It's the British national dish that has always been local and independent. But that could change with some big names plotting fish and chip outlets. Glynn Davis explains what's next for Harry Ramsden's and the cod chains
Ask any tourist which dish they associate with Britain and the majority will answer fish and chips. However, despite numerous independent restaurants, there hasn't been a national branded chain selling this most iconic of combos.
But this is all about to change. Just as we have famous brands selling pizzas, burgers, sushi and a host of other cuisines, there is now a mission by some big-hitters to develop branded fish-and-chip chains potentially encompassing hundreds of outlets.
Leading the charge is a revitalised Harry Ramsden's, which reached 50 units at its former peak and is now once again in full-throttle expansionary mode, along with Yorkshire-based newbie Whitby's, which also has national domination on its agenda.
Both benefit from deep-pocketed owners who have employed skilled operators to crank-up the aggressive roll-out plans of their respective chains. They are joined by another batch of players that have built solid, distinctive brands and are looking to grow their estates - albeit at a more measured pace.
restaurants and take-aways
This second category includes Kent-based Catch, London restaurant Golden Union, and Deep Blue, which has built up a chain of 19 outlets that are a mix of restaurants and take-aways in the South of England, with the most recent opening in Crawley in March. Other chains include Marini's in Scotland and Fish ‘n' Chick'n - but they are not true fish and chip specialists.
The reasons there has not been a national brand to date are manifold, according to Gregg Howard, president of the National Federation of Fish Friers (NFFF) and owner of two Our Plaice outlets. He says regional preferences play a big part. Different oils are used, differing fish types are preferred, and different batter colours are favoured in some areas. And then there is the issue of inconsistency of fish portion sizes.
"I've heard it all before, over the past 30 years, about new chains [being created]. There was Harry Ramsden's, but even that wasn't a national chain. They are not a threat to the independents of which 10,500 are members of the NFFF," Howard suggests.
Luke Johnson, chairman of Risk Capital Partners, also highlights some weaknesses in the model, but this renowned investor can see the potential: "There is an in-built feeling of fish and chips being cheap but cod is expensive. It's also not healthy, it's smelly and is messy to cook. But it has not been done by the right people so it probably could work as a national chain."
Joe Teixeira, chief executive of Boparan Ventures - owner of Harry Ramsden's, certainly thinks so. He has a multi-pronged attack to take the chain to new heights, involving opening various formats, most notably "Locals" - a take-away-style unit that he intends to grow into a business of 1,000 units around the UK (see page 36).
There is also a plan to add quick service restaurants (QSR) in shopping centres and train stations along with full-service restaurants, which Teixeira believes could number around 50 - each with 80-100 covers located in major cities and seaside towns.
This is a move away from the Harry Ramsden's of old, when some restaurants had up to 200 covers - which was why the original Guiseley outlet was recently sold, to the outrage of many locals. "It was big and in the middle of nowhere. There isn't a place in the market for them any more," he suggests.
Darren Richards, manager of Whitby's, disagrees and he has plans to open 100 such restaurants, modelled on its pilot outlet that opened six months ago in Rotherham, which has 160 covers within a 5,000sq ft unit and parking space for 75 cars.
"The beauty of this model is that we've got parking. We're off the prime pitches and it's a drive-to business. A second site has already been found in Doncaster, which will open in September," he says.
Despite their divergent strategies, both businesses have a common focus on delivering a high-quality product. "With the independent fish and chip shops there is a variability of quality, whereas quality is the key to our business. We buy the best fish that money can buy and about 95% is served freshly prepared and so is not reheated or sat in the frying range's top box."
Integral to Whitby's aggressive roll-out plan is an investment in advertising - that is aimed at changing some of the ingrained negative perceptions of fish and chips - and expenditure on its branding.
Graham Hollinshead, managing director at Catch, formerly worked at Starbucks and Deep Blue so knows all about the value of branding when creating a successful chain. He says he has sought to "bring the brand disciplines of the coffee chain to fish and chips".
With the bright, lively colour schemes at his two outlets - in Canterbury and Ashford - they certainly stand out, which, he says, has helped overcome some of the prejudice of local councils and will pave the way for more outlets.
"People see our visuals and they like it. If you can create consistency of quality and the environment is the same [in each restaurant] then there is definitely room for a national chain. But it takes passion and deep pockets," Hollinshead suggests.
Billy Drew, owner of Golden Union, might not have the deep pockets but he certainly has the passion along with a well-defined brand that is reflected in the fit-out of his single unit - in London's Soho. It attracts a hipster crowd who are not your typical fish and chip eaters, which contrasts with Whitby's and Harry Ramsden's who are more focused on families and the older demographic.
"We'd like to be the Byron Burger of fish and chips with our stylised interior, modelled on a post-war café, but which also matches the high quality of the product. It has not been done before with fish and chips," he suggests.
Having opened in 2008 in the teeth of the recession he has built the weekly takings up from £10,000 to £14,500 from a modest 52 covers - with eat-in and take-away each generating 50% of sales - and a healthy gross margin of around 70%.
Having proved the concept, Drew is now on the look-out for funding to build Golden Union into a chain: "We've been given the status as one of the best fish and chip shops for our price bracket - less than £10 for a one-course meal - and now I'd like to take it further with private-equity money."
Harry Ramsden's past, present and future
After being passed between various owners - including Granada, Compass and Select Service Partners (SSP) - in 2006 Harry Ramsden's had to compete with other brands in the group's portfolio for investment, and it suffered.
Graham Hollinshead, managing director at Catch, says the move into service stations also damaged the brand as it switched to pre-battered frozen fish in order to cope with sudden influxes of coach parties: "If this was your first experience of the brand then it killed it for you."
In January 2010 it was sold to Boparan Ventures (Boparan Holdings is the parent of 2 Sisters Food Group) and Joe Teixeira, formerly head of food service at John Lewis, joined the business in late 2011 to "fix a distressed brand and position it for growth". His plan involves selling off some properties and bringing in operational know-how that will rejuvenate a brand which, he says, still has much affinity with customers: "There are 10,000-plus independents but no credible brand. Despite the abuse, Harry Ramsden's is the only take-away brand."
The heart of the strategy is the roll-out of franchised "Locals" take-away units from 2013, which will involve the opening of 100 outlets (covering 1,000-1,200sq ft) per year that will be based on the concept that opens in Bournemouth this month. "It's a big game but the plan is on franchises because it's self-sufficient as we use somebody else's capital expenditure." Teixeira says. The country is being split into franchised regions and Teixeira adds that two franchisees are close to being signed-up.
Meanwhile, the full-service restaurants' new menu will include steamed and pan-fried fish - as well as a pie selection and Sunday roast - although the core battered fish and chips option is expected to account for 70% of revenues.
Also on the agenda is opening up franchised outlets - comprising Locals, QSRs and full-service restaurants - overseas with India, the Middle East and China as targets.
Overcoming fish misconceptions
One of the big hurdles to building a branded fish and chip restaurant/take-away chain is the widely held perception that it is a cheap and unhealthy cuisine. Graham Hollinshead, managing director at Catch, says: "People believe the cost is cheap as chips, that it's less than £5 - even I think this! We should see fish versus a gourmet burger where there is no change from £10." He adds that there is a misconception that fish and chips is unhealthy, as it is less calorific than Indian food, a Big Mac and pizza.
Gregg Howard, president of the NFFF, agrees: "Chicken korma has twice the calories of fish and chips but the media sees obesity as a plate of chips because we're an easy target as we're mainly independents."
He also suggests better communication is needed from the industry about fish stocks. The majority of outlets source fish from Icelandic waters, where stocks are the highest for 50 years.
Hollinshead says: "Our fish is from Norway and both cod and haddock stocks are as high as in 1940."
DFS founder swaps furniture for fish
With the combined backing of DFS founder Lord Kirkham (who sold the sofa business for £500m) and the family owners of the Yorkshire-based Foers construction firm, it is clear Whitby's is on the fast-track to rolling out its large-scale 165-cover restaurants.
Darren Richards, manager of Whitby's - who was poached from the high-quality Trenchers Seafood Restaurant & Take-away in Whitby - says the first unit in Rotherham has gone pretty well. "Doncaster will be opening in September, and already we're on the case of looking for other sites," he adds.
The initial target area is Yorkshire because it is "proper fish and chip country", but Richards also points to other potential areas, notably the South, East and West coastlines. "There has always been a love of fish and chips but it's all about the quality and service as well as a good environment," he adds.
The focus on removing the variability found in many fish and chip shops, ensuring the fish is cooked to order, all ancillaries are home-made, including mushy peas and tartar sauce, and affordable pricing - with small main-course fish and chips at £6.45 and large at £8.95 - has led to plenty of repeat business.
Much of this is eat-in trade, which Richards says accounts for two-thirds of trade as the Whitby's model includes car parking