Interview: The Winking Prawn
With so much incredible coastline available in Devon, it comes as no surprise to find an incredible selection of seafood restaurants and eateries in the area. We sat down with Jane and Mark of the Winking Prawn, to discuss their beachfront café, how they handled the difficult year that was 2020, and what their plans for the future are.
Thank you for taking the time to talk with us, tell us a little about yourselves and your café.
My name is Jane, my husband’s name is Mark, and together with our family, we run three restaurants – The Winking Prawn, which we have had for 27 years; Island Street Bar & Grill, which we have had since 2010; and the Cracking Crab (in Cornwall), which opened in 2015.
The Winking Prawn is where it all started – our shabby chic beach restaurant at North Sands in Salcombe. It’s a family-friendly restaurant but we like to think we have something for everyone and it’s a wonderful joy for us to keep welcoming people back year on year.
Some of the children we met as toddlers when we first opened have come to work for us and have gone on to bring their own families to visit!
That sounds wonderful – it’s always so fantastic to have a generational connection. Whereabouts in Salcombe are you?
The Winking Prawn is right by the beach at North Sands, just outside Salcombe; Island Street Bar and Grill is on Island Street at the opposite end of town.
Sounds like a fantastic location! Do you have any Signature dishes?
We don’t really have a signature dish at any of our restaurants but there’s definitely a theme and a few firm favourites!
At ‘The Winking Prawn’, the local seafood is always a treat and favourites include the Fruits de Mer and Popcorn Shrimp, but we also love a good steak and chips as well!
At ‘Island Street Bar and Grill’, the burgers have made a real name for themselves, but there are lots of other dishes on the menu too!
With multiple locations, it must be difficult to find time to get in the kitchen and cook, but when you do – what is your favourite dish to cook? What is your favourite meal to eat?
We rarely cook ourselves these days as we have amazing chefs who are obviously central to the whole experience! I can’t speak for them but working with great ingredients is always top of my list – like the local seafood. In terms of eating, it depends on what mood I’m in, but I love the summer barbecue at The Winking Prawn and then the soup in the winter.
Tell us about the ingredients you use in your dishes are they speciality or local?
We use local suppliers wherever possible, whether it’s locally caught and landed fish and shellfish, locally reared meat or other items such as ice cream from Salcombe Dairy Ice Cream or beer from Salcombe Brewery.
What would you say is the most unique or interesting aspect of The Winking Prawn?
I think there are a few things that make The Winking Prawn unique: we are exceptionally lucky with our location right by the beach. We work hard to keep everything up to date inside, but also to reflect the eclectic style that our visitors love with things like the dressing up box – beloved by both the young and young at heart.
We aim to offer a variety of options for people – so there’s our garden as well as the indoor restaurant, a marquee goes up in the winter, we have a van (Just One Prawnetto) serving ice creams in the summer, and we also introduce a barbecue in the summer months.
However, I hope that the thing that really sets us apart is the sense of community; we love seeing people come back time and again, whether they’re local or on holiday – hearing all their news and watching everyone grow up, but still coming back to the Winking Prawn – that’s magic!
2020 was a really tough year for businesses, especially those in hospitality and Food & Beverage. How have you been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Like everyone, COVID-19 has had a huge impact – not just because we haven’t been able to open when we normally would, but it’s meant changing the way everything’s done as well.
We’ve been so lucky with the amount of support we have received, and thankfully in the summer both our staff and customers were wonderful at adapting to new policies.
Our priority is to keep our team, our customers and our community safe, but we have also tried to maintain a proper Winking Prawn experience wherever possible.
What new policies and procedures have you put in place as a result of the COVID restrictions?
We did a few things.
We introduced an online ordering system where customers scan a QR code and order and pay via their phones – this was to minimise contact wherever possible.
We asked customers not to wander around the restaurant, we had a one-way system and in the summer we only had outdoor dining – spacing out the tables to help with social distancing and extending seating across the parking area to allow for the increased distances.
In the summer months, we also extended the service at our kiosk to include more takeaway options, and of course, members of staff were required to follow the necessary protocols as they were updated.
When we have been allowed to open in the winter, we have opened up indoor dining and resumed taking bookings in the evening, but have maintained online ordering, kept the increased amount of space by adding our marquee, and continue to have a one-way system and discourage too much walking about inside.
Has it been difficult staying open?
During the first lockdown, we worked extremely hard to plan ways to open safely and to put proper procedures in place rather than makeshift ones. That hasn’t always been easy with space restrictions in some areas of the building, and also managing expectations when visitors come and want to experience the Winking Prawn that they have always loved visiting.
However, we have managed to open whenever restrictions have permitted it, and I couldn’t be more proud of our team who have done an exemplary job of managing protocols because without them we wouldn’t have been able to open.
We’ve heard from other restaurants that no-shows and late cancellations of limited table space have been an increasing problem – have you been affected by this?
Depending on seasonal timings, we are normally open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and all the bits in between. However, at The Winking Prawn, we only take reservations for evening indoor dining. In the summer months, we stopped taking bookings and operated on a first-come-first-served basis as we were only serving the barbecue outdoors.
When we started doing bookings again at the start of the winter, we, fortunately, didn’t have that problem. At Island Street and The Cracking Crab evening reservations continued for much of the summer, and thankfully they didn’t have too many issues with late cancellations and no shows, so hopefully, that will continue as it can have a huge impact on the business.
How have your staff been impacted by any changes you’ve made?
It’s been a very anxious time for our teams, naturally, as they have had a lot more to do in addition to what is already a very busy job, in order to keep everything COVID secure. All I can say is that they have handled it with enormous grace, and I am incredibly grateful to them all.
Have you created any new product lines or specific digital content to allow people at home to create your dishes themselves?
We always have a variety of Winking Prawn goodies to buy, including hoodies, aprons and tea towels, and those have all been popular gifts this year, especially for people who haven’t been able to get to the seaside and visit us in person.
We always like to see people share photos of their favourite Winking Prawn memories or home cooking in WP style, on our social media pages, and we have had some amazing pictures shared this year which really boosts the spirits and reminds us all that even when we’re apart we’re so lucky to have a proper Winking Prawn community all across the country!
Are you planning on any seasonal specials or events?
No specific events, but we always make a fuss of the holidays, whether it’s Christmas, Easter, Halloween, or the Queen’s birthday.
We love decorating the restaurant and having fun with everyone. For the most part, we are just looking forward to being able to resume a more normal level of service as soon as it’s safe to do so!
Where do you see your restaurant in a year’s time?
Hopefully back to normal!
Can you share any upcoming changes you’re making to your menu or featured dishes that our readers would like to know about?
We always review the menu year on year and make updates where we’re inspired, but more often than not our customers tell us that they like coming back because they have traditional favourites on the menu.
As I mentioned, Popcorn Shrimp is a classic, but we do add items for the seasons such as soup in the winter and the barbecue in the summer.
Thank you again, and we wish you all the best!
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