Restaurant Profile January 2020: The Lighthouse Bistro, Whitehead
Erica Porter Lutzman, co-owner with husband and head chef Joni Lutzman, talks to Alyson Magee
WHEN DID THE RESTAURANT OPEN?
We opened the bistro in August 2018. Previous to that, my husband Joni hosted popups in and around Whitehead and Larne, creating tasting menus of up to 10 courses specialising in local produce.
We live in Whitehead and were aware this building had become available. It has been used as a commercial premises for 100 years: by the Bonuglis, an Italian family that emigrated here and were famous for their ice cream; then it was Gregg’s, famous for selling hot lemonade when the lido was open; and, before we took over, it was a Chinese.
TELL US ABOUT THE SPACE
We knocked a few walls down, opened it up and now we can take about 30 customers. With the colour scheme, we wanted something a bit dark and moody so it would be a really nice place to come in the evening. We get so many requests about the wall colour; it’s a petrol green/blue colour and quite nautical. We really wanted to tie in with the coastal location, and we have a lot of historical photos on the walls. With Whitehead being a Victorian town, I wanted to reflect the history from the local area.
WHAT’S ON YOUR MENU?
We make everything from scratch from pasta and breads to ice cream and desserts. We have our own smoker and smoke fish, duck and chicken, and we cure fish as well. My husband is Finnish so all those Nordic techniques would come quite naturally to him, but have also recently become popular again.
DOES YOUR MENU CHANGE OFTEN?
We change it seasonally. We’re on our winter menu now so we have lamb shank, and a bouillabaisse dish we actually continued on from summer as it’s been so successful. It’s based on a dish eaten by French fishermen, with four or five different types of fish in it and a light tomato base and we serve it with our own breads. We have Irish duck we smoke and combine with green lentils and green beans.
We have a gardener in Larne who’s really amazing and is into growing quirky vegetables you wouldn’t normally find. We’re hoping next year he’s going to have some chanterelle mushrooms for us although it’s quite a task to grow those. Joni would be very used to cooking with them at home in his native Finland. He also has heritage carrots in the ground for us right now.
WHAT IS YOUR FOOD SOURCING POLICY?
We always try to promote local produce and encourage new producers, particularly from Mid and East Antrim. We are looking forward to working with The Dairyside Farm in Gleno and using Ballyeaston chicken in the New Year. We currently use NI beef from McMasters in Whitehead.
Our customers enjoy cheeses from local cheesemongers such as Ballylisk (Triple Rose) and Mike’s Fancy Cheese (Young Buck).
We’re lucky to have father and son fishermen David and Philip Gilbraith from Islandmagee supply us with beautiful lobster every year from our coast here. We were delighted to be invited to share our lobster pasta recipe with the Irish News this year.
We currently get our lamb from the Meadow Farm in the Glens of Antrim. Sprott’s of Portadown pork belly is something our customers have enjoyed, having smoked it ourselves in house. We’re always on the lookout for new producers as this is increasingly important in the light of Brexit.
WHAT ELSE DO YOU DO TO IMPROVE & DRIVE YOUR MENU?
We still do the odd tasting menu and had one for the Victorian Fair on November 30; an autumnal tasting menu with a Victorian twist. It had local pheasant, venison and lobster bisque. At the minute, our game is sourced from outside of Mid and East Antrim but we know there’s a lot of game in the area and would encourage the gamekeepers to get their own kitchen so everything can be certified and we can trace it back. We want to use local game as much as possible. A couple of months ago, we did a tasting menu paired with wines from Sipster in Whiteabbey and they did a phenomenal job. The wines really lifted the taste experience, and I think that’s something we would look at again this year.
We’ve had a couple of weddings, including one a few months ago where the couple got married in Redhall in Ballycarry and then had the reception here. We’re more than happy to put on small, quirky weddings or private parties, and we work with the customer to design their own menu for a very reasonable rate.
HOW DO YOU MARKET THE RESTAURANT?
We would be quite active in engaging with our customers on Facebook. We started a few months ago on Instagram and like the visual aspect of it, and we were on twitter but feel it’s more to connect with other businesses and producers rather than customers, so we’ve favoured Facebook.
HOW DO YOU MAKE YOUR RESTAURANT STAND OUT FROM COMPETITORS?
When we opened, to stand out, we put on tours with Bangor Boats. It’s only 45 minutes across Belfast Lough, and when the Bangorians came in for lunch, the Whitehead group would get in the boat and go around The Gobbins.
Then, for the Taste the Island initiative, we teamed up with Causeway Coast Kayaking Tours and people went kayaking up the coast and then came in for lunch. That’s something we’ll continue next summer as well. We really want to emphasise we are on the coast, and The Gobbins is the only inland nesting place for puffins in Northern Ireland.
WHO ARE YOUR CUSTOMERS?
We are in a really small town; at the minute Whitehead has about 4,000 people living in it and there’s a lot of other cafes so we’ve had to do something a bit different to stand out. Fortunately, people have supported us locally and customers are coming from all over from Portadown to the North Coast for a night out.
Over the summer, we’ve had French, Italians, Germans, Americans and Australians and what we’ve found is they’re usually on their way to The Gobbins and stop here for lunch. Or they’ve decided to use Whitehead as a base and stay for a few evenings because you can easily jump on a train to Belfast and drive up the North Coast.
For tourists, we have Carrickfergus Castle and The Gobbins, and next year the Blackhead Path will reopen so Whitehead is an ideal base. The one worry with Brexit would be a reduction in Europeans coming. We really want to keep that market strong because we’ve a lot to offer.
WHITEHEAD SEEMS TO BE DEVELOPING AS A FOODIE DESTINATION
Mid and East Antrim was entered for Ireland’s Top Foodie Destinations and didn’t win but did very well and got great feedback. This year, Whitehead will probably be entered as a food destination in its own right. The food offering is very strong. We have a foodie group in Whitehead, and all get together and brainstorm ideas and different food offerings we can put on throughout the year.
HAVE YOU FACED ANY PARTICULAR CHALLENGES TO DATE?
At the start, it was really difficult to set it up but we basically turned it over in four weeks, doing a lot of work ourselves. We knocked down walls, put in new flooring, developed the kitchen, finalised the interior and did the outside. We had to get it open as soon as possible and start making money, because we had a team and had to pay wages.
There have been some challenges in and around legislation. For example, to play music from a Spotify list costs you £450 just for the music licence. And we only found out recently we need an entertainment licence for our guitarist to play live for an hour every Wednesday evening. With UK law, if someone’s playing guitar with no amp, you don’t need an entertainment licence but in Northern Ireland you do.
We’ve been lucky with staff in that we’re doing most of the hours ourselves and have a team to complement that. A couple of our staff have been with us since we opened, so we haven’t had a high turnover and we make sure they are all trained up so they can come in at any time if someone’s sick or on annual leave.
HOW DO YOU SEE YOUR RESTAURANT DEVELOPING THIS YEAR?
We’re so happy to get our first year in; the first year is crucial. We have been doing a few food demonstrations and will maybe do more of that and continue to source good local producers. Our second year is about maintaining the standard; we’ve opened to very good reviews on Facebook and TripAdvisor and we would hope to continue to offer quality food and high-quality service.
We’re not licensed although it is something we’re thinking about. Half of our customers are begging us not to get a licence, and the other half are saying they wouldn’t mind. A lot of people like sourcing their own wine, and of course it’s a bit cheaper for the customers as we don’t charge corkage.
2 Marine Avenue, Whitehead
T: 028 9337 2447