The old image of the North-East as a culinary desert is challenged by the company that has brought a Michelin Star to Windermere
"We have a lot of local staff working for us in the North-East, and because we have four different businesses I'd much prefer to keep hold of who I refer to as my family," says Debrah Dhugga, Chief Executive of Tom's Companies. "I'm a great believer that you are nobody without your staff, no matter what your business is."
Established in 1999 after husband and wife Tom and Jocelyn Maxfield bought The Samling hotel in Windermere, Cumbria, the Tom's Companies ‘family' now comprises four properties, including County Durham's multiaward- winning Seaham Hall and The Serenity Spa. However, despite each establishment being based in the north of England, Tom's Companies is far from a local business. With a distinctly global outlook, there has been nothing but ambition from the outset.
"Our vision was to be the market leaders in hospitality and leisure, offering five-star service and five-star standards within all of our businesses," Dhugga continues. "With Seaham Hall, Tom wanted to have the best five-star hotel in the North-East of England, and also to get a Michelin star."
Tom Maxfield's ambition was realised earlier this year when Seaham Hall's The White Room restaurant, under Head Chef Stephen Smith, was included on the prestigious list. Dhugga, though, claims that it was not only Smith's talent with food that bagged him the prize, it was also reward for his dedication to those around him.
"Stephen is a massive talent in the industry and has always created fantastic food. The problem was that there was no one who was consistently there, wanting to train staff. In the past people would have bypassed Seaham and headed straight to London for work, but now we have people wanting to join us. When we got the Michelin star people suddenly wanted to find out what we were all about."
Having joined the company from the Malmaison group in January 2005, Dhugga brought much of what she had learned working alongside founder Ken McCulloch to what Tom's Companies was attempting to achieve: primarily offering a unique, extremely personal approach to hospitality.
"Ken was very much into attention to detail and I learnt an awful lot from him about ambitions to be different, but not too different, and about staying in touch with what the customer is looking for," Dhugga explains. "When you are a smaller, privately owned group you can be a little bit individual and offer that attention to detail. When you're part of a bigger group it's very hard to be able to do that."
After the recent sale of its Treacle Moon restaurant on Newcastle's Quayside, which Dhugga reveals did not fit into the portfolio, Tom's Companies is looking determinedly forward. In attempting to attract increased international business there are plans for an extra 29 bedrooms at Seaham Hall, and four at The Samling. Meanwhile, Serenity In The City day spa will roll out two new branches in what Dhugga describes as "the sexy university cities". Yet despite such grand expansion plans, the North-East remains high on the list of priorities for Tom's Companies.
"In the past, people used to think, ‘Yeah, there's the North-East of England, but you don't have a five-star hotel,'" says Dhugga.
"We're incredibly passionate and are working very hard to get over this image of the North- East being all about cloth caps. There's really an awful lot more to it than that."
- July 1999 Tom's Companies established following the acquisition of The Samling hotel in Windermere, Cumbria.
- January 2000 Fisherman's Lodge restaurant, located in Newcastle's Jesmond Dene, opens.
- March 2001 Following an investment of £25million, Seaham Hall hotel and The Serenity Spa, in County Durham, is unveiled.
- September 2006 Seaham Hall and The Serenity Spa receive a five Red AA Stars.
- October 2006 Urban day spa Serenity In The City opens in Jesmond.
- January 2007 Seaham Hall's The White Room restaurant, with Head Chef Stephen Smith at the helm, is awarded a Michelin star.
- March 2007 Treacle Moon restaurant, on Newcastle's Quayside, is sold.