‘Customers don’t want to go back to queuing’ - how the pandemic is changing our beloved fish and chips
- Credit: Archant
Mushy peas on the side. Salt and vinegar on freshly-fried chips. Perhaps a dollop of curry sauce on top.
We all like it our own way, but most of us have a soft spot for the British institution of fish and chips, particularly when wolfed down by the sea.
But the way we order the nation’s classic could be entering a new chapter, as the traditional Friday night queue looks set to be replaced by online orders and home deliveries.
Like other restaurants, cafés and pubs, chippies were forced to close their doors when lockdown was announced in the UK on March 23.
But by May 16 the National Federation of Fish Friers (NFFF) estimated roughly 80pc had embraced technology, including contactless payments, click and collect and mobile phone apps, to resume trading.
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Pre-pandemic, the body estimated roughly 22pc of people visited a fish and chip shop every week, and 80pc once a year - and those at the frier say demand hasn’t waned.
Many have been overwhelmed by orders, including Jason’s Fish and Chips in Rackheath, which shut early on its first night back open after receiving more than 250 orders.
David Audley, who runs the Three Cottages fish and chips in North Walsham with Paula Audley and their and son Sam Homfray, has been in the business for 40 years.
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They recently reopened for click and collect takeaways, which are largely ordered online.
“The restaurant is closed and to be honest is closed until further notice,” he said. “Until social distancing is finished, our restaurant is too small to use. We don’t know when that will come back.”
He said slots on Friday and Saturday nights were always filled and that the Tuesday on which they reopened had been the busiest Tuesday, admittedly a quieter day of the week, of their 12 years in business.
But while demand is high, a lack of capacity due to social distancing means business is still slower than usual.
“On a Friday we would normally have eight [staff members] but there’s now four,” he said. “We might be able to have five, but that would be the maximum. We are looking at increasing the number of orders, from 18 an hour to 24.”
He said they were confident they could continue to run a viable, albeit less profitable, business.
“People will continue to support us and the business will carry on,” he said, “but it’s going to mean employing less staff, with less hours and we will make less money. Unfortunately we are going back to levels of business five or six years ago.”
While the current set-up had its limitations, he said feedback from customers had been positive.
“People are coming in saying this is a brilliant system,” Mr Audley, a former president of the NFFF, said. “We used to be so busy most people turned up to pick up an order and waited up to half an hour. Now they have a time, turn up, pick it up.
“Customers don’t want to go back. The old queues are gone, and until there is a vaccine I don’t know how we can go back. We used to have anything up to 30 to 40 people jammed in so they didn’t have to queue outside.”
He said they hoped to see orders become more spread out during the week, and added they’d noticed an increase in order sizes.
“From what we are hearing some people are putting in multiple orders for their neighbours,” he said. “Certainly the average order has gone up [in size] quite a bit.”
Reluctance to queue was noted elsewhere- one fish and chip shop in Norwich said they had seen much slower trade than usual, which they put down to customers’ fears over being around other people.
Many businesses have moved to ease worries with innovation - Paul Slater, who owns the Long John Hill Fish Bar in Lakenham with wife Victoria, has brought in a ‘call to car’ scheme, where customers can ring up for their food, pay by phone and have the food delivered to their car by a member of staff without having to come into contact with another person.
In Fakenham, Andrew Felton at Drifters said he was cautiously optimistic that the restaurant, and wider industry, would bounce back. The majority of the business’ trade is currently home deliveries and click and collect orders.
“We have got less [staff] here because of social distancing, so we are not doing the normal trade we would,” he said. “We are just as busy, but have less people. That demand hasn’t gone away.
“I’m hopeful we will bounce back quite quickly, though how quickly the restaurant will depends on social distancing. It depends on how quickly people are happy to come out.”
He said there had generally been two types of customer - those not worried about queueing, and others who were extremely concerned.
He said he had seen a slight downturn in the rush of orders over the last week, which he said could be down to more people returning to work and the spending that comes with it.
“Fish and chips have been around for around 160 years, I don’t think it will die out,” he said. “We are open and we are keen to see people’s faces.”
Back in Norwich, Duane Dibartolomeo, at Grosvenor Fish Bar, said their team had learned how to manage demand from the new operation, which has seen them offer deliveries both through their website and off Uber Eats.
“We were always hesitant to do deliveries because we are usually so busy with walk-in trade, but when you take that out we were able to do it,” he said, “so it was good to get us over that hesitation.
“It’s worked really well. I think we will definitely keep the delivery.
“Even if they do open up restaurants it’s going to be so limited by space. Our space is pretty crowded downstairs, we can seat 75 people but once you try to socially distance I don’t know how many people you can.
“How things are now will probably be how it is going to be until the new year.”
He said there had been a lot of positives during the pandemic, with people focusing on what was important and customers having been very supportive and patient.