Portrush and the astonishing seaside family food empire
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Entrepreneurial families in Portrush are building businesses and creating a legacy. Often returning home to the coast, their contribution draws in others attracted to the upturn in the town’s fortunes.
In 2019, when the British Open tees off at Royal Portrush, on the northern tip of Northern Ireland, it’ll be the first time since 1951 that the championship – one of golf’s four ‘majors’ – is held outside the British mainland.
For years, the momentum has been gathering for the Open to return to the course. Two recent major winners – Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke (also Ryder Cup captain in 2016) – both hail from Portrush. In 2012, in a rehearsal for the British Open, a staggering 130,000 fans turned up to watch the Irish Open at Portrush’s seaside ‘links’ course. When you drive into the town, you’re met by a sign reading “Portrush: Golf’s Major Capital” – a cheeky sign of the town’s growing confidence and the reinvention that’s under way.
The ‘Portrush Olympics’ are the culmination of a long-term transformation led, to a large degree, by an extraordinary and unsung entrepreneurial family. While the chef Rick Stein and former wife Jill are synonymous with the revival of Padstow in Cornwall, for sheer longevity and scale of impact in a seaside town, surely no-one can match the McAlpins of Portrush.
Portrush was traditionally a place where people came for a Sunday bus trip and an ice cream. The town, and its three startling stretches of golden sand at West Strand, East Strand and White Rocks, were an escape from the harsh realities of life in the province, a refuge from the sectarian strife for which the province was known for nearly 30 years.
One thing Portrush wasn’t was a culinary capital. But in 1980 a young couple returned to the town to open a restaurant and, as they say, the rest is Northern Ireland legend.
Jane McAlpin was born into the Caithness family, who were big in the local coal trade. Her husband, George, a driven working-class boy, hailed from Carrickfergus, home of Northern Ireland’s textile industry and the Kilroot power station.
The McAlpins met, trained and fell in love at Portrush’s catering college. After graduating, they left for London where they worked with the likes of the Roux brothers who were leading the revival of British cuisine. In particular, George was inspired by Richard Shepherd, one of the first British chefs ever to receive a Michelin star, and worked in Langans Brasserie.
Returning to Portrush in 1980 to start a family, the couple took over the Ramore bar from Jane’s parents. They ran it first as a fine dining restaurant which, in itself, was a shock to the system in a provincial coastal town. Jane recalls “back then, people were accustomed to dine out in hotels and golf clubs, for sure they didn’t eat in restaurants.”
It was a success, but Northern Ireland had never seen anything like the little informal wine bar that the McAlpins also opened, on the floor below. People came from miles around, and still do, for its unique style and atmosphere.
The McAlpins had been inspired by Jimmy’s, the restaurant/institution in Chelsea which, famously, didn’t take bookings; to this day, you can’t book ahead at the Ramore. Instead, long lines of customers queue along the harbourfront to get a table.
Inside, because customers go up to the bar to place their order, rather than waiting for waiters and waitresses to come to the table, there’s movement, bustle, noise. It’s as if you’ve chanced on a family party in full swing. There’s so much going on, you barely notice the fabulous views out to the Irish Sea through the huge seafront windows.
Back to the 1980s, and the entrepreneurs’ confidence began to grow. It soon became obvious that they had to flip the two formats around, bringing the wine bar to the larger space upstairs. A couple of years later, they acquired the classic seafront Harbour Bar two doors along, where they opened another bistro, introduced live entertainment and launched Northern Ireland’s first gin bar. Next they revamped the Ramore itself, opening a cocktail bar, replacing the fine dining restaurant with a pizzeria, and created the upmarket Mermaid upstairs. In 2014, they got their hands on a bikers’ pub opposite, which they revamped as the Asian-style Neptune and Prawn. Inexorably, over 35 years, they’ve built a family-owned food empire on the seafront of a charming, remote town.
It’s a world away from restaurant chains, ‘concept roll-outs’ and that nagging suspicion you’re being ripped off for an nondescript meal. In the whole Ramore group, the most expensive single dish on offer costs £15.95 for beautiful, giant, freshly caught turbot; the cheapest is the ludicrously priced £1.95 pizza.
The centrepiece is George’s food: joyous, immoderate, democratic. This is food with a purpose; food for people who deserve to eat out, food bursting with colour, character and calories. The plates are laden and generous; meat is local and luscious. The ‘side’ salads stretch in ample portions along long rectangular plates, whole meals in themselves. Bang Bang chicken has been on the menu for 34 years, along with George’s signature tobacco onions. There are no pretentious concoctions here, instead you get hot garlic and parmesan bread, peppered rump steak and big chips. Most stunning of all are the desserts, arranged in a huge, multi-coloured glass-fronted display. The Ramore must be one of the few places on the British Isles to do a roaring trade in takeaway puddings! During the long years of the Troubles, Portrush was an oasis of harmony, where people departed talking about food, not politics.
Restaurants and wine bars come and go. The Ramore, however, hasn’t skipped a beat in 35 years. According to the latest accounts, the Ramore group did £7.5m in the year to March 2014 and is forecasting a significant rise. The McAlpins have invested heavily in the fabric of the business in recent years. They employ 300 people, including 70 chefs, making them the biggest employer in the town by a mile. They haven’t placed an advert in 35 years, yet on a busy summer serving, it won’t be unusual for 1,000 customers to dine in the family of restaurants. On site, they have their own in-house butchery and bakery, servicing all the different restaurants. Behind the scenes, it feels like a cruise ship, a warren of highly drilled food expertise.
George and Jane are a well balanced pair. “He’s the horse, Jane’s the jockey,” says a family friend. “George just wants to keep charging ahead with new ideas.” He’s the creative brain; his home is in the kitchen, adjusting, improving, training chefs and refining menus. He believes that people eat with their eyes, and owns a large collection of cookery books that he studies only for the pictures. He could doubtless have built a profile as a celebrity chef, but instead guards his privacy, not seeking congratulations or gratitude for what he’s done for Portrush. And he’s a man of few words; he doesn’t respond to emails and only keeps a handful of contacts on his mobile phone. “Family, food and football, those are George’s passions,” says another friend.
Jane, a young 55-year-old, is front of house and in the back office. “I apply the handbrake occasionally,” she laughs. She, her mother and grandmother were all born in a house within sight of the restaurant, and she knows everyone in the town. Jane, George and Christine Alexander, a local independent councillor, have led countless local regeneration projects. Together, they dreamed up “Paint Portrush”, persuading local businesses and volunteers to give the whole town a lick of paint, street by street. George and Jane’s two sons – Fionn and Matthew – are also in the business now; Fionn having worked with the renowned Irish chef Richard Corrigan in London, Matthew having given up a professional golf career to return to the family company.
The McAlpins have had offers to sell out and to franchise the Ramore formula, but they’ve always turned them away. “It’s a legacy now,” says Jane. “Our ethos has always been to leave a bit of a legacy and provide employment. I feel proud for my town; it’s had its troubles, but today it’s a shining light on the end of this peninsula.”
They have a commitment to the next generation, too. Led by former broadcaster and Portrush cheerleader Alan Simpson, they run regular “Recruitment Saturdays” when they try to identify kids with the right personality – not just the CV – for the Ramore. At the other end of the scale, many staff members have been with the business for decades. The Harbour Bar is run by the legendary Willy, a wired, tanned 50-something whose Thursday night behind-the-bar performances have all the energy of Freddie Mercury at his prime.
David Boyd recently returned home to the town after a hugely successful career in the music industry, during which he discovered bands like The Verve, Smashing Pumpkins and Placebo. Hut Records, which he started and ran, sold more than 40 million albums. Even he is awestruck by the McAlpins’ contribution to the town: “George and Jane have had the most incredible positive impact on Portrush, more than anyone in the past century,” he says.
Boyd is one of a growing number of accomplished people returning to Portrush, drawn by the upturn in the town’s fortunes. He’s already hatching a boutique beach music festival in the town (the McAlpins are doing the catering.) “Portrush drives you to leave, and drives you to come back,” he reflects.
Chris and Ricky Martin are Portrush-born brothers who’ve recently come home to run their business. The boys left Portrush at 18 for the bright lights of Glasgow. Chris ran his own clothing label, before joining Ricky in Australia, for the surfing, and then moving home to run a company selling aloe vera drinks. It was “going sweet” until one of his wholesalers went bust, setting off a chain reaction. His bottler, alarmed by the turn of events, pulled the plug just before the peak 2013 summer season. “Within a month, through no fault of my own, everything fell apart,” says Chris. “It was soul destroying. By the end of the summer, it was game over.”
Unsure what to do next, he started helping fix his brother Ricky’s battered surfboards. They discovered that the boards, manufactured in China, had fundamental design flaws – mainly because glue and salt water aren’t a great combination. The young entrepreneurs sniffed an opportunity. “We just knew there must be a better way of making surfboards,” says Chris. For the next three months, he spent all day, every day, learning about foams, sourcing hundreds of samples. Eventually, they cracked it.
Everything about the Skunkworks surfboard is different – the foam used for the core, the stability created by the red oak stringers inside the board and, crucially, the complete absence of glue; the boards also only use recyclable products from the UK. “My naivete made me find a way to bind the surface to the core without using adhesives,” Chris says with obvious satisfaction. Supported by the local enterprise agency and with £50,000 seed funding, in the summer of 2015 the Martin brothers started testing “the world’s most robust, most high-performance soft surfboards in the world”.
To begin with, they will only make 50 a week at their workshop in Coleraine – “we need everything to be spot on because we’re making such big claims”. Marketing should not be a problem, however, because Ricky is a big-name surfer and has run his own surf school. The email has been alive with enquiries as rumours swirl around the surf industry. You sense that they are on the brink of something very big.
Right next to Royal Portrush golf course stands a large abandoned building project, one of the town’s few flawed relics of Ireland’s property boom. Soon, it will be replaced by a block of high-end apartments, designed for the American golfer market. And, in the run-up to the British Open, the town will be connected to Belfast by a new motorway. Life is not easy on the north coast of Northern Ireland: winters are long and the weather is unpredictable. But with golf, surfing, music and, of course, glorious food, you can see why locals call it Portmagic.