British villages and small towns ‘close down’ in winter, but Padstow carries on, possibly because of its sheltered position, which brings mild weather, though Rick Stein’s businesses have a lot of influence. In the winter you will find buskers, Christmas lights and a variety of events. Unusual for the more remote places of the UK. (It would take about six hours of constant driving to get there from, say, London). 

In spring and summer you will hear brass bands and enjoy outdoor entertainment. There is a wide variety of activities besides seasonal ones. And close by is the famed Eden Project, a global garden under spectacular domes, plus many other long-established gardens. 

Accommodation, both hotel and B&B, tends to be mainly in large buildings adapted to the purpose, many of which are Victorian;. Some are smaller, but all are picturesque. Photos of each accommodation are shown on the tourism site, along with contact information. Rick Stein also offers superior accommodation, plus rooms above his café, bistro and Seafood restaurant.

Another Whitby? (And Other Complaints)

In 2005 Rick Stein was invited to judge British fish and chip shops, and pronounced The Magpie in Whitby, Yorkshire, to be the best in the UK. Naturally, the café-cum-chip-shop was inundated by customers. Great for The Magpie. But other traders complained to the local council and now The Magpie is in hot oil!

The trouble, it seems, is that hundreds of customers are standing in queues outside neighbouring shops, hiding their wares. Why don’t they use this to advantage and do up their windows to attract waiting fish and chippers into their shops? Anyway – does the existence of several Stein eateries cause a similar problem in Padstow? Is Padstow another dark and sinister queue-inducing Whitby?

I watched each one myself. Did I see panic queues of people desperate to get in and blocking shop entrances? No. But there are signs asking people waiting outside not to block other people’s homes or businesses… and one building next door to the café has a small sign in its window requesting people to queue the other side of the café! Apart from that, a disgruntled anonymous person (sacked from his job, or maybe jealous of Rick’s success?) recently took a paint spray can and wrote ‘Rick Stein get out of Padstow’ on a few walls! Apart from that I saw no physical evidence of resentment.

Plymouth is a fair distance from Padstow (about two hours drive at tourist speeds), yet Rick Stein’s eateries are amongst only two worthy of mention in its official website! Even if Padstow is fed up with too many visitors, Plymouth is sending many more their way! And in Torquay you can find a fisherman’s supply cabin on the quayside with the legend that ‘Rick Stein recommends our fish’. Just a sign, but it certainly sells more fish!

London and Oxford lead the way for top UK restaurants. But, according to The Which? Good Food Guide for 2007, Padstow has four ‘minnows’ that ‘punch well above their weight’, their success “due in no small part to the Rick Stein effect.” You know you’ve made it when they name an effect after you! And when the UK is told on national news that Rick’s dog has just died.

Mind you, his success is not the result of a sudden burst of fame. It has taken Rick 30 years to build up his eight local businesses, one at a time. So, his success did not come overnight, nor has he simply crushed all competition in one fell swoop. Nor is his success overrated. For me it is well-deserved, bringing added value to Padstow.  Churlishness is often the province of the unsuccessful and jealous. Though (in the guise of a tourist) I asked many people and business owners if they resented Rich Stein’s presence and success, I could find no-one in the village who did so.

One hotelier said that there is a couple in Padstow with many more local businesses than Rick Stein, but no-one says that they have ‘saturated’ the area. He thinks the reason for this, is that the couple do not name their individual ventures after themselves. Rick Stein, however, names all his ventures after himself, and this seems to attract resentment from a few grumblers. The hotelier puts this down to chagrine, that Stein dares to be so un-British as to use his own name – jealousy again. “The British try not to be outwardly successful – it just isn’t done!”

In marketing terms there is nothing wrong with this kind of branding. Indeed,it makes sense. Rich Stein is famous, so why not use his name to sell? Is this not what many multi-national chain hotels do? And film stars who pretend to manufacture perfumes themselves? Also, by using his name, Rick has brought many more visitors to a small area, boosting trade.

I cannot think of many celebrities who could attract visitors to a village or small town, day after day. It might be interesting to know that this or that famous person lives in a fortified mansion down the road, but how many can translate their fame into increased visitor numbers, adding continuous income to the locality? 

Chefs are unique in that sense. I do not mean celebrity chefs who cook in remote country pubs and restaurants owned by someone else. I mean those who, like Rick, open eateries/businesses in tourist destinations and employ 250 local staff. With 30 managers, Rick asked the local college to provide training programs, so this, too, involves the locality. (enquiries@ccb.cornwall.ac.uk)

Really, the only complaints I found when trawling (fish-related pun) the sources, were extraneous to Padstow… for example, a complaint from a conservation group that Rick uses too much cod, when it is becoming rare. (Frankly, I think that is over the top. He is just one business owner, for goodness sake. I don’t think his purchase makes him number one world cod-reducer!). Overall, the Rick Stein empire has a lot going for it and is a definite quality tourist attraction. 

One blogger said that Padstow was ‘cute but too busy’, attributing this to too many Rick Stein outlets. I go to places that are cute, and I wish there were fewer people, but can we deny a small community jobs and an income just because we want it to remain ‘cute’? That’s not a genuine complaint, but a misconception about local income generation. It is very hard for a small town to stay alive, especially in the winter. It needs all the financial input it can get! 

Besides, the day before I went to Padstow, I visited St Ives – it was far more busy than Padstow. And lack of adequate parking in certain Cornish villages means that visitors cannot even get into them! Locals don’t like visitors peering into their houses, but very few would reject the income that visitors bring to a village.

Rick has about eight businesses in Padstow. During my tour of each one, I could not detect anything pretentious about them. Each was in an old building, and each has been renovated to a good standard, making it an asset to the harbour area, exactly blending with the ambience and architecture. One building, the B&B, was falling down, but has now become a fine-looking restoration job. Is it better to encourage a famous chef to rebuild old buildings in Padstow (or any other village), or to let them fall down? Or is it a case of “I can’t afford to do it myself, so I deny anyone else the right to do so!”?

All of Rick’s properties have been designed by wife Jill, and all are decorated to a high standard. His sons are involved in the family business (which is nice to see), with one currently in university – hopefully waiting his turn to become another working Stein in Padstow. The Hotel is set on a hill leading up from the harbour.

Rick’s café is in a narrow old street on the flat, a few doors away from his non-food gifts shop. All the businesses are independent, and yet each one is connected to the others. The gift shop has items used in the various accommodations, the seafood storage unit supplies the cookery school, restaurants and café, as does the bakery, a small shop on a crooked village corner. Rick also has an online shop.

The Seafood Restaurant, on the harbour front and with a rooftop patio for eating out, has 13 rooms and a less formal glass eating and waiting area facing the front. This is Rick’s most expensive restaurant, but it is not wildly costly. The prices will not appeal to some, but you get what you pay for, and Rick’s whole fame rests on his fish recipes. 

Rick no longer cooks daily, but leaves that to his top chefs. He is still doing TV programs, avidly watched by people like me, and is currently popping back and forth to Europe, making a new program on Mediterranean cooking. This also links in with his Bistro, which offers a Mediterranean menu. (It has been discovered that these menus are healthy, and even prevent asthma, so he’s on the right track!) 

The fish and chip shop with attached café area is right on the harbour front in a modern wood building built by the local council. Next to it, on the right, is the Deli and fishmonger shop. Above these is the architecturally-pleasing Padstow Seafood School, where one to six day courses are offered. 

“We get serious amateur cooks who want to try something different; we get ordinary people who want an experience, and we even get chefs, who want to learn how to handle and cook fish.” Costs for courses range from non-residential one-day at £175/$350 to the intensive, residential, six-day, at £2250/$4500.

The School uses modern methods of teaching, with overhead large screens. Each topic or module is taught by a master chef, and then students have to cook what they have been taught. They break up the day with a freshly cooked meal and then carry on in the afternoon with more modules. I loved the light, the atmosphere and the architecture. It just comes together so well.

St Edmund’s House was a bit of a wreck, but as another hotelier admitted, “It is now really something”. The House is divided into several upmarket apartments for rent. The Times called them “Chic rooms with great views across the estuary and Padstow”. Though not so high up the hill as the four-star Metropole Hotel next door, it has similar wonderful views. The apartment I visited is light and airy, with French doors leading out to a lawned garden. There is a sitting area with tables and cupboards, a modern-style four-poster, and a lovely large bathroom with shower.

Price for renting any of these rooms or apartments is about £250/$500 a night. Interestingly, the price includes breakfast, though it is not available in the House itself. For breakfast you go a few yards down a short sloping road to one of the eateries. But so what? It is worth it!
 


St. Edmunds House

Stein’s Deli 

When Rick takes a rest from his travels and film-making, he can be found strolling through Padstow, checking on progress at his several businesses. He has a core senior management team who are more than capable of running things on his behalf. I asked Group Marketing Manager, Hilary Griffin, if Rick had any plans up his sleeve to expand into other areas of business: “No. Rick has no business aggression. He is satisfied with what he has. It has taken 30 years to reach this point and he now just wants to enjoy the fruits of his labours.” Good for him. It always concerns me when successful businessmen do not know how, or when, to hand over the reins to their managers. As it is, Rick will probably live longer, by wisely relaxing and leaving matters up to his highly professional senior team!

Rick says “(After a short period of running the restaurant) we emerged as the Seafood Restaurant… (Rick then describes how the business grew slowly). St Petroc’s… is the fifth oldest building in Padstow and was built by a friend of Sir Walter Raleigh… it is very atmospheric, some say haunted… The four-poster cherry-wood beds (in St Edmunds House) were commissioned from Ken Leiman from Natal, South Africa, who flew to the UK with the beds to assemble them himself.” The other furniture was also commissioned. (I have a more detailed outline history of Rick’s businesses, which can be forwarded on request).

Conclusions

Well, I investigated the accusations of ‘saturation’ and found no substance in them. Those I asked to speak to in official tourism and local government did not respond, probably not wishing to get involved in a possible wrangle. 

But, I asked enough local business people and ordinary locals to discover that Padstow respects Rick Stein. Some owe their own business success to his presence, and most say his businesses drive extra traffic and sales to Padstow. All had a good word for him. And even other UK villages and small towns are looking to the ‘Stein effect’ formula to regenerate their own ailing economies! What better recommendation can there be than that?

In other words, yes, a celebrity chef can boost tourism and business income in small villages and towns. Perhaps other chefs can think on this and develop their own bright futures. There are no ‘sides’ to Rick. He is neither pretentious or arrogant, unlike so many celebrities. Who can down a man like that, for doing what he does best? Rick is a thoroughly nice guy – unusual in today’s cut-throat business environment.

We should not forget, too, that when businesses of such a high calibre evolve, they tend to encourage upgrading of local architectural features, and cause other properties to retain their quality; local improvements abound; communication, travel and shopping increase in type, number and quality; locals have more job opportunities, some of them at the top end; the whole area increases in popularity; local hotels benefit from extra visitors… there is far more to a famous name than his own business success! 

© Barry Napier

Contacts: 
General website: www.rickstein.com

For information about all businesses, room rental, Seafood Restaurant bookings, and Cookery School, etc: reservations@rickstein.com
Or, telephone UK 01841 532700

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Contact:

Barry Napier
barry.napier@ntlworld.com
 

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Also See: Chefs Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand Joining Other Celebrity Chefs in the Trend that is Transforming Hotel Dining; Marriage Between Hotels and Celebrity-Chef Restaurateurs Can be Mutually Beneficial / June 2006
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