If you’re wandering down the North Shields’ Fish Quay and fancy some cake and a cuppa, why not head to The Wheel House? Less than five minutes’ walk from the front, it’s a great spot to enjoy a hot drink and a sweet treat (or two) after a riverside stroll.
The Wheel House opened in October 2018 and is about to turn two in the coming months. We talked to Leigh Anne Elliott , owner of The Wheel House, to tell us the ins and outs of her quirky coffee shop.
To be honest, I had never really dreamt of being my own boss. I studied photography at university but never had the confidence to pursue it as a career. After working in a large call centre for a few years, I told myself, if I didn’t do it now then I never would.
It was actually my Dad who came across our building on Tanners’ Bank, just up from the Fish Quay. When we came to visit it for the first time, I fell in love. Small, quirky and the perfect area for me. This is where the coffee came into play – the plan was to sell coffee and cake to help fund my photography business.
The Tynemouth Coffee Company were a dream – their Black Midden blend is my personal favourite, so I knew that’s who I wanted to provide our beans. They also gave us barista training.
From our first lesson with them, I knew that this was what I wanted to do. Their passion and enthusiasm really made a huge impression on me and we couldn’t be what we are today without them.
The Wheel House is a real family-run business. Myself, my partner Aaron and my mam Julie are the main faces behind the counter. However, because we have been far busier than we could have imagined, my dad Mark has also helped an incredible amount. I can’t thank my family and Aaron’s family enough for all their help.
Due to the success of the coffee bar over the last year and a half, my photography has taken a back seat. However, you can see some of my work on the walls inside. A mural of one of my photographs is on the front of the shop too, hand-painted by local artist Kev Morley. Hopefully, I’ll get around to selling more in the coming years.
I think one major thing which makes us unique is the aesthetic of the shop. I designed the interior myself, so it’s really lovely to hear nice comments about it from our customers. Our frontage, the exterior artwork and signage also definitely help us to stand out! It all makes for a very personal, quirky environment, which customers seem to really enjoy.
Part of our uniqueness is also down to the fact that we simply sell great drinks and cakes. We’re not your typical café – our menu isn’t huge and a lot of people may think this is a negative. However, when you try our coffee or our amazing cakes, you will realise why we’ve stuck to this.
Our cakes are baked locally by the wonderful Sweet Love Cakes. They are honestly the best we have ever had. We were so lucky to find them when we did. Not only are they amazing, but you couldn’t find a more lovely, reliable supplier.
The pandemic hit us so hard at first, the same as many other businesses. We took the decision to close before the government ordered it, which was such a difficult decision. The footprint of our shop is so small and it can get very busy, therefore we didn’t feel it was right to stay open. We wanted to protect our customers, as well as ourselves and our family.
The order to close came a few days later and we knew we had made the right decision. We are so lucky that a lot of our customers are regulars and we know them personally, so we couldn’t bear the thought of anyone becoming ill.
Once we felt that we could operate safely, we decided to reopen. To start with, this was just a call and collect service on weekends only. We allocated 10-minute time slots for each customer and all orders were paid for in advance to make sure there was as little physical interaction as possible. This was really successful and it was amazing to see everyone after such a long time. The support was overwhelming.
We have continued to adapt since then, offering more time slots and eventually a walk-up service alongside the pre-orders. It is still slightly strange – customers no longer enter the shop and we have a table at the front door with our menus displayed, but it seems to be working really well. Just being able to open at all and see everyone safe and well is fantastic.
Our suppliers, Tynemouth Coffee, Sweet Love Cakes and Kahuna Cookies have been amazing by supplying us throughout this hard time. A lot of local businesses have been so supportive – not just through the pandemic, but from opening. As a brand-new business with no previous experience, we’ve been so lucky to have some words of advice and guidance from those around us. Even the smallest post on Instagram goes such a long way – Class Fit, Enigma Tap, Flash How Brewery, Platform 2 and Lobo Rojo are among those we would like to thank for that! Our neighbours, Tyne Tyres are amazing too.
Our plans going forward are to continue to supply a takeaway-only service. Unfortunately, our shop is so small and we just don’t feel like we can accommodate any seating at the moment. We want to continue to operate as safely as possible for everyone and we feel this is the best way to do that.
Throughout this pandemic, we have definitely learnt that we are able to adapt when we need to and we hope that everyone will continue to visit us as much as they have the last few weeks. We really couldn’t ask for better customers!
Explore The Wheel House on Shop On The Tyne and find opening hours, where to collect, plus their social media, so you can see how delicious the cakes look for yourself!