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Big Interview East Coast

Carlo Crolla, owner of the 65-seater restaurant and takeaway East Coast Fish & Chips in Musselburgh, East Lothian, stresses the importance of understanding every inch of your business 

How is business at the moment?

It’s been a bit up and down. We had a great spring, summer going into autumn, but I would say from mid-October it got a little bit quieter. December was decent and January and February have actually been substantially busier than this time last year.

Did that come as a surprise that you were busier at the start of the year?

Yes it did and it’s not just a result of price increases either, that’s our customer count going up too. I think that’s where operators need to really understand their figures as it’s very easy to assume you’re making more money just because your takings are higher when in actual fact your profit margins might be a lot lower. You really need to understand the business and how it works. It’s something I’m in the process of getting more clued up on because, with more difficult months to come, you need to properly understand your profit and loss system. A lot of people say they don’t have time for these types of tasks, but you need to make time.

When you say you’re getting more clued up, what do you mean?

I’m getting professional help. I know there are plenty of business books out there to help – one I’m reading at the moment I can recommend is The Accounting Game by Darrell Mullis and Judith Orloff which is really good at breaking things down for understanding what margins you need to set etc. – but you need to be on the ball and know what’s going on in your business more than ever before. Prices are changing all the time and sometimes you’re not even told about them by your suppliers, so you need to be looking at your invoices weekly, checking your profit margins, yields and everything else. 

What are you doing at the moment to encourage footfall?

We’ve got a couple of offers running at the moment that are working really well for us. Something I would say to an operator before they run a promotion is to make sure it’s beneficial to you and the customer. Do the sums so they add up, because if you do something just for the customer, you’re going to lose out.

At the moment we have our Thursday Club offering 20% off most of the food menu, and mussel Wednesday, which is unlimited refills. And on Saturdays and Sundays we run oyster happy hour between 4pm and 5pm and it’s £1.50 a shuck. We call the deals ‘pocket friendly dining’ and we have cards on the tables throughout the week so people can see the different deals and we also consistently share them on our socials. One thing I would say is that when you do deals like these you can generate a lot of publicity, which helps in other ways, for example, to pick up new customers.

Are you finding yourself working harder on the business now?

I’m working just as hard as I always have, but there’s been a shift in what I do. Originally, I was always in the restaurant and doing back-of-house, then Covid hit and I was on the fryers, and that’s pretty much how it’s been up until very recently. But, again, this comes back to what I was saying about the accounting game and getting yourself clued up. I would say, being in the business, doing the hard graft isn’t always the most profitable way to run your business. For example, I received so many opportunities by e-mail but because I was so busy doing the hard graft, I didn’t have the time to look at them. Having a bit more time freed up to do other things, whether that’s PR, interviews or having time to properly adjust things, is proving much more beneficial for the business. Gone are the days when the only thing you needed to do was be in the kitchen.

Have you made any changes back-of-house?

A big one is having staff meetings consistently so we all know what’s going on and so we can make changes as and when necessary. I’m also looking at the team more closely, playing people to their strengths, shifting them around, and giving them different roles within the businesses. You can’t be scared to make changes these days, you need to take whatever steps you need to for your business to survive. For us, that’s meant shifting people around and making use of all their skills.

How are you handling price increases?

We’ve increased our prices twice over the last 12 months and I anticipate more this year. I believe we have a product that’s right at the top so whoever wants that product, if they can afford that, they’ll come to us. Sadly, we may lose some who may decide to go somewhere that’s more affordable for them. But we are doing everything we can to limit that as much as possible with our offers. 

Are there any other challenges you foresee this year?

I think over the last couple of years we’ve pretty much been through everything, so it’s hard to imagine what else can happen! I can see energy prices coming back, maybe not in the next 12 months but they will, and oil will too, but I can’t see fresh fish and potato prices ever returning to the pre-2022 levels. I just think it’s going to be survival of the fittest and you need to be on top of your game.

What’s your advice to shops in England now that a ban on single-use plastics is on its way?

This type of packaging is more expensive so start planning for it now and shop around to get the best prices. The more people that use it, the more the price should come down. But it is still more expensive and to be able to afford it, once again, you need to be on top of everything.

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