Fish and chips are back on the menu as Britons opt for traditional fare
Article Date: 2015-07-27
The industry is half the size of its First World War heyday but appetite for the British staple is rising once more
In Birmingham they’re eaten with curry sauce, in Glasgow with pickled onions. Mancunians prefer theirs with mushy peas and gravy, while in Blackpool, they’re nearly always eaten by the sea.
Fish and chips, no matter how or where they’re eaten, are a true staple of the British diet. As a nation, we get through 300m portions of fish and chips a year, according to the National Federation of Fish Friers (NFFF), the fish and chip industry body, consuming 100,000 tonnes of potatoes every year and 68,000 tonnes of fish.
After years of decline, the industry is growing again. A whopping 90pc of us have visited a fish and chip shop at least once, while 22pc of the population visit a fish and chip shop every week.
Back in 1914, the heyday for fish and chips, there were 25,000 shops nationwide. Today, those numbers have dwindled to an estimated 10,500, but the industry still employs around 85,000 people, the majority female.
The old chippies were forced out of business by the influx of takeaway players, from Kentucky Fried Chicken, which opened its first store in Preston in 1965, to McDonald’s, which arrived in the UK in 1974.
Fish and chip shops now vie with takeaway cuisines from all over the world for consumers money, but recent figures show that the classic dish is now back on the menu, with the annual spend on fish and chips topping £1.2bn a year.
"It’s a dish that is hard-wired into our DNA in the UK,” says Andy Gray, who works with the UK’s fish trade association, Seafish, and is also an organiser and judge of the National Fish & Chip awards each year. "It cuts across all socioeconomic divides.”
The recession sent many Brits back to the chippie, according to Gray, as they moved away from formal dining and went for cheaper options. The price of fish and chips in this country ranges from £3.95 to £6, which makes it an affordable takeaway for all.
At a time when online platforms such as Just-Eat and Hungry House allow hungry consumers to order almost any meal delivered to their door, fish and chips is one of the few takeaways that people still travel to enjoy."People will drive 30 to 40 miles to their favourite chippie,” says Gray. "They won’t do that for a pizza or a kebab.”
The dish has also retained its allure for visitors to the UK, which helped keep the industry alive in darker times. "When you ask tourists what they want to do in the UK, it’s always visit Buckingham Palace and eat fish and chips,” says Gray.
The first recorded mention of the UK fish and chips industry is in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Fagin, the fence who inducts the naive young Oliver into his pickpocket ring, walks through London’s Holborn to Field Lane. "It has its barber, its coffee-shop, its beer-shop, and its fried-fish warehouse,” wrote Dickens in 1837.
Charles Dickens made the first recorded mention of the UK fish and chips industry
But rather than Dickens, the enduring popularity of fish and chips is down to the Government. During World War II, fish and chips was one of the few foods in the UK not subject to rationing, because it was a cheap but cheerful way to raise British spirits. It is said that Lord Woolton, the wartime Minister of Food, even allowed mobile frying vans to carry fish and chips to evacuees around the country to boost morale.
Today, however, the 150-year-old fish and chip industry is highly fragmented. Perhaps the best known brand is 87-year-old Harry Ramsden’s, which boasts 35 franchised outlets around the UK and is expanding again after being taken over by West Midlands food entrepreneur Ranjit Boparan, and newcomer Fishnchickn, with 35 restaurants in the south east.
The rest are small family outfits with a single restaurant or takeaway, which has limited the industry’s growth. "People frequently ask me to open other shops but it’s hard to maintain quality when you move into other premises,” says Ian Robson, 61, the proprietor of the Magpie Café in Whitby, Rick Stein’s favourite fish and chip shop, echoing the fears of several other chippie owners we interviewed.
The Magpie Cafe has been serving fish and chips for 70 years and has queues permanently stretching out the doors
There’s no doubt that other sites would thrive. The business, which first opened in 1939, serves 1,800 portions of fish and chips on a busy day with queues stretching 20 feet outside the shop from 11am to closing, but Robson prefers to keep it a small family affair, with his son and two son-in-laws as well as two step-daughters all working in the business.
Conversely Calum Richardson, who runs The Bay in Aberdeen, is a new breed of chippie owner. He now generates revenues of £1.1m a year from his fish and chip shop – and the business is still growing fast. One of the biggest earners in the business isn’t the hot food but Richardson’s own brand of three-flour batter mix, which he sells in sachets to restaurants and caterers seeking to copy his crisp fish finish.
"You don’t pay VAT on it like the hot food, where you give most of your earnings to the Government,” he says. "I’ve done a deal with Compass to supply the offshore rig sector. I now supply 24 rigs and 4,500 fish suppers go out every Friday.” The Bay^s Calum Richardson
Alongside the challenge of competing with myriad high street rivals, three years ago the fish and chip sector was battered by a scare around North sea cod stocks, and many consumers began boycotting the dish.
The chippies reacted by boosting their sustainability credentials, and sourcing fish from distant waters where the cod stocks were high. "We import about 95pc from places like Norway, Russia and Iceland,” says Gray. The fish is filleted and frozen on the boats to seal in the freshness.
"Cod stocks in the North Sea are now bountiful,” he claims."There are lots of restrictions on when cod can be fished and how. You can have a clear conscience that there’s enough cod for future generations.”
There may be ample fish in the sea, but variables such as the weather mean the price can vary wildly."A stone of white fish went up by £20 four weeks ago because of the weather,”says Kay Pidduck, who runs Les & Rita’s in Rhyl, the eponymous fish and chip shop founded by her parents.
Her chippie, which was voted the Best Chippy in Wales earlier this year, can get through 12 stone of fish on a good day.
Fish and chips has also become a regular staple in gastropubs and high end restaurants, which has also eaten into the chippie’s market share, The Mapie’s Robson says. But he and others are fighting back by expanding their menus to offer options such as steak or pasta. "There’s something for everyone now,” he says. "Revenues are growing and we’ve extended the business twice, moving into adjoining buildings.”
While the majority of fish and chip shops are family businesses, there has been a surge in new entrants to the industry over the past few years. According to the NFFF, which runs frying workshops every month, 80pc of attendees are now new to the industry.
"Many young people came into the sector during the recession,” says Gray. "People were eating out less in formal eateries and the quick-service sector was growing. With them came new ideas, and rising standards, which is good for the whole industry.”
Among the innovations that these new entrants have brought to the industry is the addition of 7up, the fizzy drink, to some batters.
While the industry is back in growth, there are still challenges to be oversome. According to Andrew Crook, a director at the NFFF and owner of Skippers Fish and Chips in Euxton, Lancashire, "We need to work on getting the portion size down.
"Historically, we serve very large portions and that drives up the calorie content. McDonald’s gives three to four ounces of fries per portion, we give 10 ounces. But you need to educate the public that they’re getting too many chips.”
If the industry is successful in driving down portion sizes, it is likely to attract more fans over the coming years as health pundits steer consumers away from fat, genetically modified food, and sugars. The average portion of fish and chips contains 7.3pc fat, compared to 16.8pc in a tuna mayonnaise sandwich or 10.8pc in pork pie and provides between half and a third of the recommended daily allowance of vitamins. "It’s the last unadulterated wild food we eat in abundance,” says Gray. "It’s just potatoes, oil or dropping, flour and fish.”
The chippie owners themselves are bullish: "This industry is
here to stay, says Les & Rita’s Pidduck. "People eat fish and chips in
summer and winter, it’s not going anywhere,” says Robson from The Magpie. "Some
customers come in three times a week, and we have people travelling here from
Australia. It’s as popular as ever and it’s growing.”
For more on the article with the Daily Telegraph click on the following link