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Giving focus

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Douglas Colbeck

Henry Colbeck is fast approaching its 130th anniversary supplying fish and chip shops in Scotland and northern England with everything they need to run profitable businesses. Majority shareholder and sales director Douglas Colbeck talks about how this fourth generation family business continues to help the industry face its ongoing challenges

What trends are you seeing in your business?

We’re seeing an increase in the range of frozen foods and sides we sell as shops rise to the challenge of offering new menu items to attract the whole family. Whilst fish sales have naturally been impacted due to the price and availability issues that our whole industry has felt, some shops have decided to widen their offering e.g. installing a grill and offering grilled meats/kebabs and burgers. Some shops have also decided to reappraise their opening times to meet a work/life/profit balance, which also fits with the challenge of recruiting permanent team members.

Where do you think shops should focus their efforts?

I think menu diversification will provide rewards, things like selling more snack and side items such as halloumi and mozzarella sticks, and also added value lines like southern fried chicken goujons. Portion control is also vital. Our ‘Lite Bite’ concept is well-established in the trade and is providing so many businesses with valuable portion-controlled sales. Lite Bite is a branded, smaller, corrugated box which can hold a jumbo sausage or a 4oz portion of fish and some chips, plus a pea or gravy cup, and all at a lower price point. This is attractive to budget-conscious customers, or those who prefer a smaller portion and not see waste. It also helps friers hit their margins. If you think about it, a sausage, a fishcake or a burger all weigh about 4oz, yet a portion of fish quite often weighs around twice that! I don’t think you get friers offering two 4oz sausages or two 4oz fishcakes in a meal very often. I’m certainly not saying don’t offer 8oz fish, it’s more about making sure that the profit made on meals reflects the higher costs of today. To stop profitability being impacted, shops either need to reduce their portion size and charge the same price, or they need to keep the portion size the same size and put the price up – or even a combination of the two.

Is it all about making portion sizes smaller then?

No – it’s about offering a variety of sizes. Some shops for instance have gone the other way and are offering a family sharing box instead, delivered in a large, plain pizza box filled with higher-profit (lower cost) items like sausages, fishcakes, mozzarella sticks or pakoras. I know a shop offering this and they have maintained 70% of their business as fish and chips. It’s not detracting from fish sales, rather it’s getting people adding on these extra items or sharing in a new way.

How are you helping shops to innovate?

Our buying team is always alert to new innovations and actively visits global exhibitions, whether that’s a packaging expo or seafood exhibition, for example. When we’re looking for NPD we are constantly asking things like will this be profitable for our customers? Will it be convenient for the frier? Will it save time and cook quickly? Also, is it versatile and can it create several meal options e.g. shredded chicken that can be used to create loaded fries, in wraps, in salads and stir fries?

We have always worked with a wide range of manufacturers (many of them also family businesses) and have increasingly been working with more local manufacturers in Scotland and the north. We think these links offer our customers a supply chain to be proud of, and one built on heritage. Also with the uncertainties of Covid, having suppliers closer to home has been a real bonus.

What areas of NPD are looking particularly interesting?

Plant-based products continue to be a growing market, with products continuing to improve in terms of quality and convenience. Vegan fish fillets for instance – there’s no need to soak and prepare banana blossoms – we’re selling a breaded vegan fish fillet which fries from frozen in four minutes. It’s been selling in Wagamama and Starbucks and has been very well-received. We are keen to encourage manufacturers to focus on our industry and think about how products can be specifically created for, cooked and marketed in a fish and chip shop – that’s the way to make NPD really win in our environment. We’re always looking for great NPD – so please get in touch if you’ve got a winning product!

What advice can you offer to help shops boost sales?

In many high street chains the first things visible when ordering are the meal deals. Many shops in our industry lead with separately priced menus, which discourage the bigger meal deal sale. So, we’ve produced free customer meal deal posters designed to help sell profitable lines, such as curry sauce, gravy, peas and a drink – all in a package. We also encourage shops to sell sides too, such as halloumi fries, mac ‘n’ cheese bites, haggis bon bons or cheesy chips. It’s so important to have a menu that appeals to all ages, from the silver surfers to the TikTokers!

I always encourage friers to utilise their counter teams’ sales skills, to get them involved in up-selling profitable curry, gravy and peas and cross-selling those extra side dishes or even suggesting a bottle of water. If your team sells 24 bottles of water for around £1 each just by mentioning it on every order, you’ll be making about £20 with very little extra effort. In most shops customers are asked “do you want salt and vinegar?” which is free! But if they’re asked “do you want curry, gravy or peas with your meal?” then you have a good chance of getting a “yes, go on then” reply, which immediately helps profitability.

 What support are you offering shops at this time?

Our ethos is to be more than just a supplier and we’re always looking into ways of giving back and supporting. We have supported shops with enhanced offerings based on our ‘Save + Select’ Customer Reward scheme eg: triple points month, win 100,000 points at our exhibition in Edinburgh in March 2022. We’ve promoted access to apprenticeships, offered free training packages and competitions to win NFFF memberships, epos systems, discounted heated bags/uniforms. This summer, we launched a campaign to help customers offer free or discounted kids meals, which a lot of supermarkets and restaurant chains have been doing for some time, and created a free poster and a price bundle for customers to use to drive their sales.

 We’re also offering a used cooking oil collection ‘price boost’ and will always pay the best prices to reward our customers wherever we can. We run our own used cooking oil recycling plant where we collect and clean used oil – be it liquid oil or more solid dripping. Believe it or not some of our recycled product is even used in aviation fuel! We also provide free point of sale explaining that the shop’s oil is responsibly recycled. If anyone would like a tour of our recycling plant, please do get in touch at marketing@colbeck.co.uk.

How is product availability looking now?

Thankfully supply of many goods has returned, or is now returning, to pre-Covid levels, albeit manufacturers are seeing higher raw materials, energy and transportation costs affecting their businesses and causing price increases. Throughout lockdown, we were able to buy and hold high stocks as our family has always believed in keeping our profits within the business, to enable us to secure additional stock, when available, to keep our customers stocked in challenging times.

 Fish availability and pricing is the most unpredictable. If Russia stops selling fish to the UK this will have a bigger impact on our industry than anything else, which is why fish and chip shops should ensure they’re offering a wider menu choice. We attend international events, such as FishEx in Barcelona, where our buying team meets both existing and new contacts. We are lucky to work closely with our established fish supply partners like Rammi to secure stocks and limit the impact of future market instability.

What about oils and fats?

We’ve heard reports that oil and fat prices are decreasing on the commodity markets, but this doesn’t have an immediate effect on prices because wholesalers ‘contract ahead’ and many are currently in higher-priced contracts. We hope that the markets continue to fall so that price reductions can filter through to our customers and, in turn the public, but we are at the mercy of global commodity markets and the past two years have shown how unpredictable they can be.

What’s the main focus for fish and chip shops going forward?

I hope that fish and chip shops are able to ask themselves the question, “Am I charging the correct price for my food?” And answer it with a ‘yes’. If they feel they can’t charge the prices for the portion sizes they’re offering, it’s important to look at offering a variety of portion sizes to maintain their margins. Offering additional menu options to keep bringing in the younger audience is so important too, whether that’s a gourmet burger or dirty fries, social media is full of the latest food trends and inspirations!

How are you celebrating 130 years?

We’re celebrating 130 years of supplying the trade at our next exhibition in Harrogate, Yorkshire, on Sunday 26th March 2022. It’s open to everyone, so save the date and come on down, meet the Colbeck team and try all of the latest innovations and profit generating ideas. It promises to be a very special event and one where we can give back to the industry and to team fish and chips.

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