The Little Fish & Chip Shop in Southwold, Suffolk, is big on standards, quality and volume
What The Little Fish & Chip Shop in East Street, Southwold, Suffolk, lacks in size it certainly makes up for in charm, with its eye-catching blue and white shopfront, vintage fishmonger boards displaying the prices in old money, and a romantic, clematis-covered outside seating area.
Inside, every inch of this compact space is afforded to the front-of-house operations, with a small customer area separated by a counter and the only two pieces of cooking equipment – a five pan wall range and a hob. There’s no kitchen, no prep area and no potato store. Chips are rumbled and cut at a central unit that also serves its sister restaurant, Sole Bay down by the harbour, while fish is caught, filleted and cut to size by its other sister business, Sole Bay Fish Company.
“It’s one of our USPs, that we have access to the best fish and the best fishmongers so we get consistency,” says operations manager Andy Wix. “That’s the key for us because we don’t want a family having two different sizes of fish that cook at two different times. Everything we do here is standardised so that everything is perfect.”
When the takeaway first opened in 2015, you could almost guarantee every piece of fish was fresh from the local boats, with regular landings including rock, plaice and Dover sole. But with trade now superseding those levels, demand is much higher and the boats simply can’t keep up, especially in winter when the weather dictates when they can fish. It’s meant an increasing reliance on frozen at sea cod and haddock, although after a hard year sourcing both, Andy is keen to look at alternative species.
“We had to switch the family meal deal from cod to haddock this year due to price rises and availability, it really was hard work sourcing enough cod, so we’re looking at more sustainable options for the business, like hake and pollock.”
Regardless of the species, the chippy serves one size of fish, which Andy calls “box ready”, while kids are catered for by way of fish bites – off cuts from the cod. Its curry sauce, mushy peas, gravy and tartare sauce are all homemade, prepared fresh during peak periods when the turnover is constant and blast-chilled during quieter periods to avoid wastage.
Standards here are high. Oil is tested three times a day, everything is cooked on a timer so nothing can be overcooked or undercooked, and a discard timer goes off if any chips are still in the hot box after eight minutes. “I’d rather lose a little bit of cash on discard than sell someone a duff meal,” says Andy.
“It’s important to us that our food is better than anyone else’s. When we opened, there were a couple of other chippies in town that had a hold on the market. They fell into that, ‘we’re busy, so we must be good’ attitude, but they were busy because there was no one else to challenge them. Whereas we came along and we are religiously, fanatically good and we’ve smashed them. We’re busy because we’re good.”
It is the volume that has helped The Little Fish & Chip Shop survive this past year of incessant price rises, with Andy adding: “If it wasn’t for the volume that we do we would have found it tougher. You still have to keep the lights on and the fryer on whether you’re doing 100 covers or 1,000 covers.”
As the takeaway has got busier, the team here are doing everything they can to improve the customer experience. It has invested in a buzzer system to alert customers when their food is ready and, while some might nip off to Tesco to do their shopping, others are tempted to stay and indulge in a gin and tonic, a locally brewed Adnams beer, or a glass of wine.
“The wines we do in what I call little waiting portions – a mini glass of wine just for the 10 minutes while customers wait for their food. It always goes down well and it’s an easy revenue spinner.”
Although the staff and the range work flat out during the summer, Andy is looking at ways to diversify the menu to make service a little quicker. In the absence of any free space for additional equipment there are limits as to what can be served, so up for consideration are cold dishes that can be pre-prepared, such as crab and chips, as well as tacos.
“We have a fish taco on as a special down at the harbour and it’s just two goujons. The point is, two goujons don’t take up much fryer space, so you can get more orders in a pan at once. And it’s what we would consider a “pack-up job” – a couple of tacos, guacamole, salad, put the goujon on with a bit of sauce and off you go – so we should be able to deliver that a little bit quicker than cod, chips, mushy peas and gravy.”
Looking to move the business on in the future, Andy is considering repurposing the front of the shop during the summer when customers make use of the beech rather than eat in. “I’m thinking maybe some sort of grab and go takeaway, be it little tacos, shellfish pots or chargrilled crevettes.”
With a crew of around 10-12 staff in winter doubling to anywhere up to 30 in the summer, Andy has one eye on expanding the team. Despite paying “well above” minimum wage, recruiting anyone with hospitality experience, has been difficult over the past few years. But Andy believes there may be a light at the end of the tunnel.
“I think it is starting to change now that the cost of living crisis is starting to bite,” he says. “It’s beginning to drive more people into work that requires more hours. It’s definitely something we’re seeing. We’ve got a head chef advert out at the moment and we’ve had more applicants in the first couple of days than I had for the previous one entirely. So I’m a little bit more optimistic this year than I was last year,” Andy concludes.