There are few things more tempting than the smell of fish and chips. And it can be little coincidence that rosy childhood memories of seaside holidays, Friday teatimes and late suppers are more often than not associated with the savoury treat.
So the idea of owning your own fish and chip shop will probably seem like a similarly alluring prospect. Don’t fall into the nostalgia trap, though, this isn’t Last of the Summer Wine. The modern day takeaway has big competition so you need to put a lot in to get it right.
Get the winning formula, however, and you’ll soon be cashing in your chips.
In the past few years, there has been a pretender to the throne of Britain’s favourite takeaway - chicken tikka masala. However, all traditionalists can now breathe a sigh of relief; fish and chips are firmly back on top according to a survey by the British Potato Council, which claims that 73% of Britons still see the chippy as 'king' of the takeaway scene.
Its place at the top isn’t down to traditional values. This market of independents has led the field for much of the first 100 years of its history. Gradually the customer has been faced with a large number of alternatives, from Chinese takeaways to burger vans.
Increasingly fish shops can’t just open when they please and customers will vote against poor quality with their feet. This isn’t consistent throughout the industry, however, so a good business will have its own very high standards.
Broadly, it’s about brighter, spotlessly clean shops, well-trained and pleasant staff, good economic practices – and most importantly a flawless product. Vinegar-soaked newspaper wrapping no longer meets customer expectations and when 70 to 80% of your business is repeat, this is very important.
And it’s important to make the most of the product you have, and be proud of it. Richard Ord, a member of the National Federation of Fish Friers (NFFF) Executive Committee, told us:
“We see fish and chips as the British national dish, and one of the world’s great dishes.
“When you look at fish-and-chips, it’s a remarkably low-calorie product – our product comes out at 5.5% fat, around a third of a cheese and pickle sandwich from Pret. There’s nothing better than fish and chips in a balanced diet.”
Given the competition in today's market, it's vital that chip shop owners share this confident, enthusiastic attitude.
Image courtesy of Jem on Flickr
Who is it suited to?
The classic image of a fish and chip shop depicts a family businesses, with premises above the shop; however, that doesn’t mean you have to be older or married to run one. In fact, with increased opening hours and higher standards, you’ll need the energy to put a lot of hard work into the business.
High standards have been put in place by the NFFF. The industry body now runs a highly respected training award, which inspects fish and chips in more than 200 categories, including quality of product, sustainability of produce and the hygiene of the shop.
However, if you meet the industry's high standards, the rewards are there - as Joyce Willoughby found when she and her husband Charlie started up Charlie’s Fish and Chip Shop in Amble, Northumberland.
“We started up without any experience or help but by trial and error we put together a business based not on traditional grounds but on the importance of good, trained staff. Now we’ve won national training awards and are Investors in People, which has stood the business in very good stead,” she says.
The opening hours of the chip shop have extended over the past few years. Whereas shops used to open for a couple of hours at lunchtime, for five hours in the evening and have two days off a week, now many are open all day every day. To meet these time demands, good help is important - but you could personally be working 50 to 60 hours a week.
There are no specific rules and regulations relating to fish and chips but there's a raft of health and safety legislation which governs all premises on which food is prepared.
“Rather than waiting for the environmental health inspectors to arrive, invite them in to inspect the premises before you start kitting it out,” advises David Beedle who runs four shops in County Durham.
“They appreciate coming in first and it means you get the right advice about where to put your sinks before rather than after you’ve fitted them, which is obviously preferable.”
In terms of structured training, the NFFF offers a three-day course covering everything from the implications of taking on a fish and chip business through to the practical side of actually portioning, preparing and frying fish and chips.
Although there is no legal requirement for this kind of training, the course is particularly worthwhile- as it covers all food safety legislation and offers a 12 month free membership to give you continued access to this advice.
Day to day, those that appreciate the cleanliness of your premises will be your customers. Joyce Willoughby maintains that “customers are far more aware of hygiene than in the past. The counter has to be kept spotless at all times and we purposely have an open kitchen so customers can see what’s going on. We get plenty of complimentary comments about the cleaning – although it’s no more than I would expect.”
So clearly the key is to set your own high standards, even before you start trading.
As with any business, there are rules dictating the location of a fish and chip shop. Even if you are taking over existing premises, these are still things you should look at – could there be some clue as to why the previous occupant moved on?
“You need chimney pots, people living all around,” says David Beedle. “If you have a city centre location, you’ll get some lunchtime trade but then not much until the pub and club trade late evening. A residential area is best because you get the repeat domestic and factory business.”
Being in a residential area will also cut down on your immediate competition, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be aware of that it is up to. You need to look at what your competitors are doing in terms of products and hours.
In terms of quality of product, you don't need to be in the same league as McDonalds and so on, but look at what they do well, such as consistency, and learn from that.
There is no industry-wide brand so this is not something that fish and chip shops are known for – although the NFFF and Seafish work to raise the sector’s profile generally. And individuals are starting to change this too. A good start is to fight the image of fish and chips being unhealthy.
“If fish is fried at the right temperature, it shouldn’t be soggy or greasy,” explains David Beedle. “The trick is to make sure the batter encases the fish fully so it steams inside the pocket not touching the fat at all.”
The most obvious routes are Yellow Pages listings, as well as local good food guides. It's also a good idea to place leaflets in local tourist information or guesthouses if you are situated in a tourist area.
The best promotion for your business is the overall design and image you project. Again, this goes back to the cleanliness of your shop, so you should make sure you have bright, inviting décor.
It should also extend to you and your staff. Make sure staff are smart with uniforms or matching aprons and they are pleasant and helpful at all times. “I teach my staff the importance of good body language,” says Joyce Willoughby. “Eye contact is very important.”
Word of mouth
Recommendations from family and friends is as always the best advertising – it works, and best of all, it’s free.
How much does it cost?
The cost of the premises will depend on its location and size – and whether it has a seating or restaurant area. A seating area will increase costs because it needs extra space as well as furniture, toilet facilities, crockery and so on. You may also need to hire additional staff.
There is a specific range of equipment you’ll need, but you may be able to buy that from an outgoing owner to cut costs. Seek expert opinion of the condition of existing equipment from your local environmental health department or Seafish, for example, and it may save you buying new.
You also need to budget for supplies. The NFFF provides names and addresses of suppliers in its members handbook and it can also give advice on the type of fish to buy. There are two choices: fresh wet fish can come via merchants from the ports overnight, or you can buy fish which has been frozen at sea.
It’s largely a matter of preference as to which fish you prefer. People near the sea might choose wet fish for its freshness although the price of frozen doesn’t fluctuate so much and is also very fresh. Some owners also buy in par-fried chips as this saves time and staff costs, but again it depends on the kind of product your customers will prefer.
An HMRC estimate of the fish and chip industry states that you might expect gross profits of around 50% - where some achieve more, others less. This comes down to economic preparation, effective portion control and reasonable pricing. All of which you can get advice on from trade organisations like the NFFF. Other factors like the standard of the premises and image you project is up to you.
Promoting your business beyond a bright and welcoming shop is something several of the people we spoke to were doing. Loyalty schemes, 'buy one get one free' offers, and sponsorship of local sports teams or events can all get you better known and build up your business.
Daring to flout the traditionalists still mourning the loss of newspaper wrapping, many businesses have now addressed the soggy effect of paper wrapping by introducing cardboard boxes. Beedle says consumers who were originally dubious about the idea have been so impressed by the improvement in freshness and temperature, they've come back for more - and the product is allowed even more exposure. As the NFFF's Richard Ord said of fish and chips: "It's a fantastic product, so why spoil it by wrapping it in paper?"
Ultimately, the quality of the product is the number one factor in how much you will earn. If it’s good, people will not only come back to you but they will travel out of their way, past other shops to come to yours. And they will tell their friends about you – incidentally something they’ll also do if the product is bad, with the obvious opposite effect.
Communicate with your customers, make them feel their custom is wanted, tell them how good your fish and chips are, then prove it by delivering a delicious product. Achieve this and you’re sure to be the major plaice for takeaway for miles around.
National Federation of Fish Friers (NFFF)
Tel: 0113 230 7044
Sea Fish Industry Authority (Seafish)
British Potato Council (BPC)
Tel: 01865 714455