Riders of the storm

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Andy Hunter, sales director at frozen at sea fillets importer Polarfros

With so many pressures on fish, from supply to prices, we talk to Andy Hunter, sales director at frozen at sea fillets importer Polarfrost, a subsidiary of Young’s Seafood, to find out how operators can best ride out the storm

What are you seeing in terms of prices? 

Price is the most talked about thing at the moment. We’ve seen prices increase on cod and haddock probably 40% in 12 months so it’s a huge problem for fish and chip shops, and they are starting to question how they can continue to run their businesses. I heard a comment that potentially a third of fish and chip shops could close down and, while I don’t think that will happen, a huge number will be in trouble. 

We are hearing a lot of misinformation about the rising prices of fish at the moment, it’s been blamed on the war in Ukraine, and it’s been blamed on tariffs, both of which are incorrect. It’s fundamentally down to the lack of supply that started last summer and resulted from poor fishing and a reduction in quotas. But these prices are here to stay, we’re not going to see a sudden drop and everything will be 30% cheaper, fish is a worldwide commodity product and there’s a greater global demand than ever before. Sometimes there’s simply less available, more demand and so the price goes up.

When can you see prices stabilising?

There’s a little bit more fish being landed now, but I don’t see prices coming down in a significant way this year. The next time that they will possibly come down will be in 2023, but that will depend on quotas being increased and fishing capability; sometimes the quota is there but the boats don’t catch the fish. It is very difficult to know what will happen in each 12-month period.

What can operators do to best address the situation?

The majority of shops, if they want to continue to serve cod and haddock, (which I can’t see changing), have to look at being a little bit more flexible with what they’re buying. Generally, shops buy a fish size that is between 8-16 ounces and 16-32 ounces but if they were to buy smaller fillets, they’d save money. Smaller portion sizes are happening across all industries, from a diet/calories point of view and also due to costs. I understand that operators might not want to do this because they’re concerned it will reduce business, but it comes back to the same thing, people have to start looking more carefully at what’s available. A smaller, say 3-5 ounce piece of fish, which is a perfectly good meal size, is probably 40-50% cheaper and would bring costs right back down to what they were a year ago. 

Do you advocate shops putting their prices up?

Yes, I would say don’t be afraid to put prices up. There’s quite a long-standing view in the UK that fish and chips is a cheap meal and that’s just got to change. The fish that we sell and that most fish and chip shops use is the best fish in the world. Fish and chips is a meal that is freshly cooked to order using quality ingredients and operators shouldn’t be afraid to pass on some of the cost increases. 

What about trying other species?

There is a limitation on what you can serve in a fish and chip shop, you can’t put salmon in batter! But I think operators need to be brave and look at other species. What shops need to do is contact their supplier and ask them what other fish is available, how they suggest it’s cooked and served, and why it’s good. Different fish have different benefits, for example, protein, omega 3, sustainability, and these are really important to customers and should be communicated to them. 

Do you think with price being an issue shops may have more success pushing other species of fish now rather than when it was purely about sustainability?

Money talks at the end of the day, and if shops start to notice that they’re having to put their prices up to a level where they are worried about fewer people coming through the door, then, yes, I think they will start to look a bit more seriously at what their options are. The other very important thing is to look at is portion size. Historically, it’s been fairly easy to give a very generous portion away and still run a good business. That is now very difficult. Plus, a comment I hear a lot from customers is that they are receiving more food than they can eat. If you think that you could reduce the size of a piece of fish by 20 or 30%, easily that’s huge mitigation against the price, and that applies to chips as well. 

You touched on sustainability, is that still as important when weighing up price and availability?

It’s an interesting subject because everything that we sell is MSC certified, which I guess is the gold standard. But even if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t make a huge amount of difference to us – and that’s nothing against MSC – but it’s just so important to the frozen at sea cod and haddock industry to operate sustainably that we don’t need to be told to do it, we do it anyway. And as a company, we absolutely cannot get involved in any venture that is not sustainable. 

Unfortunately, for shops to advertise that they sell MSC they would need to become registered and that can be quite difficult and costly. I think that they can do it another way and that’s by getting that information from their supplier. A shop could put on their menus “supplied by Young’s Seafood” and reference our record of sustainability and principles. Often shops are worried that they have got to pay some kind of a levy to be able to say that something is sustainable, but actually, they don’t, we can give them all the information they need.

Do you think the fish and chip industry can survive the pressures it is facing?

I think they absolutely can. There’s no doubt that a percentage of shops will fail but the ones who have a passion for it, who live and breathe it, will succeed. They are going to have to start fighting a little bit for some of that business out there though, especially when people have got less money, which they’re going to have over the next year or two. Shops will have to make sure that they do everything they can to make themselves stand out in a difficult marketplace.

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