ESHER, UK — It was Britain’s original fast food — a slab of battered and deep-fried white fish served in a nest of piping-hot fries, preferably rolled in a sheet of paper.
The UK still loves its fish and chips. But for the humble “chippy” — the nickname of the walk-in restaurants where the dish is sold — these are tough times.
That was the consensus at the Fish Frying and Fast Food Show, an annual trade show for the fish and chips industry held last Sunday at a racetrack 20 miles southwest of London.
Volatile prices for the four commodities at the heart of the business — potatoes, oil, fish and gas — plus ravenous competition from an ever-expanding fast food market have made “the great British takeaway” a tougher sell than ever.
A thriving business these days needs more than a counter, a fryer and a stack of greaseproof paper, said Reece Head, publisher of the trade magazine Fry.com and organizer of the show.
Customers now expect nicer shops, expanded menus and even more convenience — changes that many in this tradition-steeped industry have been slow to accept.
A food cart raises money for the families of killed or injured fishermen (Corinne Purtill/GlobalPost).
“We try and say, look, you’ve got to get off your [rear] nowadays,” said Head, who owns two south London shops. “It is a good viable business, but you’ve got to be prepared to work at it. No one gives it to you anymore.”
There are 10,500 fish and chip shops in the UK today, according to the National Federation of Fish Friers — down from a peak of about 35,000 in the 1920s.
The dish has been a working class favorite since the 1860s. But a plethora of options have encroached on the market of hot, semi-instant food that fish and chips once dominated.
Fried chicken and kebab joints have proliferated across English high streets. Supermarkets sell ready-made meals that can be heated at home in less time than it takes to stand in line at the local fish counter.
Pizza, Chinese and Indian restaurants also offer delivery — the chippies’ Achilles heel. A steaming, perfectly crispy piece of fish turns to mush nearly instantly when sealed in a takeaway container. Nobody likes mushy fish.
So vendors at Sunday’s convention showed off vented boxes for delivery that doesn’t disappoint. They hawked gluten-free batter, jugs of peri-peri dipping sauce and digital menu boards. There were displays of disposable plastic dipping sauce cups and an intimidating-looking oil filtration system called the “Carbon Assassin.”
The Carbon Assassin: Oil filtration systems promise owners long-term savings (Corinne Purtill/GlobalPost).
Eager salesmen offered samples of soft-serve, shrimp scampi and sausages — new menu items promising to bring chippies more customers.
“In today’s market, most of them are struggling. But if they know they’re going to get something back, they pay the money,” said Michael Dickman of BD Signs, amid a glowing display of digital menu boards.
Dickman owned a Nottingham chip shop for 10 years before moving to his brother’s sign business last year. The volatile commodities market hurt many restaurants, he said. Potato prices abruptly tripled this spring following a spate of frigid weather. The company was servicing up to 10 shops a day to change the prices upward on the menu boards.
Broader menus and nicer shops are key to survival in a tough climate, chippie owners say (Corinne Purtill/GlobalPost).
“It was nearly closing a lot of people. I was hearing a lot of sob stories,” Dickman said. “But you can’t just give it up, can you? You’ve got to fight on.”
Koon Ying Cheung knows about hanging on in this business. When she emigrated from Hong Kong in 1976 at the age of 15, her first job in the UK was peeling potatoes at a fish and chips shop. She’s owned King’s Fish and Chips in Aldershot for 28 years.
For all the menu changes, upgrades and other work that the market demands these days, she said, nothing replaces the draw of a perfectly cooked piece of fish.
“The product’s got to be nice,” she said. “That keeps the customers coming back for more.”