Paul Newbold, MD at mobile fish and chip van specialist Profry, answers some common questions to help newcomers and seasoned pros who are already running shops, enter the world of mobile catering
What is the demand like for mobile fish and chips?
To put it bluntly, it’s gone crazy. And that’s for two reasons, the first is that having fish and chips served at events like weddings, birthday parties and functions is very much in vogue at the moment. The second reason is that, because of the high level of vans we are putting out there now, customers are experiencing gourmet quality food served to them straight away. Any shop owner who has prepared 100 portions of fish and chips for a function will admit that the first boxes they packaged up are not going to be as fresh once they’ve finished the last one an hour later. With a van, however, the quality of the food is absolutely amazing and people are beginning to see that.
What are the start up costs involved?
Our cheapest option starts from £30,000 + VAT for a secondhand van and then you’ve got probably another £7,000-8,000 of costs to do it correctly, so that includes setting up a prep room for example. I would say under £60,000 + VAT would get you up and running to a very good standard with a new vehicle.
Do I have to buy a van or could I lease one?
People do get worried about spending that kind of money on a van, but there are low cost lease options available which make it very affordable. We’ve actually just this week been granted our FCA licence, so we can offer the option of finance ourselves.
What can a frier look at earning with a mobile unit?
I’ve seen mobilers out there who are doing it half-heartedly and turning over £2,500 a week and I’ve got other guys doing £7,000-£8,000 a week. It’s really about how dedicated you are and what hours you want to work. The big advantage of a mobile unit compared to a shop is that the operating costs are very low once you’ve got the van. Obviously a lot of effort goes in to running a shop but with the same profit margin you can do it with two people on a van. Also, the beauty of a van means that if you get a quiet spell or if someone starts up near you, a McDonald’s or something, you just move and trade somewhere else. You can also operate in areas where there aren’t enough houses to warrant opening a shop and, of course, locations that wouldn't get the go-ahead for a takeaway. In Lincolnshire, for example, there are very few restrictions to stop you trading so, as long as you are operating within the laws, you can stop almost anywhere for a short amount of time.
Are all mobile vans the same?
No, absolutely not, and that’s one thing that is unbelievably important to get right. We have all our vehicles built specifically for us and specifically for catering, we don’t just go and buy an off-the-shelf Peugeot, for example. We go to a manufacturer and we have all the wall panels, the steel and the floor all changed to make it strong and lightweight. What this gives us is a base vehicle that is fit for purpose. If you get it wrong you can have a vehicle that just isn’t right for mobile catering. Say someone was to buy a rear-wheel drive vehicle, the floor height is over a foot higher. When you’re serving a customer and you're looking down on them, that’s a big difference. Whereas the vehicles we supply are more eye height so that you can be at the customer level.
What about getting the equipment right, for example the frying range?
Again, that’s unbelievably important to get right. All our vehicles come with Regal ranges - there are lower cost options available but we feel these are the best mobile frying ranges on the market. If you buy a lower cost one, okay, you might save yourself £4,000 but it might fry half as quick and this creates two issues. If you’re on, say, your third fry of the evening, the cheaper ranges slow right down, they can’t recover quickly enough, so not only are you not serving your customers fast enough but you’re also boiling rather than frying your product. A lot of mobile friers will complain that their product isn’t looking as good and they might put it down to the batter or the oil when nine times out of ten it’s the fryer not keeping up. It’s just not economical sense to go for a cheaper fryer because, once you’ve got a queue, you’re losing money every single night and in less than a month you could have paid for the better fryer, plus you’ve got it for the best part of 10 years, I would say.
What volume can a Regal range produce?
Obviously there are lots of variables so that’s hard to answer but, if I were doing a wedding or a function, with a three pan range we can normally serve 100-110 portions of fish and chips in just under one hour.
What sort of menu should a mobile fish and chip van be looking to offer?
It’s best to keep it simple. It’s important to remember that a van is not a shop, so you can’t do your shop menu. Plus, if you keep your menu simple it means you can serve customers faster, you’ll have less wastage and you can cook your product better. You can still offer fish, fishcakes, nuggets, sausages, etc, but what I wouldn’t do is too many types of fish for example.
Where would you recommend to go for insurance?
We recommend NCASS, which is the mobile catering organisation, and also Mobilers. Both specialise in mobile catering and they recognise the issues involved. A lot of other companies will insure you against an accident, for example, but they won’t insure you for a fire. Unfortunately, we’ve seen this happen on so many occasions when the insurer has said your vehicle was covered for insurance but the range wasn’t insured against risk of a fire. So, always ask the question: “Is my van covered should the range catch fire?” A lot of people just assume this is the case.
Can you advise on more than just getting the vehicle?
Yes, we’ve been building mobile catering units for 35 years so we really know our stuff and we can advise on not just the vehicular side of things, but insurance and the business side too. For example, how to get pitches and regular spots. If you’re totally new to the industry and never even fried a fish, we’ll do a two-day tuition with you and we’ll have you frying like a professional by the end of it.
What’s the one piece of advice you would give to anyone considering a mobile fish and chip van?
Get the advice and do it professionally or get yourself a different job. One of the classic questions we get asked is: “We want to buy a cheap van, what have you got because I just want to dip my toe in the water?” This is not the attitude to go into it with. If you buy a van that’s 20 years old with an equally old fryer that’s not been cleaned and you try it for a couple of months, you’re likely to say: “No, mobile frying isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” You won’t be turning out a good product and you certainly won’t be making the money you could be.
Profry 01778 342915 www.profryltd.uk
Paul will be taking a regular column in Fry Magazine so if you have a question you would like covered in a forthcoming issue, please e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org