The future of the industry is fewer shops, higher wages and more automation, says Alastair
I’m positive about the industry, I always have been, but I think my personal feelings regarding fish and chips is that we will enter a period where we become more like a niche industry.
If we follow the butcher example, in the respect that every supermarket has a butchery counter and butcher aisles yet there are still independent butchers. Those butchers have to be better than what is in the supermarket, so they make better burgers, better sausages, better beef wellington, and they maintain a really good business because everyone locally supports them.
That is the analogy I see fish and chips going to in 2050. I can’t see there being 11,000 chippies in 2050. So we are going to shrink, we will be forced to get better, and I think the future will be as a niche industry.
I think technology is going to come and help in certain areas. I don’t see a robot frying, but I see automation helping shops back-of-house with accounts, training and ordering. To get robust systems such as an automatic temperature probe in the fridges or Safer Food, Better Business out of a file into an app just makes perfect sense for me as a chain, although I understand it might not do for a husband and wife team who have got a great one-man band.
I see industry suppliers using AI to help their businesses reduce costs, although people are still needed to deliver flour, peas, fish, oil etc., so I don’t think we are going to be too reliant on robots and AI just yet.
Going forward this year, I think staffing will cost the most it has ever physically cost. We work to a wage percentage, and that wage percentage is going to have to go up because I do not think we can keep wages in line with sales. It’s frustrating but we cannot put fish and chips up another 11%, the money just isn’t there.
With wages going up 10%, I think we need to recover 3% of that to match the same money in sales. People have this assertion that, oh, you have to put prices up by what you put the wages up now the wage bill will go up, but the headcount may have to reduce and the queue may have to be bigger. But that’s not really offering a great service, and it is going to reduce the success of the brand so we may just have to go up a few percentage points in terms of what we feel the wage bill needs to be while being aware of headcount. We are paying the most we’ve ever paid at £13 an hour, which is miles away from the £11.44 minimum wage, so I think we should attract strong people locally. I can see us just paying till it hurts, I guess.
As for Seniors itself, I’m not opening any more sites this year. I opened one last year, which takes us to 10, and the business is in a strong situation post Covid so I don’t really want to be taking any more risks. Whoever you are, you’re not going to go backwards just sitting on your hands, paying the debt down and waiting for things like energy to come down, so that’s the plan for this year. Sometimes it is easier to stand still and improve what you’ve got than to grow the business.