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Doing the double

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“Chuffed” is how Paul Littledyke describes his feelings after receiving the news that both his takeaway and restaurant won Fry Awards when the results were announced last month

Involving different judging criteria and separate mystery dines, the takeaway at Maltings in Baldock, Hertfordshire, scored 98%, putting it in the top 50 in the UK. The restaurant also achieved 98%, making it one of the nation’s top 10.

“The feedback pretty much said that the product we serve is perfect,” says Paul. “That’s amazing.” 

Paul was quick to give credit where credit was due and immediately thanked his staff for their role in the business’s success. 

“Straight away I put up a message on our staff notice board saying congratulations to the team and they said, ‘Oh no, well done to you’. I said it’s not me, it’s you guys. I implement the processes but it’s those guys that deliver everything day-to-day.”

Top industry awards

Being recognised with two top industry awards means a lot to Paul who in January 2020, just before the Covid pandemic struck, committed to buying the 64-seater restaurant and takeaway. 

Originally designed as a malting building to store hops for the adjacent pub, the building underwent a transformation in the 1980s, becoming a restaurant upstairs and a takeaway downstairs. Despite its success, Paul opted not to purchase it when it went up for sale in the late ‘90s, believing it couldn’t be improved upon.

However, two decades later, under new ownership, the business had lost its momentum, and the building had started to show signs of wear and neglect.

“The last owner didn’t know what he was doing,” explains Paul. “He destroyed it. So we were quite lucky, we managed to buy it quite cheaply, but we had to spend a lot of money on it. We knew we were going to have to do that, we knew we were going to have to invest and we have continually invested ever since.”

Paul undertook repair work to the exterior as well as the interior, improved the restaurant area and, last May, installed a new high efficiency frying range. 

“The frying range has made everything super efficient,” says Paul. “Before, we had a long counter range, which meant that the friers and the servers were crossing arms all the time. From a risk assessment point of view, it wasn’t great. We were getting busier and busier and busier and we thought we’ve got to rectify this or somebody’s going to get injured. So we put in an island range and now we’ve got the friers on one side, servers on the other side and it keeps everybody completely separate. Also, it just streamlines service and makes it super efficient. On the old counter we only had two serving stations but on this one we’ve got five so we can open it up big time.”

The new range has also enabled Maltings to offer gluten free fish and chips, which it had dabbled in before but due to an old, inefficient range and a lack of orders it was proving costly to do. “We decided to take gluten free off,” says Paul. “Then, when we had the new range put in, we had a separate pan put in which is all screened off and dedicated to gluten free only.”

With the new frying range, the addition of gluten free options, plus diversifying into products such as chicken burgers, mini-fillets and halloumi, the business has got busier and busier, with Paul estimating that trade has increased 20% year-on-year. This year, however, trade is up by 25%.

Introducing initiatives such as ‘kids eat free’ and ‘free chips for seniors’ over the winter, adding lunchtime specials and launching a loyalty card scheme have helped boost trade too. 

“It’s just little things we’re trying to give back,” says Paul. “It’s surprising how many people, especially older customers, don’t want to take something free from you, they want to pay the full price. When we ask them why, they say it’s because they want to support us. They want to make sure we are still here next year and the year after, which is great.” 

Although the kids eat free and free chips for pensioners offers didn’t attract as much uptake as hoped, Paul is candid in acknowledging that they served primarily as marketing initiatives aimed at raising awareness of the Maltings and filling seats. It’s a strategy that ultimately proved successful.

“Talking to our fish merchant and our potato merchant, they said everybody was down in January and February. We traded through January and February the same as we traded in December. It’s bizarre. I’ve never seen that happen before. We expected the drop-off, but it just never came this year.”

Improving presentation

With the business thriving and meeting all the major criteria, Paul is now turning his attention to the finer details. One area he’s particularly focused on since receiving his feedback from the Fry Awards is improving presentation.

“The mystery diners said the restaurant had a nice atmosphere with a little bit of background music, nice lighting, it was all clean and tidy – which we are proud of – but we just think we could modernise it a bit more and bring it a bit more upmarket.

“It might help us to push the prices up a little bit too. It’s things like putting the right products on the right plates to make it look better. So we’re just going to drive those kinds of changes. Little details that aren’t going to affect it that much, but might add a wow factor.”

This investment is becoming feasible as Paul observes a gradual drop in cost pressures. The expiration of his energy contract, which previously caused a staggering 585% increase in the cost of electricity and 400% in gas, is a significant factor. Additionally, the prices of oil, packaging, flour and other essentials are beginning to stabilise. However, challenges persist, particularly in terms of staffing costs, which continue to exert significant pressure.

“We’ve just had a big uplift in the minimum wage from £10.42 to £11.44. That means if you’ve got somebody working 42 hours a week, on minimum wage they are pretty much earning £24,000 to 25,000 a year. I don’t know how a lot of businesses are going to be able to suck that up. It leaves a lot of owner-operators doing everything themselves just to save money.”

With the Maltings paying its staff more than minimum wage, it too is going to face a jump in its staffing bill as it increases wages accordingly. 

“We need staff to run our building, it’s too big a building for us to do it ourselves, we have to get the staff in. If they are good staff and they’re doing a great job, then we’ll pay them more money, because they are worth it. It’s all about staff retention. You only get what you pay for. If you pay good money, you get good staff.”

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