With a mobile tracker and a digital food safety system, Richard Ackland, owner of the local franchise for Howe & Co Fish and Chips in Warwickshire and the West Midlands, is taking his fish and chip van places
How did you get into mobile catering?
Myself and my wife have both been teachers for 20 years. While we’ve enjoyed it, we’re both hitting 40 and teaching isn’t the same as it was when we started. We wanted a bit more freedom, to work the hours we wanted to work and we quite liked the idea of mobile catering.
Why fish and chips?
We looked at mobile coffee, but thought everyone was doing that. Round where we live, there are lots of little villages that don’t have much in the way of places to eat. There are also a lot of new builds, estates of about 5,000 houses with no facilities for the people that live there. Fish and chips is popular but people can’t get hold of it unless they drive seven or eight miles, so they now have a chippy night when we come along.
When did the venture start and how have you gone about it?
We started four weeks ago, although we’ve been planning it for a good six months. We’ve got The Warwickshire-based franchise for Howe & Co, who have been serving fish and chips for over 80 years, so they know what they are doing. They provided us with the van, which is just like a fish and chip shop, but a shrunk-down version. We’ve got a three pan range, a hot holding unit above it and a chip box. All our training was done by Howe and Co at its headquarters, they have their own way of doing things, like their own secret ingredient rice cone mix. And we use all their suppliers, they’ve done all the homework and selected the best, which is really useful to a newcomer.
What’s on your menu?
We have limited storage so we keep the menu very traditional. We just have cod and chips, jumbo sausage, curry sauce, mushy peas, chicken nuggets for the children, and homemade fishcakes. By keeping it simple, customers can come up, make a decision quickly and we can get through the queues quickly.
How does your round work?
We work Monday to Friday and we do regular rounds, just evenings at the moment but we plan to do a few lunch ones as well. We also do a few old folks’ homes and then we leave Saturdays free for events. We operate a bit like an ice cream van, we don’t stay in one place, we move around the roads and villages. We have a bell, so people come out when they hear us. We’ve just put a live tracker on our phones so customers can see via our website where we are and, if they want their food earlier, they can come and find us.
Tell me about how you’ve tackled food safety?
We’re coming fresh at this and when I got my pack through from NCASS with all the food safety paperwork and checklists, I thought being a van with limited space, having this cumbersome thing was going to be quite difficult. Plus, it would get covered in grease and be a hygiene disaster in itself. I thought there must be something available where I can do this in a handy mobile form, so I looked online and Checkit
came up. They operate a Solo system, for small scale outlets like myself, and it’s basically a handheld device that reminds you of all the food checklists for the day based on the FSA’s ‘Safer Food Better Business’ procedures, and a single probe for taking temperatures. All food safety records are stored on the handset and then when it next finds a WiFi signal, without you even knowing, it automatically sends it to the cloud and those records can’t be changed. So if EHO want to see it, I know they have secure records that haven’t been altered.
What’s been its biggest benefit?
The time saving as I can do all my food safety checks as I’m going along, whereas normally I would have to do all the checks and then update the paperwork. The hardware was £200 and it costs £19.99 a month subscription, so if you think of the time it saves as an hourly rate, in that respect I think it’s paid for itself already. Also, because it’s pre-programmed with all the checks that you’re legally obliged to do, for a newcomer like me that’s really helpful as it means I’m not missing anything out.
Can the checks be customised?
Yes, and that’s another benefit for me. So from our point of view, being mobile, there are a couple of things that are quite specific to us. For example, when we get to an event, we have to make sure the food temperatures are all correct as the fridge isn’t powered while we’re driving. So I’ve added that check in. And I can also add in reminders, so for example I often forget to take the fish out to defrost the night before, so Checkit now reminds me. It means I can worry about the business rather than the legislation.
How is trade?
We’ve had some very good days. You never can tell what it’s going to be like when you’re doing the routes. Take Halloween, people were buying small portions of things rather than large things. But then we were at a Bonfire night on the Saturday and that compensated as we did really well there. We’ve just agreed with a local pub to park up outside at the end of an evening, so we finish off there now. The landlord loves it as he doesn’t serve food so his customers get chips from us, eat them in the pub and they stay longer. We’ve also been asked to go to a working men’s club, just for half an hour at the end of a round.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Getting our licence initially from the council. We wanted to trade past their normal hours, which should end at 6 o’clock. My point was that’s when most people are getting home from work. They said we could trade early in the morning but obviously people don’t want fish and chips then. So I had to apply for an extended licence until 8.30pm, which had to go to a hearing and was successful. Although we can’t trade after 8.30pm, if there’s a queue, we don’t have to turn anyone away. Having said that, when the pub or the working men’s club invites us then that doesn’t count. It’s classed as a private event and we can trade indefinitely.
Do you think mobile fish and chips has a big future?
I think so. It’s one of those things that doesn’t go out of fashion. People still want their fish and chips and they want a quality product. Our plan is to get everything set up and working and then hopefully get a second van as we’ve got enough villages to take our fish and chips to.