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BIG INTERVIEW: ONE TO WATCH

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JAMIE RUSSO

With his business named Best Newcomer at the National Fish & Chip Awards 2024 after just nine months, Jamie Russo, owner of Redcloak Fish Bar in Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, talks about making the switch from employee to employer

When did you open Redcloak Fish Bar?

I opened Redcloak in May 2023, so just nine months ago. It’s actually where I started nearly nine years ago, when I was 14 years old. I was here until 2019 and when the owners sold it I moved down to their other shop in Stonehaven, The Carron, where I started to do more and more frying. I then went to university and in my final year I heard that Redcloak was up for sale so I jumped at the opportunity.

What made you want to own your own business?

It’s something I’ve always wanted to do so I could put my own spin on things. Don’t get me wrong, when I first thought about owning a business I never thought it was going be a fish and chip shop. But working part time in the industry, I fell in love with fish and chips and it just so happened that it was a fish and chip shop that came up.

Have you had to learn many new skills as a business owner?

Yes. I worked closely with business advisors and I worked in accountancy so I had the fundamental knowledge of things like cash flow and setting your prices but doing it yourself is a whole different ballgame. Everyday, even now, is like a school day. The biggest thing for me though has been learning to deal with staff. I’ve never had to do that before and all of a sudden I had seven in the shop and four delivery drivers. It was all the HR things so the contracts and the handbooks but also, because I wanted to do some things differently, I had to try and get the staff to change the habits that they had developed under the previous owner. It was hard at first but they have all been great, they’ve taken my advice, changed their ways and now they realise why we’re doing things differently. 

What are some of the changes that you have implemented?

We are really focused on fresh food now. The previous owner didn’t do their own chips, they bought them pre-packed and sometimes they would sit in the fridge for over a week. So we do fresh chips every single day. We use fresh Scottish haddock, which we get from Peterhead every day. In terms of the shop, we’ve added in digital menu boards and changed the signage to brighten things up and make it a little bit more modern and more appealing for customers. The digital menus are great because we change them for occassions like Halloween and Christmas and the kids love it when they come in and see a little Santa bobbing up and down!

What impact have those changes had on the business?

So far, we’ve tripled the turnover from the previous owner, but we’ve also got a lot more regular customers coming and they’re actually not customers anymore, but friends. We hear about their families, what they are getting up to in the holidays, and it’s good that we have that relationship with them.

How have you handled the inflationary pressures because you opened at a difficult time?

It’s very much come down to the staff training around portion control and ensuring that our portions are consistent. It’s not a greed thing, I don’t want to just keep pumping up my prices. I’d much rather put out a consistent product and charge what we have to. We looked at the way we do our chips, making sure we’re not over-rumbling the potatoes so we get the best yield. We use chip scoops and we’ve had training sessions where I’ve shown the staff the difference that serving even just four chips extra per portion can have. We work very closely with our fish supplier to get a consistent size, very tightly graded count which is good for consistency and helps us to forecast for pricing. 

What are the benefits of having your own business? 

In time it will be the flexibility. At the moment it’s pretty full on and I’m in every day with only a Monday and Tuesday evening off. It would be great to get to a point where the business is sustainable enough for me to go away and leave it. The other thing is that it has made me a lot more creative. I’ve had to sit down and come up with either different ways to get customers in the door or different menu items.

Is there anything that keeps you up at night now that you are a business owner?

Oh there are plenty of sleepless nights! You see the prices of everything going up and you start to wonder when’s it going to end, or you have a couple of bad weeks and you think is this going to be it? But that was mainly at the start. Now that we’re getting into the swing of things and prices are settling down a bit I’m able to sleep a lot easier now. The shop nine months ago had a bad reputation so we’re working really hard to get people back in to give us a chance. And we’re lucky that they have and, as a result, we are seeing a steady increase in trade.

What are your plans going forward?

We will be looking for more staff and some of the staff I will be training up to fry so hopefully that will bring in the next generation of friers. Apart from that I want to keep doing what we’re doing to ensure that we put out a consistently good product and, hopefully, continue to grow the business that way. 

If money was no object, what would you do to improve your business?

I would put in a new frying range with an extra pan and filtration to cater for more dietary requirements. We’re seeing a rise in the number of vegans and vegetarians, but there are also a lot more people who, whether it’s through intolerance or choice, are choosing to go gluten free.

What platform has winning Best Newcomer given you? 

We definitely saw an increase in trade straight away. I think we’re going to have a bit of a wave for a while which we’re going to make the most for as long as it lasts. And hopefully, it gives a platform to encourage the next generation into fish and chips and it shows that you can have a successful career in the industry. I’m like a lot of owners, I’ve not been born into fish and chips, this has involved a lot of begging and borrowing to get the money to start up and I’m very grateful for those that helped me get the ball rolling. 

What advice do you have for others looking to take on their own business?

Anything is possible. I thought that money was a barrier but if you do your homework it doesn’t have to be. With Redcloak, for example, a lot of investors looked at the shop and thought it’s not doing enough money to make it worthwhile but I knew it had the potential because it was in a great location with lots of houses, families and a school. 

If anyone wants to reach out to me, I’m more than happy to speak to them whether it’s related to business, fish and chips, or just a yap, because I want to see fish and chips succeed. It’s been good to hear that even shops who didn’t even enter the awards have seen an increase in trade from the publicity. And that’s what it’s about because when one of us succeeds, we all succeed. 

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