D. Fecci & Son’s in the small coastal town of Tenby in Pembrokeshire, Wales, has a big reputation
Whenever a list is published of the best places to eat by the seaside, there’s one chippy that you can guarantee will always be on it – D. Fecci & Son’s with its 80-seater restaurant and takeaway. And the latest, written by food critic Jay Rayner and published by The Observer, didn’t disappoint.
“We always say ‘aren’t we just so lucky?’. For a small seaside town, how the devil do we get there?” says Delmon Fecci, who owns the business with his brother Charles.
Del – as he is referred to by his work colleagues – is being modest because D. Fecci has been an institution in the town ever since his grandfather Guiseppe opened up here 90 years ago. Like many Italians of that time, he walked from Italy across Europe, meeting and marrying his wife in Paris before continuing their journey to Wales together either by catching a train or thumbing a lift.
Interestingly, when Guiseppe first showed an interest in the building, which had a price tag of £100, the seller wouldn’t sell it to “the Italians”. Not one to be deterred, they had a family friend buy it on their behalf for £1 under the asking price. “We gave him the £1 for his troubles,” says Del.
With Guiseppe and his son Derek having passed away, it’s Del and his brother Charles who head up the venture, helped also by Del’s son.
Del, in his 51st year with the shop, is front-of-house frying and serving while Charles, who is in his 43rd year, does the hard graft back of house, chipping locally grown spuds, cutting frozen at sea fish and making what Del describes as their “killer” fishcake. On a good day, they can sell well over 100.
“Back in the day, what we used to do was have housewives make us stuff,” explains Del. “So we had one lady who used to make a fishcake and one lady who used to make faggots. Obviously, we could get fish, potatoes, oil and things and so we used to trade those and they would make them for us. The fishcake we serve now is based on that original recipe.”
Del is full of quirky tales about his family, the business and his childhood, including one where he recalls learning to make mushy peas from an uncle in Loughborough.
“It’s quite a funny story in itself because I went to an Italian family to learn to cook proper mushy peas but Italians like to keep secrets and my uncle wouldn’t show me. I went out with his son to a nightclub and the next day I feigned a terrible hangover and sat in the kitchen dying. What I actually did was keep half an eye open so I could see how to make mushy peas! I came home, said ‘get me a pan’ and I’ve been cooking them ever since.”
Those mushy peas aren’t just popular, they are biblical, says Del!
Del recalls how it was hake bought from a local port in Milford that was the shop’s staple in its early days. Overfishing unfortunately meant stocks eventually collapsed, a mistake Del is keen not to repeat by ensuring the cod he now buys is only ever from MSC certified fisheries.
“Through ignorance I’ve lived through one species collapsing but I’m better educated than my parents ever were and hopefully my grandchildren will always have fish to sell.”
With the future of the planet at stake, the shop is a founding member of Tenby’s Plastic Free movement and as such all packaging is paper and cardboard, biodegradable and/or compostable where possible.
“Packaging is a nightmare to get hold of at the moment and prices are so expensive. But you’re either plastic free or you’re a muppet as far as I’m concerned. We’ve managed to ruin our planet so easily that a few pennies aren’t going to kill me, and my grandkids will hopefully thank me for it. We have to think about those that come after us.”
As well as fish, chips and those biblical mushy peas, D. Fecci is known for its Welsh rissoles, locally made faggots and its chicken curry that a Moroccan chef working for the restaurant next door helped Del perfect.
One of its biggest success stories has been gluten free, however. Del explains: “We used to do vegetarian and about 20 years ago a couple came in and said they had eaten with us before but they were now gluten free. I thought what the bloody hell is that? We researched it a bit and changed vegetarian to gluten free. About two years later, one of my sons got diagnosed with coeliac disease so as he was growing up, once a week we would feed him something gluten free and as long as he wasn’t ill, we knew we were doing it right. It’s the most awful thing to admit to now but there was no way of anybody quantifying it back then.”
Fast forward 20 plus years and it’s a very different story with D. Fecci’s gluten free options tested to reveal a negligible 3ppm gluten at the most.
Del is not the only storyteller in this fish and chip shop; its 3 pan Preston & Thomas frying range, which his grandfather helped design in the ‘80s, has a life of its own, having been redesigned and rebuilt three times. Del adds: “As a kid, most people had cars and bikes to play with. When I was a kid, there was an old garage and I had my own three pan Preston I used to play on!”
Another quirk Del reveals about his life is being born in the shop although he says it’s his great ambition not to die there. “I’ve bought a little house about a quarter of a mile away so at night I go home but that still means there’s a 50/50 chance,” he jokes.
Despite the current situation, Del remains upbeat about business with trade still good – when he’s open that is. The current staffing crisis has seen his team of 24 slashed to just six members. Somedays it means he closes the restaurant, others the takeaway too. He’s also moved to disposables in the restaurant due to an absence of a pot washer.
“Where we are in a tourist location we’ve never found staffing easy, but we’ve always managed. Since Brexit it’s been horrendous. I used to have so many Eastern Europeans working here, Polish, Romanians, Czechs, Slovaks, but of course, with Brexit, that’s a non-starter.”
“I’ve worked here for 51 years and I have never shut. Even during Covid we didn’t shut, we stayed open seven days a week.
“We feel bad because we disappoint customers but there’s nothing else we can do. What we do now is prep a little bit every morning and then we wait to see what staff come in. If there’s enough, I’ll open, if not then I turn everything off and we go home. I know it sounds bad but if I can’t do it properly, I will not do it at all. There’s a limit and I will not sacrifice all these years of working hard just to turn rubbish out. It’s not going to happen.”
Although Del officially retired last year, it’s a wonder if he’ll ever fully give up the reins – even his grandfather was still prepping potatoes at 84.
He adds: “We have one of the most picturesque harbours anywhere. Every morning, I come to work and I stop for a minute, just to get the spirits lifted, and I look at the view.
“It’s the best place to work and I think that helps us produce the food that we do. If you’re in a grump all day, every day, nothing good will come from it. Although it’s not that difficult because we use such good produce. If you start right, you can’t go wrong.”