Family-owned business Bells has opened its sixth restaurant and takeaway in Durham. Owner Graham Kennedy talks about expansion, leading from the front and why Seaham maybe his last venture
You opened your sixth site in May in Seaham Harbour, Durham, but where did Bells begin?
I opened my first fish and chip shop at High Pittington, near Durham, in 1987 when I was 20 years old.
I had trained as a chef at Sunderland College and then worked in local hotels.
I was working at the Hallgarth Manor at Pittington when I first heard about a small fish and chip shop in the village which wasn’t doing too well. I looked into it and decided I could make it work.
Did you have any visions of owning multiple sites?
Not at all. I couldn’t even get a bank loan for the £4,000 I needed to open that first shop, I had to pretend I was buying a car!
It was a tiny shop in a small country village, a few miles from Durham City, with very little passing trade. However, it was a shop where I learned the basics of the trade and how to apply my professional training to a single meal. Because relatively few people drove past, I needed repeat business from the locals, so I knew they had to be happy. I did that for nine years and they were happy!
How did Bells come about?
Bells at Gilesgate had originally been owned for years by a man named Joe Bell. Joe eventually sold out to a newcomer to the fish and chip trade who hadn’t appreciated the sheer graft the business called for. After 18 months, he decided to get out and I took over. I saw no reason to change the name Bells because that’s what it had been called for 43 years and everybody had grown up knowing it.
Gilesgate was only a couple of miles physical distance from Pittington village, but a million miles better off in terms of business potential.
What made you branch out into more sites?
Acquiring Bells showed me that our approach, our products and our service levels were extremely popular with customers. I could see nothing but growth potential.
However, disaster hit when we had a catastrophic fire only six months after we had finished a £150,000 refit. We were back up and running in seven weeks but it just said to me, you’ve only got one shop, all your income is in a single basket.
Then about a year later, Northumbrian Water decided to put a new water main and sewage system in right past the shop. For nine months the road was closed, choking off our business. I then started actively looking to expand. I bought the Durham City Marketplace shop from receivers because the company running it had gone bust, and then it spring-boarded from there. People started approaching us with sites!
What do you look for in a site?
It’s a cliché, but location really is everything. What interests me now is ample parking as our sites are between 70 and 200 covers. We need visibility and accessibility.
A few years ago it was car showrooms that were available, because they weren’t selling cars, and now it’s banks. Our new Seaham Harbour restaurant is an old Barclays Bank. I love contributing to recreating the high street, bringing that buzz back again and converting empty buildings back into usage. We’re as busy as a bank would ever be!
What are the benefits of multiple sites?
The main one is we now have the facilities to do a lot centrally at one site – our fish cutting and making our fish cakes and patties – so we can control and manage them and everything is consistent across all shops. We also have the same equipment in all six shops so we can take staff from one to another and they will be able to fry on the range, for example.
Seaham is absolutely packed with historical features, tell us a bit about that
Seaham has got a fascinating heritage. It had three Londonderry collieries here at one point, and the harbour was actually built to transport the coal out of the area across the world. The whole area is based on coal mining so I thought, let’s do something with all that social history rather than just a plain-looking shop.
There were emotional reasons as well, my dad and two of my uncles worked at Seaham pits. In his retirement, my dad came to work for me at Bells. He would be so proud to see this tribute.
In the centre of the restaurant we’ve got a huge pit wheel, we had to take an entire floor out of the building to put it in. And round the pass is the side of a coal wagon. We’ve set it into the ground with glass over the top so you look down onto a rail and the chains like those it would originally have run on, because the original railway line that took the coal down to the harbour ran beneath this shop.
I thought it was quite prophetic to end having enclosed the circle because I’m not planning on opening any more shops now.
That’s definitely it, you are sticking at six shops?
Yes, I’ve got a fantastic team but I don’t think we’ll be able to cope with any more because our sites are large sites, we’re not a little takeaway in a terrace house. Each one of them in a way is a full time job, let alone running six!
With almost 40 years of experience under your belt, is there anything you would do differently now?
No, I always think you shouldn’t look back and dwell on mistakes, you should be positive and move forward. Although maybe I do wish I had done all this in my 30s and 40s, not in my 50s!
How have customer expectations changed over the years?
I think since Covid customers’ expectations of service have risen vastly and that’s making it hard for us, especially where it’s so difficult recruiting. I took on 30 new staff members opening Seaham and we’ve had to train every single one of them, we’re actually giving them new careers. Some customers don’t see that and are quick to complain.
How are you addressing that?
Because I trained as a chef with silver service, I have always worked really hard to pass on those attributes and skills to our people. I encourage staff to care, to take control and to fully prepare for a shift. I like to think I treat everybody – customers and staff – well and how I would want to be treated myself.
Success doesn’t come easily. It takes real effort to ensure customers enjoy their food in a lovely environment. That’s our aim, that’s the Bells’ mantra, ‘proper fish and chips in a classy environment.