WHETHER we embrace it or fear it, change is inevitable. So much so, in fact, that The Beatles even wrote a song all about it – In My Life. A beautiful melody which Sean Connery bizarrely did a spoken version of – a musical act of butchery rivaled in its unfathomable pointlessness only by William Shatner’s cover of Eminem’s Slim Shady. Change wasn’t good in that instance.
The Ouseburn Valley in Newcastle has always been a place of change. Its individual character has provided a change of venue for generations of pub-goers, and it is also undergoing change itself with new student and residential complexes, offices, and music venue.
And, sitting in the heart of all this is a new cafe bar where even its name symbolises change for its owner.
“Why’s it called Ernest?” seems to be the first and most obvious question. The thing is, even some of owner Gavin Marshall’s friends ask him that – completely unaware that it’s his name.
“I never used it before because it’s a bit dated,” says Gavin, 40, from Fenham. “I buried my first name because I got lots of grief for it at school – but I’m sure people will now start calling me Ernest!”
Despite the name’s less-than-pleasant memories for Gavin, he’s changed his attitude to his former name and it’s working for him now. ‘Ernest’ provides a single identity for the bar (the website is ‘weareernest.com’), as well as its obvious double meaning.
Ernest cafe bar, on Boyd Street, opens next week and will be a welcome addition for drinkers in Ouseburn. Offering itself as a place to go for a breakfast, lunch, post or pre drinks dinner or simply to enjoy a beer with friends, the interior already feels like it will fit comfortably with the slightly Bohemian community feel of the area – from the ‘Importance of Being’ lit sign, to the case full of Gavin’s beloved Star Wars figurines (even his dog is called Obi).
The cafe bar is also a change of direction; Gavin has been a glass artist for the last 10 years, with Gavin Marshall Glass based a few doors down at Cobalt Studios. But a career shift has been on the cards, partly because public commissions dried up, partly for health, and partly because he simply wanted to do something different.
‘Simple’ is the overriding philosophy for Ernest, keeping food fresh and attitude unpretentious, but it sounds like the opening has been anything but. With a tight turnaround of only six weeks, it’s been a mammoth effort for Gavin and business partner Toby Lowe from Helix Arts, with the help of an army of friends and artist community acquaintances doing everything from painting to PR.
Gavin says: “I can see it all happening now – all the painting is done. We wanted to be open for the Ouseburn Festival, so we were getting the place repainted and redecorated then opening as soon as possible.
“It’s been a bit mental to say the least!”
Perhaps ‘straightforward’ might in some ways be the better way to describe Ernest’s philosophy, as ‘simple’ belies a rather modern approach to market engagement. From the 3mm-thick wooden business cards (have a sniff – the slightly charred wooden smell evokes all sorts of memories and emotions), to the single identity branding of Ernest, to the ‘Eat and Tweet’ concept where diners are actively encouraged to take pictures of their food and stick them on social media; it seems like a forward thinking bar that embraces the modern age and knows how to use it.
This engagement and forward thinking also extends to Ernest’s food and drink. Like any sensible business, it’s keen to embed itself in the community, whether refusing to close to the public for private events, or sourcing produce from local suppliers. Coffee comes from the Ouseburn Coffee Company and beer is supplied by Tyne Bank Brewery, while fruit and veg is being negotiated with a Hexham firm.
And this is where the theme of change comes in again, as Gavin is keen to change and adapt based on feedback in his wonderfully titled ‘creative artistic food experiment’.
“It’s going to be an evolution at speed,” he says. “We’re going to stock the local beer and trial it. It’s a food and drink experiment, but it’s also nice to support local breweries.
“There’re not many places where you can get good food around here. You can come for a drink, or food and drink. We’re hoping we’ve got a big following already.”
This is good news for the vociferous North East beer community; in the ongoing quest to make beer with food the norm, a cafe and restaurant that’s willing to be persuaded over its beer stock is surely a good thing.
It’s all change – and change for the better.