Fish and chips are back on the menu... and after years of decline, the industry is growing again.
No matter where or how they are eaten (Do you take yours with mushy peas or gravy?), they really are a well-established staple of the British diet. In fact, the dish is so embedded in our culture that Winston Churchill couldn't bring himself to ration it during the war due to fears of widespread discontent.
The cost of the raw ingredients may be rising and, in these cosmopolitan times, competition from fast food chains on the high street can be fierce.
However, the number of fish and chip shops in the UK dramatically outweighs the number of other fast food outlets and franchises, proving to be the most popular form of takeaway in the UK.
Fish and chips are undergoing something of a renaissance. Despite the profusion of alternative choices, people still regularly opt for this old British favourite with 80% of Brits visit a fish and chip shop at least once a year and 22% of people visit every week according to the National Federation of Fish Friers (NFFF).
The resurgence of fish and chips is even more remarkable given price hikes in the industry. It used to be a cheap option, but with fish stocks dwindling, the price of vegetable oil rising and potato prices volatile, fish and chip shop owners are being forced to pass costs onto customers.
Value for money
The recession sent cash-strapped Brits back to the humble chippie as they moved from restaurants to cheaper dining options.
Mark Petrou, owner of Cambridgeshire fish and chip shop, Petrou Brothers, thinks that fish and chips offer great value, despite breaking the £5 barrier in parts of the south-east.
"When you consider the journey from field or sea to plate, and the level of skill involved at every stage of that journey, including the risk to human life and nurturing, storage, transportation, preparation, cooking and serving - with every pair of hands along the way demanding a piece of silver - and then compare it to a bag of popcorn from the cinema at £4, then I can already rest my case," he says on his blog On Plate, although he doesn't stop there.
"Fish and chips at £5 per portion are still cheaper when compared to today's average weekly wage, against its cost and wage comparison of 10 years ago. Pubs charge up to £14.99 for a poor imitation of our product and nobody bats an eyelid."
It's a fair point, although fish and chips are still pricier than a meal from McDonald's or Burger King. But then again, fish and chip shops outnumber McDonald's outlets eight to one, with 10,500 specialist fish and chip shops in the UK selling approximately 300 million meals every year, according to figures from the NFFF.
Fish and chip shops supplement their staple with various budget options, including fishcakes and scampi for fish lovers; pies, sausages, burgers and kebabs for the post-pub market; and, increasingly, salads, falafel and other healthy and vegetarian options.
Nevertheless, chippies concentrate on promoting their core meal of white fish and chunky chips, partly because buying the ingredients in bulk means they can keep prices lower.
The origins of the meal go back to the industrial revolution when the newly constructed rail links allowed fish and imported foods to be shipped quickly from ports to towns, enabling a rapidly growing population to be fed cheaply. It went on to become such a well-loved part of the national diet that 'fish 'n' chip' shops sprang up in seaside resorts from Whitby to Bournemouth to cater for the then new-fangled tastes of holidaying city dwellers.
Shops in such towns remain among the most lucrative and expensive in the country. Many day trippers see fish and chips as being as integral to a seaside trip as seeing the beachfront itself.
The meal is notably popular in the north of England and Scotland, where fish and chip owners are known to have a penchant for deep frying food, even, most famously, Mars bars.
'Chippies' in the south-east often diversify into other lines. In London, you can choose from a staggering array of cuisines, so fish and chip shops have their work cut out to attract custom.
Nevertheless, the quintessential British classic is popular in the capital, helped in part by its appearance on the menus of gastropubs and restaurants. And London businesses tend to have a large catchment of affluent single people working long hours, so they are potentially very lucrative.
A British institution
Now that fish and chips is no longer perceived as the only bargain meal - although it is still generally cheaper than Indian or Chinese takeaways - what is a fish and chip shop's selling point? Well, it's quick, fairly healthy food; you're in and out usually within five minutes, and although the chips have little nutritional merit, the meal is redeemed by the protein-rich brain food that accompanies it.
Then there's the fondness that people still feel for what is a British institution. These advantages ensure that the chippy is still a viable business.
However, because the meal isn't as cheap as it used to be, it's even more important for fish and chip shop owners to provide a good product. If you can crack high-quality fish and chips, then no matter what area you're in, you'll establish a customer base.
With Harry Ramsden's the only branded competition of note, this is a sector free of huge disparities in marketing budgets and bulk buying advantages. And speaking of Harry Ramsden's, you might want to open a 'restaurant' section, in which case you'll need a seating area, which could pump up the price significantly.
Location should influence any decision taken in this regard. In a traditional seaside resort and other areas with high concentrations of senior citizens, sitting in to eat is still common, but generally, people think of a chippy as a takeaway and have no desire to eat in.
Leasehold prices vary hugely - from as little as £10,000 in certain parts of the north to as much as £350,000 in affluent London areas. Freeholds are rarer, but a good business can fetch up to £500,000. A fish and chip shop owner kindly offered advice on choosing between a leasehold, freehold or rental premises - or even a van dispensing the British classic.
It's a tougher industry than years ago, but in the right area a medium-sized chippy can still turn over between £2,000 and £4,000 a week, even if rising costs are squeezing profit margins.
But - and it might surprise some given the intense competition - this is no moribund industry: fish and chips is still Britain's favourite takeaway and well-located shops (like this high street-based shop in Birmingham) can still make you a good living.
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