The future is bright

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Harlees Fish & Chips

Kaylee Herbert and Richard Long, owners of Dorset and Wiltshire based Harlees Fish & Chips, discuss price rises, expansion plans and taking cod off the menu

How have the last 12 months been for Harlees?

The last 12 months have been pretty good, up until the Ukrainian crisis that is when the price of fish went through the roof. I think we can all say in the industry we had a bloomin’ good year last year with great trade and very little tax. It was phenomenal, but how the pendulum swings. We have gone from one extreme to the other and, as a result, we are reviewing our prices this week.

What kind of percentage increase are you thinking?

It’s more so on the fish front and it will be a good 10-15%, which will take our regular cod and chips up to £10.70. 

How do you feel about being at that price point?

I’m not happy with it but we have no choice. To survive in business, we have to make a profit. All these other underlying costs of oil and gas, electricity, we’re under pressure from our staff now for even more wage rises in addition to the two we have given them in the last 12 months – and I can’t blame them. My biggest worry is the detrimental effect that our fish and chips becoming less affordable has on trade. We’ve got to look at alternatives to still entice people into the shop and offer value within the business.

What items are you considering adding?

We’re looking at three main species – saithe, hake and hoki. We have tried saithe before and although it has lots of flavour, the flesh is slightly darker and people want white fish, so whether we can wean them onto it I don’t know. If a customer wants cod, we will still have it there at £10.70 but if they want fish and chips at a more reasonable price, then we’ll have other species available.

Would you consider taking cod off the menu like Rockfish has this month?

It depends on how expensive it becomes and whether people will buy it. I admire Mitch for doing that and I understand his reasons because his shops are all seasonal and if you’ve got a very expensive raw material coming in, you’re not going to make that gross profit that you need to make during the peak of the summer to keep going in the winter.

Are you looking beyond fish?

I know essentially we are fish and chip shops but, at the end of the day, trade is trade and we need to look at what will entice people into the shop. We need to sell what the customer wants, not what we want to sell so we are looking at vegan and vegetarian options. I think we have to look at what food trends are out there and what items other operators are having success with. One of the best to look at is McDonald’s; they are very forward-thinking and if there’s a food trend going on, then they are usually there with it.

How are you approaching recruitment?

As an industry, hospitality is suffering so we’re focusing on the added value that we as an employer can provide that isn’t just wages, so staff well-being for example. We’ve got a counselling service for employees to use, and we’ve held one-to-one sessions to help staff with budgeting and financial advice, which has gone down really well. Next week, we’ve got a meeting with someone from the NHS who is looking to put people back into work after injury and after mental health problems so we’re looking at ways we can meet their needs. We’re also promoting our sustainability ethics because young people today want to work for a responsible business. 

You have eight sites, will you be opening more? 

We’re looking to continue to expand and adapt to what the market needs. We had two new sites planned for this year, one of which we hope to open by the end of the year but, with the current circumstances, we may well just put the second on ice for a small amount of time. We want to review how the next few months go because we’ve definitely seen trade a bit subdued. Even the seasonal branches are not performing how I thought they would do. I think with the price of fuel going up people aren’t taking as many drives out to the beach as they normally would do.

Are you maintaining your profit margin?

We try to maintain our profit margin, that is always our goal because if you don’t, even just a 1% drop is a massive amount of profit to lose. You’ve got to maintain those margins, it’s vitally important for a business. You’ve got to be on the ball, watching the figures coming in all the time – getting weekly price updates from your suppliers can really help here.

Have you found anywhere that you’ve been able to make cost savings without compromising on quality?

As a business we do not want to cut quality, that is an absolute no-no, under no circumstances will we do that. But we have found some simple little things we can do to help save us money, like putting a timer on our drinks fridge. You don’t need to keep your cans cold overnight and by doing this you’ll probably reduce your electricity on that fridge by 50%.

What would you say to other operators finding it tough right now?

Hang in there and maintain your profit margins. Don’t worry about putting up your prices because, at the end of the day, it’s no good working for nothing. Yes, you will get some complaints but it’s the same anywhere you go.

How do you see the future of the industry?

We are generally quite a positive team and I think when you go through challenging times, it gives you a great opportunity to look at your business, as Covid did. We made many changes, which were massive improvements. The bottom line is that prices will come down eventually, they have to, we can only sustain this for so long. There is a great future out there. Harlees is celebrating 25 years this year and, although this is probably the most challenging year I’ve ever had, I’m looking forward to the next 25!

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