A bumpy ride

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Andrew Crook itv-tonight

With commodity prices increasing and margins squeezed, 2022 is looking like a bumpy year. We speak to Andrew Crook, president of The NFFF, to find out what the industry can expect

What shape is the fish and chip industry in going into 2022? 

I think we’re in a strong position because we’ve adapted well since the first lockdown. There are businesses out there that never considered click and collect and deliveries but that embraced them because they had to and, now, I don’t think they would ever go back. There’s certainly a demographic of people out there that, as an industry, we weren’t reaching before so I think for many Covid has revolutionised their business and got fish and chips out there in front of those people. 

What do you see as the biggest challenges this year?

The biggest long term problem is staffing, it’s so difficult to recruit people because it’s not the most attractive job and there are easier ones where you can earn the same wage. I think government definitely missed an opportunity in the budget to address this and, hopefully, they’ll revisit it because hospitality can be a good foundation to rebuild the economy on. Also, I think it’s fair to say we may not be the most professional when it comes to recruiting, we tend to give someone a trial and then take them on. If we can improve upon that, manage people’s expectations, see if they want to develop and provide recognised courses for them to take, then we’ll always have people wanting to come into fish and chips because it could be a good route into other hospitality businesses.

You said the government missed a trick, what would you like to see happen at a Parliamentary level?

VAT needs addressing because the way it’s currently levied on businesses is not right. We’re over-taxed at source and the reduction we’ve had these past few months has shown that leaving a little bit more money in the business enables people to invest, whether it’s paying staff more or buying new frying equipment, for example. We’ve never had a long-range view of VAT, there’s always been a change here and a change there. If we can get the government to hold VAT at a lower rate for the next five years then we can hopefully show them at the end of it that they will yield more tax receipts from the industry because people will be paid better, so it will be picked up in the taxation system, as it will when a business buys new equipment.

Do you feel like you’re making headway getting heard at government level?

Yes, we’re working very closely with Ibrahim Dogus, founder of the British Kebab Awards. He has contacts with Paul Scully, Minister for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, as well as many other MPs, so we have got an ear there now. We’ve also met with Defra to discuss current issues within the food supply chain, in particular shortages. However, government needs to work with us on a much greater level, to engage with us and talk to us about the issues that affect takeaways. I know it set the Hospitality Council up but there’s nobody on that committee that understands this sector. Nisha Katona, owner of Indian restaurant chain Mowgli, doesn’t understand my business and neither does Burger King so we will continue to push for more representation. 

Wages are going up in April, what impact can you see that having on our industry?

It’s going to have a massive impact but it’s right that we should pay our employees well, it’s a tough job, it’s hard work. We’ve just got to make sure that we’re in a position that we can cover that increase and get our prices up. I still think fish and chips is way too cheap. I looked at the price of cod versus steak in the supermarket the other day and, per kilo, cod was a penny more. Shops need to reflect this in their pricing. 

What about those shops that struggle to put up their prices because of shops around them being so cheap?

As an industry, we need to ask the question how can those businesses be so cheap? The only way is by not doing something right, whether they are not paying their employees right or not paying all their taxes, or by cutting corners somewhere. The government needs to tighten up on those businesses – and this is already happening with card and online payments. But also as an industry we mustn’t turn a blind eye. We need to have conversations about things that go on like split invoices from wholesalers because they are affecting businesses that are doing everything right. It needs to be sorted out, it won’t be popular but it needs to change.

How is 2022 looking in terms of commodity prices?

We’ve definitely got a few problems now and there’s potentially more going into the year. We’re expecting fish prices to remain strong partly because of increased demand and partly because the fishing quotas are going to be kept quite low due to the fact they’ve been quite high for several years. Energy prices have gone up, packaging, especially if you’re sourcing from China, is going through the roof. There are potential risks with seed potatoes coming from Europe not being allowed in which, if is the case, could put more pressure on the market because the acreage will be down. Everything that could threaten the industry is hitting at the same time so it is a big worry. That’s why it’s so important that shops look to protect their margins by putting their prices up. The NFFF is doing its best to mitigate price increases by getting messages out there in the media and we’ve produced a poster to help explain the price increases for those shops who are worried about putting prices up. But, as I’ve already said, the days of cheap fish and chips are gone.

On a positive note, what opportunities are there that fish and chip shops can capitalise on?

I think there’s room for some shops, depending on their location, to diversify and add things like chicken to their menus or homemade items that hit that higher price point. Also, other species of fish such as pollock and Cornish hake could be a great addition for some shops. We’re seeing some good sites coming available so anyone that wants to expand, there’s an opportunity there as well. The other area that I think is key in driving shops forward is how they use their data from online ordering. Use it to look at when people are and aren’t coming in and send targeted offers so you’re not just blanket messaging everyone. Data is going to be so important. And I think businesses have to trade in every way – so your walk-ups, your telephone orders and then your online and your aggregators. If you can do the lot, you’ve got the best chance of winning. That’s the modern arena, it’s the way things are working.

The NFFF has taken on the National Fish & Chip Awards so when can we expect the launch?

We’ve taken the awards over from Seafish but we see ourselves as the caretakers of it. It is the biggest driver of standards in the industry, it creates friendships and it has brought the industry together so it’s important it continues. We’re currently assembling a committee with representatives from across the industry to advise on the event and the judging process, for which we’ve got a blank sheet of paper. It’s a good opportunity to have a look at how we can run the awards differently, what improvements we can make and whether we just start afresh and change it completely. We were planning to launch the awards in January 2023, but with everything that is happening at the moment with Covid, the date is still questionable so it may be mid to late 2023. But the awards will be back and we’re very excited. 

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