Reports that Britain's favourite takeaway food has had its chips have been greatly exaggerated. In fact, it's battering the competition. Elizabeth Donevan looks at the real bottom line...
The fish and chip shop industry in the UK employs around 80,000 people across 11,500 shops. They serve around 255 million meals a year, contributing to a total turnover of more than £800 million.
It is the largest takeaway food trade in the country – there are eight chippies for every McDonalds restaurant – getting
through 60,000 tonnes of fish (about one-quarter of all the white fish consumed in the UK) and 500,000 tonnes of potatoes (over ten per cent of the British spud market) every year.
On the face of it, fish and chips is big business – but the figures are somewhat skewed. Of the 11,500 “chippies” in the country, a significant number are takeaways with expanded menus including Chinese meals, kebabs, burgers, fried chicken and pizzas. In fact, very few shop owners rely solely on fish and chips to provide a decent living.
The great advantage for those who operate in the sector, however, is that with the exception of Harry Ramsden’s the fish and chip market is almost completely devoid of branded competition. It remains dominated by independent shops.
It has never been a homogeneous business, especially where the choice of fish is concerned. In Yorkshire, haddock is the most popular fish, hake is a favourite in Lancashire, and the North East sells a lot of dogfish or “rock salmon”.
For the past decade or so the industry has been going through a period of transition as chippy owners, faced with competition from increasingly popular Chinese and Indian takeaways, have struggled to deal with the rising cost of the trade’s three key ingredients: fish, potatoes and oil.
Douglas Roxburgh, treasurer of the National Federation of Fish Friers and an ex-frier himself, says with the right shop in the right location the industry can still offer decent rewards.
He says, “The cake is probably the same size, it’s just getting cut into smaller pieces. Friers should be watching the price of fish, potatoes, oil and packaging, and passing that cost on. Chippies aren’t charities – there’s no point if you are going to lose money.”
Roxburgh bought a fish and chip kiosk, takeaway and restaurant in Paignton, Devon, 17 years ago for £180,000. He sold it eight and-a-half years later for £350,000 having realised how physically and emotionally taxing a holiday resort location could be.
He says, “We were open 52 weeks a year, seven days a week. I could leave the house at 7am and return at 2am. I had two kids and I was missing them growing up. It was profitable but very difficult to predict. Our busiest day was one August Bank Holiday when we took £12,500 before 7pm.”
£4.50 is the national average price for a portion of fish and chips, and a decent chippy should maintain a gross profit margin of between 58 and 60 per cent. But reported dwindling stocks of the core fish that chippies deal in – cod, haddock and plaice – have sent prices up.
The biggest hike, though, has been in the cost of oil, with prices rising 23 per cent since the start of this year. Refined dripping, which is bought in ten-kilo blocks, now costs around £15 compared to about £5 last year. Potatoes, the ingredient that’s suffered the smallest recent price increase, can vary significantly in cost depending on the time of year.
Roxburgh says, “In June and July you have the last of last season’s spuds which invariably aren’t that good but can be bought for £6 or £7 for a 20 kilo bag. New season potatoes are between £12 and £14 a bag but as soon as the spuds are big enough to chip that price rapidly crashes down so you can get them for £5 a bag again.”
The Seafish Industry Authority (SIA) runs a competition to find the National Fish and Chip Shop of the Year. The average turnover of entrants is between £200,000 and £300,000 but the winning chippies often generate a much higher turnover.
While many chippies continue to be run as family affairs, a new breed of business-orientated owner is entering the trade.
Jim Hyam, training and accreditations advisor with the SIA, says, “Chippies change hands very often these days, I’d say a ten per cent turnover per year. You get people who approach it like property developers, they take a shop on and turn it into a decent business and then sell it and move on to the next one.”
Alastair Horabin has applied a businesslike approach to his family’s firm and has achieved a £1 million turnover for their three chippies in Lancashire. Horabin, now 23, left school at 18 to join the business which was formed in 2000 when his father left a 33- year career as a fish merchant to try his hand as a fish frier. The family bought Seniors, a takeaway and 14-seater restaurant in Blackpool, when it was turning over around £3,000 a week.
“In chippy terms the turnover was terrible,” Horabin says. “We used the money we made from selling the successful merchant’s business and invested it. We were putting the family jewels at risk but we had an insight into the fish
and chip trade because we had supplied them for so long.”
Employing eight staff, they tripled turnover to £9,500 a week within two years, and in 2002 Seniors came second in the Fish and Chip Shop of the Year awards, an accolade that provided the recognition and the increase in custom to justify an expansion of the shop into a 75-seater restaurant.
He says, “The awards are like the Olympics for fish and chips. We had invested between £80,000 and £100,000 in the first shop but we spent the money on the right things. In 2005, I wanted to expand further. I spoke to a family friend who wanted to sell some land and within a week we had bought a car park to build on.”
It was around this point that Horabin Jr took the reins as general manager. He spent £500,000 building a 2,800 sq ft
takeaway and restaurant – the North West’s first purpose-built chip shop for more than 50 years. He employs 32 staff in the second shop alone to sell 13 varieties of fish including cod, haddock, hake, butterfish, plaice, lemon sole, monkfish, pollack, halibut and Seniors’ signature dish, John Dory.
Horabin aims to serve between 1,000 and 1,500 people every week in each of the three shops. Mondays are the quietest days and Fridays the busiest. Like more and more chip shop owners looking to save on staff and equipment costs, Horabin has chosen to outsource potato preparation and receives pre-cut chips from an outside company which also supplies McCains and Marks and Spencer.
Horabin is also a bit of a greeny. As a regular entrant to the Fish and Chip Shop of the Year competition, which now tests entrants on their commitment to “sustainability”, he has started researching alternatives to the polystyrene containers which have replaced paper as the mainstream container for takeaway fish and chips.
“We have started looking at the bio box made from reused sugar cane. We will look at piloting something similar at the end of the year,” he says.
The polystyrene boxes cost around three pence when bought in bulk. At the moment a bio box, as they aren’t in great demand, costs eight-to-ten pence.
Many small set-ups will function on a husband-and-wife team alone, often with teenage children helping out with
preparation tasks at weekends, but larger operations will employ a team of senior friers, waitresses for the restaurant, till workers, a person to wrap food, a person to pass food, runners to prepare and transport buckets of chips, and dishwashers – most of whom are employed part-time.
Very busy shops will also employ a full-time shop manager and senior fish frier who can expect a salary of £15-20,000.
Jean Ritson owns three chip shops under her Bizzie Lizzies brand in Skipton and the Yorkshire Dales. She employs 86 staff across the group and dishes out up to £10,000 a week in wages. When Ritson entered the trade in 1976 she sold nothing but fish and chips for nearly ten years. Now she incorporates homemade chicken dishes, chilli and homemade pies on her takeaway and restaurant menus.
“People want traditional and homemade these days because in their own lives they haven’t time to do that,” she explains. “But 80 per cent of the business is still in fish and chips because you can’t get proper fish and chips from anywhere else but a proper chippy.”
Despite the challenges they face, there are still nearly 12,000 chippies all over the UK making a profit – and growth in the sector is around six per cent annually.
Roxburgh says, “Fish and chips has fed a nation through the war. It has survived depressions before and it will do so again. You can’t say that about a lot of our fast food.”