A second Simpsons is proving no more effort than running just the one, says James and Bonny Ritchie who are taking it all in their stride
Having initially been against the idea of running multiple sites, fearing it may take them away from their core business, James and Bonny Ritchie had no intentions of opening a second outlet. But when their shop, Simpsons in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, won the accolade of Best Independent Fish & Chip Takeaway at the National Fish & Chip Awards in 2016 and the pair found themselves regularly away from the business, they realised staff could, in fact, cope without them.
“We were doing other things for the trade, we went to Japan for three weeks for example, and we took a couple of months out of the shop to concentrate on background stuff like marketing,” says James. “I was forced into trusting the team a bit more. It paid off and we thought we could go for a second one.”
With an excellent reputation in the Cheltenham area, pushing the name out to a wider audience and grabbing a bigger slice of the Gloucestershire eating out scene seemed like a good option. But rather than play it safe and go for a similar location - Cheltenham is on the edge of town - with the same food offering, James and Bonny opted for Stroud, a town centre location with a very different demographic to what they’ve been used to.
“Stroud is quite a hippy town and there’s a very large vegetarian and vegan community,” explains James. “We knew this before we moved here, so the menu was something we looked at straight away.”
Responding to this with frickles (fried pickles), pea fitters and fried halloumi, which are all on the menu at Cheltenham, James also added a brand new addition, a homemade cheese and onion take on a Yorkshire fishcake.
“The people here really appreciate the fact that we are doing these vegetarian and vegan items,” says James. “We literally sell hundreds of frickles, I’m getting through jars of pickles a week in Stroud, whereas in Cheltenham we don’t have the same demand for it. On day one, we had pies on the menu and we sold one, so I took them off. It’s not something people are asking for so it’s not something I’m going to do.”
Understanding where Simpsons was going and the vibe in Stroud has been crucial in ensuring the chippy has been embraced by the local community - along with a street party to which everyone was invited.
“We love a party and we thought it was really important to get the locals involved so we let everyone sign up,” explains James. “We had about 300 people at the opening, we had lots of local bloggers doing articles on us and we did chip drops to local businesses. We really wanted to celebrate arriving here.
“I know traditionally you start quietly and you build up trade as people gain knowledge about you, but as soon as we announced we were coming to Stroud we had a great reception and I think that’s really helped us.”
Operating two outlets has not been anywhere near as challenging as James first thought it might be. One of the key reasons for this is that he’s kept Stroud simple. For one, it’s a takeaway so instantly there are less staff to worry about - Cheltenham being a restaurant operates on around 15-16 staff on a Friday night, here it’s between four and six.
The menu has also been simplified. There’s no large cod, instead it’s simply a loin or half a loin, and there are no burgers or pies available either. James explains: “When we’re training people it makes things so much easier as they have a few things that they can cook really well rather than lots of things which risk taking their eyes off the core product, obviously the fish.”
Even down to the menuboard, it’s a simple retro peg board which can be changed immediately if something is not working.
Operationally things have been kept simple too, with Stroud closed all day on Sundays and Mondays and between 2pm and 4.45pm in the week. And its gluten free day runs just once a month. “It just means we are doing more trade in a short space of time, which is what we want,” adds James.
There’s also a new four pan, L-shaped Florigo high efficiency frying range which not only keeps the queue moving but also adds an element of theatre to the takeaway as customers can see their food being cooked.
With the two shops positioned far enough away from each other so as not to take trade from one another, but near enough for staff to move between the two, they run totally independent of each other with managers in each and both doing their own ordering and prep. James comments: “If we run out of something, I need the staff to be able to do it here rather than calling up another shop and relying on them.”
Not only is the new business doing well but Cheltenham is running smoothly as the staff are now used to the fact that James and Bonny aren’t around as much. “I go in there sometimes and people don’t even know who I am!” says James. “It’s got to that stage now where I don’t have to be there as often as I was before and it’s meant I’ve been able to concentrate on getting Stroud up and running. Even in Stroud now, I don’t need to be there as much as I was initially.”
All in all the pair are finding running two shops not that much more work than running one. While James laughs it off and puts it down to luck, the truth of it is that they have developed a business and a team that can operate effectively without them both. And that is James’s advice to anyone thinking about opening another business: “Make sure your first shop is going to be okay without you as you’re going to spend a lot of time in the new one.
“I was able to get Stroud right from the word go because I wasn’t worrying about the other shop.”