Eight years ago, Alex Papaioannou gave up his job as a maths teacher to follow his passion for food and, more specifically, fish and chips. Opening The Bearded Sailor in Pudsey, Leeds, it’s a business that keeps Alex on his toes
“When I first set out, my focus was to just serve the best possible fish and chips we could with a little bit of a modern twist, but nothing crazy, because it’s a timeless dish,” says Alex. “It didn’t need reinventing.
“I don’t think I have ever stopped trying to improve once since that day. It would be nice just to relax and forget about the shop for a while but my brain just won’t do that. If it spots something that I think we could do better then we do it.”
Alex uses Icelandic frozen-at-sea haddock, sourced only from boats registered to the Iceland Responsible Fishing scheme, and freshly prepared chips which he fries in beef dripping – the norm in this neck of the woods.
“We’ve got quite a small shop so the chips were a big one for us. Buying them ready prepared means someone else is doing the job that we’d be doing here. It takes all the labour, the time, the space away and we can just focus on the actual cooking side of things.”
It’s just as well Alex doesn’t like to sit still because during his eight years in the business, he’s faced a fair few challenges: Covid, lockdowns, a dip in lunchtime trade, soaring prices, and a cost-of-living crisis to name a few. But Alex has always been quick to adapt. After Covid, for example, he kept his 20-seater cafe closed.
“It was something I always thought about, but I knew it would take something big for it to happen. And of course it did, Covid! We found that everything just ran better with the cafe closed because we had more space for storage, for a staff room etc, so we never reopened it.”
Although happy with his decision, Alex does miss serving fish and chips straight out of the fryer.
“it’s the best way to eat them,” he says. “But the pandemic highlighted certain things that made the businessman run a lot easier and more streamlined.”
Adapting is a lesson Alex has taken to heart. While diversifying the menu a few months back to give customers different options in the face of rising fish prices, Alex came up with popcorn halloumi and bacon loaded fries. Including 15 small pieces of battered halloumi, it’s taken off so much so that Alex has had to remove it from the main menu and make it a lunchtime option
“It was becoming so difficult and time-consuming in the evening to cut and batter 15 small pieces of halloumi, and it takes up quite a lot of space in the pan. So if we’ve got a queue of people and we can either fit 10 fish in a pan or five fish and one popcorn halloumi, I know which I’d rather.”
It’s worked out well, however, with customers coming in at lunchtime specifically for the loaded fries, resulting in an uplift in trade during an otherwise quiet period.
Another creation of Alex’s is the takeaway’s signature Skinny Sailor. At 5oz, it’s smaller than The Bearded Sailor’s regular fish, which comes in at between 6-7oz, but not as small as the portions many other chippies in the area are serving.
“Calling it a Skinny Sailor gave it an identity so we could say to customers it’s not a small one, it’s just a bit smaller than a regular,” adds Alex.
To help address the growing concern among customers that fish is expensive, Alex has the weights of his fish on the menu.
“Sometimes customers will come to us and say, “you’re expensive, you’re £9,” which, for this area, is quite expensive, but we’re giving a 6-7oz fish. Another shop might be selling fish and chips at £6, but it might be a 5oz fish so you can’t always compare the two. Quality will play a factor in that price too but it’s just nice to tell customers so they know what size they are getting.”
To ensure no opportunity is lost to make a sale, Alex has rounded the offering off by adding desserts in the form of freshly made brownies and bakes from a local bakery.
“They are very popular,” he says. “We have them out in the shop so a lot of the time people, while they are waiting for their food, will see them and say, “Oh, I’ll grab a brownie too”.
“It also gives me the chance to work with local businesses, which I love, because we’ve got so many great companies around us. Our sausages are from Lishman’s in Ilkley, which has won many awards, and our halloumi is from a Yorkshire farmer. So, as much as we can, we try and get different things. We’ve even got Icelandic sea salt from a company in Iceland to go with our fish!”
As well as an unwavering commitment to producing quality food, Alex puts his shop’s success down to the team of 16 that support him behind the counter.
“I have an amazing team of people,” he says. “You can’t run a good shop without having amazing people, because there is so much attention to detail, so many small parts that go into it. You need people that are going to be passionate about the food and not let any of those standards slip.”
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