From a small tapas bar in a market town, Ambiente is now well established with five restaurants across Yorkshire. Maxine Gordon reports on a home-grown success story

Turn your memories back to 2007 and Yorkshire was pretty much a tapas-free zone.

All that changed when a North Yorkshire couple opened a small tapas bar in Malton.

Fast forward 15 years and Zoe and Tim Sinclair now run five tapas restaurants across our region - one in Hull, one in Leeds and three in York.

The most recent focus has been at their third eaterie in York, which they have overhauled during the last lockdown and relaunched their The Press Kitchen in Walmgate as Tabanco by Ambiente, specialising in small plates of grilled food to be matched with an unrivalled list of Spanish sherries.

Keeping five businesses and 130 staff going through the past two years has been quite an achievement, but they have weathered the storm, held their nerve and come out the other side.

Coping with the pandemic has not been the only challenge over the years. Their second York restaurant, Ambiente in Fossgate, was hit by the Boxing Day floods of 2015.

As Zoe puts it: "We have dealt with flood, we have dealt with plague."

She also faced her own personal battle in 2018 when she was treated for breast cancer. At the same time as she, Tim, and the team were preparing to open The Press Kitchen in York, Zoe underwent a double mastectomy and six rounds of chemotherapy.

Ask her what got them through all the challenges over the years and she replies: "Good old Yorkshire staying power."

Their success story is perhaps an unlikely one. Both worked in construction before they moved into hospitality. Tim managed building merchant's Jewsons in Clifton Moor and Zoe was a quantity surveyor.

They lived in Westow and lamented that there was nowhere to go out on a Saturday night in their nearest town, Malton. So they decided to open a tapas restaurant.

Zoe said: "We thought we would open a restaurant and that it would be easy... it would be a hobby."

The reality check came two weeks later after their chef left and they had to step into the business 24/7.

York Press: Sherry tasting at AmbienteSherry tasting at Ambiente

They chose tapas because they both liked that style of eating - grazing little bits of food alongside a nice glass of wine.

Tim said: "I think we were a little bit ahead of our time. In 2007, tapas was very new to the market."

It is hard to imagine our eating out scene without tapas today - it is so prevalent, with many restaurants adapting 'small plates' menus.

"We spent the first five years explaining what tapas was to people!" said Tim.

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Three years later in 2010, the couple moved from Malton and opened the first York Ambiente in Goodramgate. Two years on, they expanded into Leeds, launching in The Calls, and in 2014 they opened their second York spot in Fossgate.

In November 2016, they took the Ambiente brand to Hull.

"We opened on Humber Street near the Marina - ready for the city of culture," said Tim.

Zoe recalled that she had wanted to take the restaurant to London - an opportunity had arisen at trendy Hoxton. But Tim won that argument.

"It was the right decision," she conceded.

Although business initially fell away after the year of culture ended, it has since returned, particularly because of the location.

Tim explained: "We were on the wrong side of the A63. You have the dock on one side and the city on the other."

But redevelopment of the area - the former fruit market - has been fortuitous, he added. "Now there is a footpath and houses, and more shops. There are another five restaurants, bars, a drinks distillery, a dinosaur museum, a gym - and we are on the same side as The Deep and the Bonus arena is nearby which is attracting some good acts."

York Press: Ambiente in HullAmbiente in Hull

Tim said the pandemic also helped draw locals to this part of the city.

"When everything was closed, this was a nice place for people from Hull to come - and it allowed them to see what Humber Street had to offer."

The rise of the staycation over the past two years has also helped with the bounce back for the business, said Tim.

York has benefited from healthy tourist numbers - but locals are venturing out too.

Tim said: "People want to go out and have experiences again. They have had two years of sitting on a sofa eating takeaways.

"And if we give tourists the experience they are looking for they will come back again."

Zoe said: "You can never take customers for granted."

The couple invest in staff training and have built a loyal team around them.

Tim and Zoe have sent key staff to Spain to visit the best tapas bars and sherry wineries and sent 16 employees to Jerez this spring for further training.

The Ambiente chain is now the largest supplier of sherry in restaurants in the UK.

Incredibly, the business is doing better now than before the pandemic.

Tim said: "We are trading above that - it is amazing."

Let's raise a sherry glass to that continuing.