It’s a fishy business

A pub grub classic dish of the 1970s is helping today’s homeless people and recovering addicts to rebuild their lives in Scarborough 

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It is one o’clock on a sunlit blue day at Scarborough. Up the hill from the busy harbour, hordes of visitors to the resort are thinking about lunch and browsing menus outside the super-abundance of fish and chip cafes. The average price of a sit-down knife and forker with a cuppa won’t leave them much change out of £15, and there are plenty of hungry diners ready to pay. Most places are already packed.

Just off the main street a small, bright cafe with a couple of tables on the pavement and just eight inside is also doing brisk business. It is less than two months since the Seafood Social opened its doors there, and in that short time it has become a local phenomenon.

Anyone who thought the last thing Scarborough needed was yet another purveyor of fish and chips couldn’t have been more wrong. “The posh fish finger sandwich must be sampled to be believed… fabulous,” commented a customer on the cafe’s Facebook page. “Amazing value for money… there are so many reasons why you should try the Seafood Social,” raved a TripAdvisor review.

There are three stand-out reasons for its popularity. One is that the fish and chips and other seafood dishes cost half the price charged elsewhere. Another is that everyone agrees the food quality is outstanding. The main reason for the plaudits, though, is that the Seafood Social is run by homeless people and recovering addicts to help fund a local homeless charity and food bank, the Rainbow Centre.

“The Rainbow Centre and the Seafood Social have helped me to stand on my own feet again.”

In the past month it has served around 1,000 meals, representing a turnover of £7,000, and since everything is supplied at cost price by the company that set it up, Whitby Seafoods, all profit goes to the charity. But the funding doesn’t stop there. Customers can fill in a “pay it forward” card to cover the price of another meal and cuppa for someone who is homeless. The cards are pinned on the cafe’s noticeboard to be used by those in need of food. If they are unclaimed, the cash value of the food and drink is given to the Rainbow Centre, raising £800 in the past month. The project has been so successful that more Seafood Socials are now mooted, one at Whitby and the others inland at Malton and York.

Whitby Seafoods, which employs 200 workers at its factory 25 miles up the coast, is the world’s biggest supplier of that cliche of 1970s bar meals, scampi. Essentially scampi is bite-sized and breadcrumbed portions of a small lobster-like shellfish, the langoustine. Famously, pubs used to serve it in baskets but, at the Seafood Social, it comes in a recyclable box. Selling for £6 a time, including chips, lemon and home-made tartare sauce, it is by far the cafe’s most popular meal. Its success is providing homeless people and recovering addicts in Scarborough with full-time, part-time and voluntary jobs and a chance to establish new lives.

One of the part-timers is Shaun, who turned to the Rainbow Centre for help as a recovering alcoholic and homeless person. He fills boxes of scampi and chips for customers while the cafe manager, Dean, who also passed through the Rainbow Centre, cooks the food.

Now aged 45, Shaun once owned two opticians in Sheffield, but lost his business and home through drink and drug abuse. He dragged himself to a recovery unit in Scarborough, and was pointed in the direction of the cafe by the Rainbow Centre after going there for help.

“When I came to Scarborough I was both metaphorically and physically on my knees,” he says. “I had no home,
and in theory just the shirt on my back. I didn’t sleep rough – I’m fortunate in that respect – but it could have happened to me easily. Homelessness is more visible on the streets of Scarborough than where I came from, and I could easily have ended up there. The Rainbow Centre and the Seafood Social have helped me to stand on my own feet again. Now I’m about to start a university course.”

Like other seaside towns, Scarborough has a growing problem with homelessness due to higher rents and house prices, and most rental accommodation being geared to tourists. Since the middle of 2018 Scarborough Borough Council has seen a steady growth in people officially classed as statutory homeless. The council spent £46,000 in 2017 to house vulnerable homeless people in hotels and B&Bs, but in 2018 the figure was £105,000.

Figures for those sleeping rough are on the rise. Round at the Rainbow Centre the manager Trish Kinsella says: “People come to Scarborough because it’s a better place to be homeless than in Leeds or wherever. Some are down at the Italian Gardens at South Cliff, others around the Spa, or at the bowling club at North Bay. We are out doing welfare checks three nights a week and at 6am on many mornings as well.”

Universal Credit is having a growing impact, Kinsella finds. It is hard to get the benefit paid directly to a landlord, and if a tenant has alcohol or drug or mental health issues he or she often can’t cope with readily available money and ends up dipping into the rent until most or all of it disappears.

“The Seafood Social is wonderful,” she says. “The idea came from Whitby Seafoods, and to have such a big business being so generous and thinking about our work and the people we try to help is amazing, quite overwhelming actually.”

Laura Whittle, the company’s sales director, describes it as a “proper family business” founded by her father and run by her brother, who is managing director. They decided to set up the Seafood Social to help the local community and the success of the Scarborough cafe has made them think about creating a chain.

“It’s part of our corporate social responsibility work. We find that people come and work here to find some routine and structure to their days. Then they are strong enough to leave and get on with their lives again. That’s perfect.”

Photo: Shaun (right) and Dean preparing lunches at The Seafood Social which offers employment to those with experience of homelessness

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