Ken do attitude

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Appearing in a Netflix series, featuring in a book by food critic Jay Rayner, and providing a safe haven for worried customers has put this small and unassuming takeaway in Dulwich, South East London, on the map locally and globally

Ken Mustafa is unapologetic when he says little has changed in the 40 years his family has owned and run Ken’s Fish Bar, a busy takeaway in the affluent and leafy area of Dulwich in South East London.

It still uses the same batter, chips and peels potatoes every morning, buys fresh cod, haddock and skate from Billingsgate market less than 10 miles away, and takes deliveries of fresh pies each day. 

And while the world around them evolves, Ken has held steadfast to the takeaway’s original menu, with only three additions gracing its offerings in four decades. Mushy peas and curry sauce are two of them – “they used to be a northern thing but we were getting asked more and more often for them and now they are great sellers,” explains Ken. The third is hot wings, which were a stroke of accidental genius when Ken faced a last-minute cancellation of a large party order. “I thought I would try to sell them in the shop,” explains Ken. “So I just put a little sign up and they went well. So from then on I just carried on doing them.”

In a city where diversification leads many shops to expand their menus, Ken believes it is this enduring simplicity that sets his chippy apart.

“We do class ourselves as very old school,” he says. “I mean, the menu is still very traditional, and we wrap all our food in paper as that’s what customers want – unless it’s a delivery order when we use boxes. For me, I like to keep it simple: it’s easier for us and the customers prefer it too because traditional fish and chip shops are dying out, especially in London. Everyone is trying different stuff and it’s hard to find a traditional chippy these days.”

Ken isn’t entirely honest when he says nothing has changed; the shop underwent an extensive refurbishment in 2021. This saw the upgrade from a two pan to a three pan range, coupled with the installation of a new shopfront and signage. He’s also modernised with the addition of a delivery service, although admittedly it was out of necessity when Covid hit rather than out of choice. But it’s a service that has since paid dividends, making up 15% of sales mid-week and up to 40% of sales on Fridays and Saturdays. 

“I was one of these people that always said, if you want fish and chips come and get it,” says Ken. “I was never interested and never wanted delivery, but now I wish I’d done it sooner. We’re so much busier. It brings in extra trade from people that we might not have got before because they are further away. We are now picking up customers two to three miles away, which we probably wouldn’t have had before.”

As well as deliveries adding a welcome surge to sales, the chippy experienced a remarkable uplift in trade when it uncovered a hidden gem among its regular customers – none other than the renowned food critic Jay Rayner.

“I didn’t know who he was,” explains Ken. “He’d come in every Friday, queue up to get his food and go. Then in 2019, he wrote a book called My Last Supper about all the last things that he would eat. It listed different meals and in his section about chips, he said that our chips are the best he’s ever eaten in the world.

“It boosted business put it that way because in this area he is seen as a god. A lot of customers were coming in because of the book and some were saying they didn’t even know we were here.”

Silver lining

The book had an unexpected silver lining in that it attracted the attention of Somebody Feed Phil, an American television travel documentary series airing on Netflix. In January 2020, presenter Phil Rosenthal was in the shop signalling the virtues of Ken’s fish and chips. When the programme aired in May 2020, it was during Covid when a lot of people were still furloughed which meant over the course of the next three to four months Ken’s attracted customers from all over the UK.

“It was amazing, very humbling,” says Ken. “We had people phoning up saying “are you open? I’m leaving Brighton to come for fish and chips,” which was just, like, wow!

“Even now, we still pick up a lot of trade from it, mainly from tourists because the series was shown in so many different countries. You always know because you see a black taxi pull up outside and then people jumping out holding their London bags and saying “Phil recommended us”!”

Capturing moments with their diverse array of customers and sharing them on Instagram, Ken’s has clocked up visitors from 43 different countries, ranging from the far reaches of Australia and New Zealand to the bustling cities of China and Hong Kong. Notably, the chippy has also welcomed guests from nearly every state in the US.

As well as being renowned around the world, Ken’s has become an enduring pillar of the local community. Nestled in the same location for four decades, with its roots traced back to Ken’s father – who initially helmed the business and who at age 77 still comes in to help prep and tidy up – this chippy has woven itself into the very fabric of the community.

During challenging times, Ken’s stepped up when the government fell short, offering free school meals to those in need, while in recent weeks it has become a safe haven for those seeking solace. A simple poster in the window extends a comforting message, providing reassurance to anyone who may be feeling uneasy or in need of support to come inside. 

“There were a lot of robberies going on in the area and someone asked me if they made the poster would I put it in my window and, of course, I said yes. 

“We’ve been here such a long time, we’re part of the community. We’ve seen kids grow up into adults and we’re now serving their kids. They are part of the reason we are still here after all this time, that and dedication. We’ve always aimed to do the best we can to cook the best quality food we can. We never cut corners, we cook with love and I’ve got a good team working here. That’s it!”

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