Novice restaurateur Sophie Murray, with less than a month to go before her first venture the East Beach Cafe opens, paces up and down, mobile phone clamped to her ear, doing some last minute, serious-sounding negotiations with a supplier. It's a fairly typical scene at this stage in the countdown to a restaurant's opening day, but here in sleepy Littlehampton in West Sussex, where the pace of life is slow, and big decisions mean a Mr Whippy ice cream or stick of rock, and pitch 'n putt or the log flume, Murray's frantic calls are the precursor of big things.
We're in the neighbouring Putting Green Café, a typical English seaside caff, that Murray and her mother Jane Wood have also taken on, and business is as brisk as the wind that blows in off the sea. "Sorry," she mouths, mobile still attached to ear. "Just got to do a bit of clearing."
And off she goes to scoop up some teapots, trays and sugar bowls that want tidying up.
The new place, East Beach Cafe, is an altogether different proposition, one that's about to jolt Littlehampton into the 21st century. Murray and East Beach Cafe Wood were ‘panic-stricken' when they saw the plans for the extended kiosk - all sailing boats, sea shells, and motley seaside clichés – that would be visible from their seafront house.
Taking matters into their own hands - putting a positive spin on nimbyism in the process - they snapped it up and set about commissioning internationally-renowned designer Thomas Heatherwick to design the cafe.
Heatherwick's work needs little by way of introduction: he's best known for his infamous B of the Bang sculpture in Manchester (Britain's tallest sculpture) and for the Rolling Bridge in London's Paddington Basin. His name was made early, however, when his Royal College of Art project was picked up by no less than Sir Terence Conran. The East Beach Cafe is his first restaurant, and indeed his first building, although design-loving foodies may already know his distinctive style from Konstam at the Prince Albert in London, fitted out with 110km of chain looping from the ceiling.
The East Beach Cafe is quite something.
Approach it from the west side and it doesn't look like much. Just a tidy silhouette, in unusual, rust-patinated metal. But get in front of it, look from behind, look from the sea, it's spectacular. Reddish on a sunny day, like Ayers Rock or Fred Flintstone's home, something prehistoric thrown to land by the sea.
"It should look like it could have been washed up on beach just like bits of metal, polystyrene, flotsam and jetsam," says Sally Cohen of Heatherwick Studio.
There was planning permission in place for a 30m long, 5.5m tall building that would have impacted on views from a nearby conservation area, so Heatherwick has created a lower, ‘cigarette thin' building, that would work whatever the weather, and would offer sea views (even from the kitchen). Thus, there is floor-toceiling glazing down the sea-facing front, coupled with the key feature of roller shutters that ‘pull a skin over the building' and protect it.
When opened up ‘they vanish into the geometry of the building.' Formed in mild steel, the structure's strong and solid, a protection from strong winds and abrasive sand, that's being left to wear in before being oiled to stabilise it. It's also hard wearing on the inside – protection from overexcited children wielding buckets and spades. Underfloor heating in the winter will help attract the winter crowd.
When the cafe-cum-kiosk-cum-restaurant opens on June 25, Littlehampton looks likely to benefit from what's dubbed the ‘Bilbao Effect', after the effect that Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao had on the down-at-heel Basque town when it opened in 1997. It's also likely to see a similar media scrum eager to christen Littlehampton the new Brighton or some such.
Already the pinboard at the Putting Green Café is awash with cuttings. From architecture magazine, Blueprint (founded, incidentally, by Murray's father, Peter) to Vogue (‘Coolest Seaside Resort') to the Littlehampton Gazette. This puts huge pressure on Murray. "We've got to have it ready like that," she says, clicking her fingers.
"Everything has to be 100 per cent straight off.
People round here have been waiting two years for this, so if the coffee's not the most delicious coffee, they've ever had…"
The menu will be of what Murray dubs ‘beach food'. Chef David Whiteside, who has worked at The Ritz, The Lanesborough and The Dorchester in London, and at Oxfordshire restaurants The Swan in Tetsworth (under Paul Merrett) and The Feathers in Woodstock, has created a menu of freshly made, seasonal dishes with a real nostalgic English flavour, with an average dinner spend of around £20-22. A place where as Thomas Heatherwick puts it, "You can eat a Mr.
Whippy or drink Dom Perignon."
Well, not exactly Mr Whippy – the ice cream, like much of the produce, comes from a local farm. The much-anticipated coffee – an ‘East Beach Blend' comes from Coffee Compass in Littlehampton, a local coffee roaster who can bring it down each day on his bike.
"When you go to traditional resorts, all you can get is a bacon sandwich or a burger," explains Murray. "You go there but you don't spend any money because there's nothing to buy. There are a lot of customers not being served by what's currently out there, both at this beach and beaches in general."
Murray has spent the last couple of years exploring this market. Her previous job as a lifestyle journalist at The Telegraph covered food and restaurants so she "knew a bit from a different side". The rest has come from running the Putting Green Café for a year and a half "to see who the customers are and what they want"
(and to take over any potential competition); a few useful weeks ‘looking at operations' at Rick Stein's restaurant in Padstow; and from the advice of ‘sounding boards' in the form of good friend, Sam Harrison of Sam's Brasserie in Chiswick, London and Simon Prideaux of 333 Holdings Ltd. "We were learning everything for the first time, just by talking to people and learning to ask the right questions.'
She's also been helped out with the likes of Pimm's umbrellas from Diageo; Twyford have helped with the bathrooms, and Layton's with the wine list. "When you do something of a genuinely high standard, something that's genuinely the best you can do, and you're working with people right at the top of their field, then you attract more. Thomas is a brilliant architect; Littlehampton Welding is one of the best architectural steelworks in the country.
People are keen to be involved, and that has all helped with the budget.'
Murray's keen to stress it's not just "an iconic building planted on the seaside". Her focus is the town, not just the business. So the East Beach Cafe will be behind jazz at the beach, and a seaside fête with knobbly knee competitions and muscle men. She wants to see the whole town involved, and is positively thrilled at the prospect of other restaurateurs starting copycat ventures.
"That would be brilliant!" she beams.
On the Menu: Hot Buttered Crumpets with Marmite; Bucket of Chips; Potted Crab; Scotch Duck's Egg, Lemon Mayonnaise; Grilled Sardines with Roasted Tomatoes and Beetroot; Beer Battered Fish of the Day and Chips; Watermelon, Mango and Pineapple Fruit Salad; East Beach Ice Cream Sundae.
Size: 55 indoors, 80 on the beach Where? Littlehampton, West Sussex eastbeachcafe.co.uk