Crab and Winkle Restaurant and Whitstable Fish Market owners speak of devastation after harbor fire

The owner of a much-loved port business destroyed by fire has spoken of its “devastation” and reveals it will take at least two years to reopen.

Peter Bennett, who runs the Crab & Winkle restaurant and Whitstable fish market, recounted how it took four hours for the fire to “utterly and completely ruin” almost 30 years of “hard grafting”.

Peter commenting that his business was destroyed by fire

His business, which he and his wife Elizabeth run, was destroyed on May 26 by a fire that started in the neighboring cockle shed in Whitstable Harbour, despite the valiant efforts of firefighters.

In total, £60,000 worth of stock had to be thrown away following the fire, as the fire melted wiring and cut power to the building.

Reflecting on the harrowing day a month later, Bennett, 75, said he was lucky no one was seriously hurt, or worse. His wife and his staff were in the building moments before the fire broke out.

“It was at 12 o’clock at night when it started, which is when the restaurant opens,” he said.

“Customers weren’t there yet, but there were queues downstairs waiting to get in.

Dozens of firefighters were at the scene of the fire in Whitstable Harbour. Image: Mary Whelan

“The staff was in the building and no one came to tell us that there was a fire next door. We found out because the place was full of smoke.

“We set the alarm and got everyone out. If that had been a full restaurant, especially the elderly who are seen more during the day when the kids are at school, the smoke coming down the stairs would have suffocated them.”

“I think a lot of them would have had a hard time getting out in good health. There could have been deaths.”

Mr. Bennett, who served in the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment for 22 years, was at a veterans meeting with former comrades when he received a text from his wife about the fire.

At the height of the fire, smoke could be seen for miles, with plumes visible from Tankerton.

Peter Bennett outside the Crab and Winkle Restaurant and Whitstable Fish Market
Peter Bennett outside the Crab and Winkle Restaurant and Whitstable Fish Market
Damage inside the Crab and Winkle restaurant in Whitstable
Damage inside the Crab and Winkle restaurant in Whitstable

“I think Whitstable will be very hurt to see the business go,” he said.

“During the fire they couldn’t see what was happening because the frame and roof of the cockle shed was still there and they didn’t start tearing it down until the next day.

“No one knew that the Crab & Winkle was destroyed by fire.”

Four inches of water flooded the first-floor restaurant from where firefighters battled the flames, causing significant floor and ceiling damage to the fish market.

Rooms in the building were completely destroyed, with rubble strewn everywhere.

Damage inside the Crab and Winkle restaurant in Whitstable
Damage inside the Crab and Winkle restaurant in Whitstable

Air conditioning units and water pipes are among the parts of the building melted by the intense heat of the fire.

“In our main freezer we had bought a lot of stock for the Jubilee holidays, so it added up to £30,000 of stock which we put into wheelie bins,” added Bennett.

“It was rotting because there is no electricity in the building because all the wires melted in the fire.

“It would have decreased during the school holidays and the Jubilee.

“That’s about four weeks of stock, so it would have lasted all of June.”

The aftermath of the fire at the Crab and Winkle restaurant
The aftermath of the fire at the Crab and Winkle restaurant

A total of 30 large commercial wheeled bins filled with food and drink were dumped.

Mr Bennett had worked at St Augustine’s Fish Supplies Ltd since 1984. The business moved to Whitstable Harbor in 1990, to the site where the fish market stands today.

By 1994 he had bought the site, which was a “great big empty shed” at the time, and launched the Whitstable Fish Market. Then in 1999 the Crab & Winkle restaurant opened upstairs.

“I will never forget it because it was a great achievement and we were full every day and every night,” he said.

“We have always had fish sales that have been brilliant.

Crab and Winkle Restaurant owners Peter and Elizabeth Bennett as they watch the cockle shed fire in Whitstable Harbor engulf their business.  Image: Charlotte Rose Nash
Crab and Winkle Restaurant owners Peter and Elizabeth Bennett as they watch the cockle shed fire in Whitstable Harbor engulf their business. Image: Charlotte Rose Nash

“The restaurant has been redesigned and I have spent £800,000 over the years reinvesting, which has brought it into modern times.

“We added a kitchen downstairs to cook pies and introduced a Wee Willie Winkle’s fish and chip bar that was very busy. We used to have queues at the port for that.”

He recounted how his wife cried for two weeks after the fire and that he was “gutted”.

And on Friday, he had to make the heartbreaking decision to lay off 14 of his employees.

He believes it will be at least two years before the business can reopen.

Inside the Crab and Winkle restaurant before the fire.  Image: Peter Bennett
Inside the Crab and Winkle restaurant before the fire. Image: Peter Bennett

“It was the heartbeat of Whitstable and it shows in the number of people who have tried to get on the train,” he said.

“There was nothing in the port and it was just me doing business here for many years.

“I don’t mind sharing a bit, but it was over the top. Three fishmongers have opened in the city since I started and they all closed within the year because we have the business here.

“We were at the top and the restaurant was filling up every time it was open. The ground floor was busy with the seafood, fish and chips, and coffee being sold. The tables and chairs in the front were full from 10 am when we open, right the way through

“He was central to the kickoff for Whitstable.”

Stock about to be scrapped following the fire at Whitstable Harbour.  Image: Peter Bennett
Stock about to be scrapped following the fire at Whitstable Harbour. Image: Peter Bennett

The city council – which owns the building and is investigating the cause of the fire – has not yet given a cause and said it is still waiting for a forensic report from its insurers.

However, firefighters believe the cause of the fire was accidental.

The council will be responsible for repairs to the main structure of the Crab & Winkle restaurant and the fish market building.

It will also consult with residents about the future use of the cockle shed site, which has since been demolished.

“There are no decisions yet on the long-term future of the old cockle shed,” a spokesman said.

The aftermath of the cockle shed fire in Whitstable Harbor
The aftermath of the cockle shed fire in Whitstable Harbor

“This is a prime location and much consultation with residents needs to be done about its future use. There is no timeline we can provide for this at this time.”

“We own and lease the Crab and Winkle Fish Market/Restaurant building. Repairs to the main structure of this building are our responsibility and we are working with our insurer to get them up and running as quickly as possible.”

“We are about to appoint a consultant who specializes in dealing with the rehabilitation of buildings after a fire.

“They will survey the extent of the damage and produce a full repair schedule. Once that is complete, we will appoint a contractor to carry out the work.”

The local authority had recently agreed a short-term use of the cockle shed building for the Whitstable Biennale art festival.

Organizers said the building was “in the thick of it” in its preparations, but the event was held earlier this month with some adjustments.

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