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Lee-ding the way

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Bertie Shop Focus

The Lee family has opened its seventh shop in Hampshire, presenting another manager with an opportunity to move up the career ladder 

Just four months ago, the Lee family opened their seventh fish and chip business in Hampshire but, unlike the six takeaways that have gone before, this site includes a 28-seater restaurant. 

Once called Bertie’s and now renamed New Forest Finest, it is in the village of Lyndhurst bang in the middle of the beautiful New Forest National Park.

Second generation friers Sonny and John Henry launched the new business and it’s what they call a ‘partner shop’. They stump up the cash, hand the site over to one of their current managers (in this case Dean Cummings and wife Sabina) who has a 50% stake in the shop and pays the money back over a period of time. At any given time, the partner can buy the Lees out and take on the business as their own.

It’s the third partner shop the family has opened: Mike’s Traditional Fish & Chips in Bishopstoke being the first in 2018 and Fish and Chips @ 27 in Fareham following suit in 2019. 

It’s an approach that is working well, allowing the family business to expand organically while promoting and retaining staff. Sonny explains: “It’s a way of expanding for us and keeping our managers hungry and giving them something to work towards so they know fish and chips is not a dead-end job. They see there’s an opportunity for them to progress further than a manager.”

It’s how Sonny and John’s dad, Shane, started the family business back in 1988. 

Working as a spud boy from 14 at what was then called Pisces Fish and Chip restaurant in Ashford. Middlesex, Shane went through the ranks from counter staff to fryer to management. When the owner felt Shane was ready to go on his own, he was offered the opportunity to take on a shop on a 50/50 basis in Hedge End, Southampton, and J Henry’s was born.

It was just over ten years later in 1999 that Shane launched a second shop, Codfather in Hedge End, a further 13 years when he branched out again with Best Fry in Westend, and in 2017 Sonny’s in Eastleigh joined the portfolio. 

Shane believes the secret to the success of all seven businesses is following the same format regardless of who owns, manages or works within them. 

“Consistency is everything,” Shane says. “Everything is done the way we’ve done it since 1989; the fish, the batter, the oil, potatoes and that’s what we get across to all the managers.

“We’ve got a winning formula that works for us.”

Hard times

In his 35 years in the business, Shane admits he’s never known times as hard, with the price of utilities and ingredients at an all-time high. 

“We’ve got some help coming, but is it too little too late? A shop only three or four miles away from us closed down just last week.” 

With this in mind, all seven shops have learnt to work smarter. On top of offering lunchtime specials to bring in the workers, and loyalty schemes to gain repeat business, they’ve clamped down hard on portion control – switching from wrapping to bio boxes – and they carry out stock takes, look at their margins and work out their gross profit every week.

“You’ve got to look at your margins regularly now because prices are changing all the time,” says Shane. “Our margins are suffering, but they’re still up there and we can still pay the bills and keep our heads above water.”

Prices, having already gone up in February, are due to increase again but this time it will be a bigger jump. 

“I’m thinking of putting the lunch specials up by 49p so it goes from £5.50 to £5.99 but still have it beginning with a five,” says Shane.

“It used to worry me when I put 5p or 10p on a meal, but you have to take drastic measures to stay in business. And you’ve got to believe in your product. Fish and chips is a lovely meal if it’s done right and it’s still good value for money when you compare it to a curry, sweet and sour chicken or a pizza.”

All traditional shops, the Lees operate by the KISS theory, which Shane explains means ‘keep it simple or you’re stupid’. So it’s cod, haddock, plaice, sausages, fishcake and pies in the main. They did try hake as a cheaper alternative recently but dropped it when demand spiked and prices went up, leaving a margin very similar to the cod. 

“There just wasn’t any point bringing on another species of fish so we stopped selling it,” explains Shane. 

Food waste

One successful cost-saving idea has been cutting down on food waste by signing up to food sharing app Too Good To Go.

Sonny explains: “A lot of shops will say ‘we don’t have any food waste, we cook to order’. We cook to order too but we still end up with sausages that have split, fish that has broken, pies where the filling has spilt, a portion of chips that have sat there for too long or even a delivery that gets cancelled. We bag it up and that’s our Too Good To Go “magic bag” to sell at the end of the night.”

Pocketing £2.99 of the £3.99 sale price, even if each of the seven shops sells just one bag a day, every day, it’s a few hundred pounds from food that would have gone in the bin. 

“It’s a little Brucie bonus,” says Sonny, “and we get so many good Google reviews from it where people say, ‘I picked up my magic bag tonight I’m really pleased with it, the staff were friendly’. That person might become a regular customer spending £20 a week.”

With food waste slashed, J Henry’s has since managed to reduce its two bin empties a week down to one. This has also been assisted by introducing a cardboard recycling bin which Shane shares the cost of with the florists next door, resulting in additional cost savings. 

Other small things have made a big difference too; switching from bought-in tartare sauce to homemade, for example. Not only is it far cheaper and superior, the businesses now sell around 10 times as much. They have also started buying larger bottles of ketchup and mayonnaise, pre-portioning them into 2oz pots and keeping them in the fridge. 

“We’ve reduced our outgoings and looked for where we can get better margins. Although it doesn’t sound fortunes, it all helps the bottom line. You’ve got to think outside the box a little bit.”

With three grandchildren now working in the shops, it has to be asked if there will be more openings in the pipeline. 

“I would never say never because if something comes up and we think it has potential then I wouldn’t say no,” says Shane. “For now, I think we’ll get this next year out of the way and see how things go after that!”

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