105 years since its first inception, the NFFF continues to represent the fish and chip trade. President Andrew Crook talks about the current issues facing the industry and how the organisation is leading the charge.
The NFFF represents the industry at a national level so what are some of the key issues it is currently championing?
At the moment, packaging is a massive topic and it’s quite an emotive subject too. We’ve been working with the Food Packaging Association (FPA) to get involved with the discussion with government because what we think is biodegradable packaging actually isn’t. If you’ve got a lot of bio boxes in one place, say at Glastonbury, and they get packed up and sent to a composting facility, then great, it’s the perfect solution. But for a lot of the industry packaging ends up in people’s bins at home, it’s not being recycled, it’s being incinerated at best or sent to landfill because the infrastructure isn’t there for recycling at the moment. So all we’re doing is adding more costs onto our business by using these products and not solving the solution. The government needs to catch up because soon enough we’re going to pay more for waste disposal. One of the frightening figures I’ve heard is 10 times more, so it’s something we need to get on top of. I also think within the next 12 months we’ll see more taxation on packaging, so again it needs addressing. I would also like to see the government tackle littering because if packaging goes into a bin it will be handled much more effectively than if it is collected from a hedgerow three months down the line.
What’s your advice to shops questioning which packaging to use?
I would say ask your local authority or waste disposal company what packaging they recommend you use as they are the ones dealing with it at the other end. It’s so regional, some have great recycling facilities, others don’t. Better still wait until the government, the packaging industry and the waste companies have had time to give us guidance. We are lucky that our industry is really conscious of environmental issues, we just need to ensure our choices are based on fact.
Is portion size still an ongoing subject?
Yes, public health is going to be an absolutely massive issue over the next couple of years. There’s a consultation underway now on nutrition and obesity and very recently we’ve had Mark Drummond present to the Calorie Reduction Summit on behalf of the British Takeaway Campaign and the NFFF. We need to get on top of portions, we need to start reducing them, as there is talk that in three years’ time there will be an extra level of VAT on unhealthy foods and a ban on certain promotions and advertising. Some of the measures being talked about are very draconian and if we, as an industry, don’t show that we are tackling issues ourselves then we’ll get legislation. So those shops doing massive portions are going to have to get on top of this. There may even be inspections in shops and if you’re over a certain amount of calories you could be fined because the impact you are having on public health will put pressure on the NHS in years to come. We have been working with our partners in the British Takeaway Campaign on this issue too so expect to hear a lot about it for the foreseeable future!
What’s your ideal portion size?
If fish and chips were invented now I think we’d have a 6oz fish and maybe a 6-8oz portion of chips. But unfortunately, we’ve got 150-160 years of heritage which is very hard to turn round. It’s a big challenge and I think the government needs to help educate the public on why they should have a portion size that is suitable for a single meal. We need more help than most industries I think as our portions sizes are out of control.
What about delivering fish and chips?
It’s something I’ve always tried to resist as I think we have something unique over any other cuisine. We’re a bit like the bakers in France where people don’t mind queuing up every day. It’s a Friday night tradition for people to come to the fish and chip shop. But slowly that is changing and we need to be looking at these things. We are working with Just Eat as they are quite keen to get more fish and chip shops on its platform. However, we feel a big issue is the commission rates these companies want which don’t make it viable for fish and chip shops. This is down to our industry historically selling too cheaply, but it is a big hurdle when it comes to still making a profit, so that’s something we need to discuss with them. Just Eat is a fantastic firm, it’s very forward-thinking and it can help shops expand their business.
What does the NFFF do on a local level to directly help individual shops?
We have many calls a week for advice, from small issues such as potatoes not frying correctly to catastrophic fires. We are uniquely placed to assist shops as we have the experience and connections to offer the best advice. We also deal with many media enquiries in the course of a year, many of which never go live as we are there to counteract any negative stories and present the facts. Without the NFFF we would be sitting ducks. This morning, I had a member of the public e-mail in who had an allergic reaction to egg and they are asking if it can be the batter. Although the shop in question is not a member, we’ve been trying to help out, so we do a lot of work for the industry, not just for members. The strangest one I’ve had is a frier that was getting blue spots on the chips which were expanding when he took them out the chip box. I couldn’t work it out so went away and thought about it. I phoned him back and asked if there was any writing on his potato sacks to which he said yes, blue writing. He was tipping the potatoes straight from the sack into the peeler and some of the paper had got chewed up which meant the blue ink had gone onto the potatoes. When he was cooking them, the oil was breaking down the ink and allowing it to expand! One thing shops should be aware of is that all members of the NFFF committee are backed up with insurance so any advice we give is insured. It means we can give advice and if something goes wrong, a shop can come back to us.
Do you feel the industry is in good health?
Without a doubt, it’s tough right now and there are a lot of shops just in the bracket where they are fighting to do things right. Fish prices are going up, no one really knows how the dry weather will affect potatoes over the coming months or how Brexit will pan out. Plus, we’re always fighting shops that are undercutting us and that are doing the industry a big disservice as they don’t play by the rules - those things affect everyone. On the other side, there are some really dynamic people in the industry, creating a great network. The more we work together the stronger we’ll be. All these issues I’ve talked about will happen and if we’ve got more shops onboard it gives us more clout when we go into meetings and more resources. We need to fight these things off or we’ll get swallowed up.
Where are the opportunities and what can shops do to innovate?
Rather than look at different products, I would say concentrate on your core products. Introduce smaller portions, for example at lunchtime. Fish and chip shops have lost a lot of workmen because they pull in to a petrol station to buy cigarettes or a drink and they can get a Gregg’s or a Subway. All these other food opportunities mean they don’t need to pop in to us. So we need to do something to attract these people back in. Chips with toppings, like the Dutch concepts, appeal to the younger generation, while grilled or steamed fish is something else that will work for some shops, especially in this weather, as it’s a lighter, healthier option. As long as we stick to what we do and do it well, people will keep coming back.
What about ideas to boost trade when the weather is warm and trade is quiet?
The weather has made it tough and I’ve heard shops being 30% down but I would say stick with it and ride it out. Keep going on Facebook and let people know you are open. Come up with ideas for promotions; just be careful not to give too much away without gaining customers. The NFFF is just about to launch a new website which will have a members’ section with all the latest legislation on as well as a calendar of events throughout the year with lots of ideas for promotions that shops can get involved in.