“One of our very good customers was in palliative care, and was asked what he would really like as his last meal. All he wanted was barbecue ribs from sSs.
“Oh my God, we cooked them ribs up with so much love. It still affects us when we talk about it.”
This being one of their fondest memories of 25 years in their Tamworth restaurant, it’s small wonder that Graham and Marlene Manvell’s sSs BBQ Barns has reached that rare milestone in a tough industry.
Their passion for their work is obvious – “Food has been our whole lives; I think it’s the greatest industry of all time,” Mr Manvell said.
The Craigends Lane steakhouse marks the quarter-century milestone on November 6, the date it opened to the public in 1993.
Reflecting on the decades since, chef Mr Manvell said it had been “ever-evolving” – but some things never changed.
“There are certain things you just can’t change on the menu,” he said.
“A lot of people come in every week and always have the same.
“Marlene [who works front-of-house] knows them by name, what they’re going to eat, how they like it cooked.
“Most places don’t get to do 25 years for a start – it’s a rarity – but we have people who just like what we do and keep coming back, and it’s incredible.”
Mrs Manvell said: “What drives us is the loyalty of our customers.”
That was tested when sSs suffered its “biggest kick” – it was badly damaged in a mid-2011 fire that started in a pile of hot tea towels – a surprisingly common phenomenon.
The award-winning restaurant was closed for 18 months and “it was always going to be rebuilt, but every day we didn’t think it was going to happen … every day it was a battle”, Mr Manvell said.
Those hurdles included sourcing other work for their staff and jumping through insurance hoops.
But they said their customers stayed with them – in spirit, anyway – until the doors reopened.
“One young fella, who’d had 18 birthdays there, rang and said, ‘What am I going to do this year?’ … It was something that we just had to do, we had to reopen.
“We were just astounded when we did: people would turn up and say, ‘We’ll just have the same again’.”
The Manvells said quality was their number-one goal, leading them to make about 60 per cent of their menu paddock to plate from their own farms, including buffalo, beef, lamb, ginger beer, wine, herbs and veggies.
“Costs can go up etc, but he’s never, ever compromised on the quality,” Mrs Manvell said.
“At some stages he’d say, ‘I’d rather go broke than giving less quality’. He’s always been a stickler for that.”
World on a plate
The Manvells said their profession had allowed them to travel – and eat – their way across the world, as Mr Manvell judges regularly in overseas cuisine contests.
“You end up with friends and contacts all around the world in this industry … and wherever we go, we eat well,” he said.
When Mrs Manvell was asked what she might be doing if not this, there was a long pause.
“I can’t think what I would be doing which would be more rewarding than this,” she said.
There’s never a dull moment, no day is ever the same ...
“We have had some amazing experiences, and I’d hate to think I’d be doing anything else.”
Mr Manvell said: “It’s been an amazing, amazing ride, I can tell you. Gee whiz.”