IT’S just as well Rhys McKinnell is a big food-lover, as he lives and breathes food and drink, whether at work or at play.
As head of food and catering at Fenwick department store in Newcastle he looks after the legendary food hall and the shop’s own six restaurants, plus the staff restaurant, as well as helping to manage the relationship between the store’s four concessions and Fenwick.
The 36-year-old has worked at Fenwick for nearly 18 months and has been responsible for the food hall for about six months.
And it’s a job the self-confessed foodie absolutely relishes, as Rhys himself says: “The food hall is an institution in Newcastle. It’s a fabulous job.” Indeed it is – the store in Newcastle dates back to 1882 and the food hall has been a big draw for many decades.
Rhys is married to Catherine McKinnell, Labour MP for Newcastle North, and the pair live in Gosforth with their children, aged five and three.
Rhys and Catherine between them juggle very busy lives. Catherine is based in London several days a week but Rhys says they manage, as they both come from large families. “Catherine’s one of eight and I’m one of four.”
Sat having a cappuccino with Rhys at Pret a Manger, one of the concessions fringing the food hall, the local producer names leap out from the shop floor.
In fact, there’s 30-odd different producers and suppliers from around the region taking up coveted shelf and floor space, for everything from their flours, cheeses, coffees, teas, ice- creams, meats and eggs, to cakes, honey, preserves and sticky toffee pud.
Household names include the likes of Doddington Dairy cheeses, Embleton Hall’s milk, Pumphrey’s coffee, Ringtons’ tea and South Shields-based Dicksons’ sausages and pies.
Others include Heatherslaw Bakery of Berwick, preserves from Durham Green Lane, Gilchesters Organics flours of Northumberland and The TeaShed’s teas.
Supporting local is something Rhys is proud to champion in the eclectic food hall. “We are one of the biggest single permanent retail outlets representing regional producers.
“It’s something that has grown as the number of regional producers has grown over the last 10 years.
“And it’s something I’m keen to grow, definitely.
“We have about 30 to 40 local producers and we’re a big producer ourselves with our bakery.”
As well as freshly-made Indian meals made by the acclaimed Sachins Punjabi restaurant in Newcastle, available to buy at one of the focal-point glass counters, and frozen ready meals from Oldfields eaterie in Durham City, the craft butchery is run by Wark-based Northumberland Sausage Company. Part of their range includes 32 different varieties of sausage.
And then there’s the store’s artisan bakery and patisserie section, where among the myriad lines, they sell 22 different artisan breads, from sourdoughs and ciabattas to focaccia, made in their own bakery, housed on the lower ground floor.
“We have a team of eight in the bakery,” says Rhys. “It’s headed up by our executive chef Brian James who also heads up all the kitchens too.”
Over on the cream cake counter – a sight for sore eyes if ever there was one – most of the tempting sweet treats are also made in-house.
“There’s about 60 items in the range. The peach melba and strawberry tarts are the two biggest sellers!
“In the restaurants we also sell our own bakery produce, including breads, cakes, muffins and scones. We use local tea and coffee and local drinks like Fentimans. We’re a massive local business.”
He adds: “We also have our own Kitchen Collection, where we do home-made pies, which are a big seller, quiches and sliced meats.”
He points out a counter selling a tempting array of savoury dishes made in-house. Moroccan tagine, lasagne and meatballs, among them.
Rhys and his team are, without a doubt, busy bees. And not forgetting, of course, Fenwick’s produce their own honey. Fenwick Golden Honey is made from the store’s own rooftop hives. Highly- prized it is too, and sells at £7.95 for a 227g jar.
“We only produce about 250 jars a year. It’s a real artisan product, made right here.”
Fenwick’s food hall offers discerning shoppers an eclectic mix of local, national and international offerings, including US confectionery, deliacies from Europe and Vom Fass vinegars and oils.
But the feedback from shoppers too is they like to support local. “People are more aware in general, helped by markets, festivals and things like the EAT! events.”
In the six months in charge of the food emporium Rhys and his two primary buyers have added even more local names to the shop floor.
Some of these are as a direct result of their last successful autumn festival of food event, a partnership with regional food and drink group Taste North East, held last September.
Rhys explains a number of smaller-scale producers were given a chance to showcase and sell their products in the food hall.
“We had some home bakers and farm producers who haven’t got themselves fully into the wholesale market. And from this we have taken on three new local suppliers.”
These include The Gingerbread Mam of Stockton on Tees and her ginger wine, pokey (cinder toffee) and sticky toffee puds and Durham Green Lane’s preserves. Rhys and his food hall buyers are also looking at another local name as we speak.
“We had 25 suppliers over six days in September. And we are hoping to re-run this event in June.
“It was good for us because we get to see new producers, they showcase their products in Fenwick without us having to take them on as a stock line.
“Local is right up there in the food hall. We are the very best of local.”
And the best of national and international names too, adds Rhys.
“We are a very diverse food hall. We have, for example, an American shop and Vom Fass.
“We are a local business ourselves. We have been in business with other local businesses like Pumphrey’s for many years. We sell Pumphrey’s coffee and Ringtons tea, and we use their tea in the restaurants.”
Rhys has always worked in hospitality and restaurants, including the Beaumont Hotel in Hexham, the Vermont in Newcastle and Close House and Linden Hall Hotel in Northumberland. Prior to Fenwick, he was general manager at Matfen Hall in Northumberland. “I did two stints, one of five years, and then I went back for two years.” He also had his own café, Urban Café, at Dance City in Newcastle in 2007.
He adds: “I like eating and cooking. I have really done well in January! I have been twice to London for research and development purposes and I’m off to Vienna next month.”
I wonder if this could be a sacher torte mission – but Rhys is giving nothing away, as yet.