Papa’s has gone from a business struggling to fill 50 seats some 30 years ago, to one that now sees customers waiting up to an hour for a table at its 500 seater restaurant. How? It’s all down to hard work, family and a lot of love, says co-owner George Papadamou
When the original Mr Papa first started work in a takeaway in the seaside town of Margate, Kent, in the summer on 1966, he had no idea what he was setting in motion.
It was the hey-day of fish and chips when it was a staple of the British diet and people would stand in a queue for hours to get a bag of chips for the equivalent of just a couple of pence. He absolutely loved it and he was well and truly bitten by the fish and chips bug, something he passed on to son Sid.
Even when Sid took the family business north and opened his first takeaway, a small outlet no bigger than half a shopfront, in the 1980s, there were no grand plans. Okay, so Sid went on to open three takeaways all with small restaurants, but with himself doing much of the work and a very small team around him, further growth was not on the agenda. When sons George, Dino and Andrew joined the business officially in 2013, however, giving up their careers as a doctor, solicitor and vet respectively, the tide turned.
Having spent much of their spare time as kids driving around many of the UK’s busiest fish and chip shops, the boys became infatuated by the larger restaurants with outlets such as Colmans and Bizzie Lizzies sticking in their minds.
George comments: “At first we could never believe that a restaurant could be so big just serving fish and chips. I remember when my dad moved into Worksop, which was his first restaurant, it was a 50 seater with a busy takeaway, we struggled to fill the 50 seats. But we learned from our mistakes and eventually we had the confidence to believe we could make something bigger.
“We’ve always been ambitious and we’ve all been real true believers in fish and chips as a brand. We’ve also always been willing to gamble on fish and chips and the potential it has to be a popular and amazing meal.”
And gamble they did. Their first major purchase as a family was four years ago when they bought a 380 seater pub in Willerby, Hull, making way at the time for the largest fish and chip restaurant in the world. But even the biggest believers have doubts and at the last minute, unsure if they really could fill nearly 400 seats with just fish and chips on the menu, they decided to hedge their bets and leave the previous outlet’s biggest sellers - pizza, steak and burgers - on the menu. It took all of two days - and the expensive task of reprinting the menus - for them to reverse that decision.
“When we opened, we found that 99% of the people coming in the door wanted fish and chips,” recalls George. “As steaks, burgers and pizzas were just complicating things in the kitchen, we made the decision instantly to get rid of them and we’ve never looked back. Absolutely no one asked where the steaks, burgers and pizza were; no one wanted them.”
With confidence in their concept and their product, Papa’s quickly found themselves confronted with another major issue - how to deal with a workforce that had suddenly leaped from just eight members of staff to 10 times that. They knew for it to work they had to make this team extended family. George comments: “It was an instant realisation that the most important people in the room were not us, it wasn’t the customers, it was the team and if we could empower the team to believe in our philosophy, our culture and our beliefs then it would all work well and, thankfully, that’s what has ridden us through.”
Ever since, Papa’s has taken a two-prong approach to recruitment. Firstly, it casts a really wide net. “We look for people who are going to share our philosophy,” explains George. “No one has got a job with us on the speed at which they can wrap a bag of chips or their ability to take an order at the table without using a pen and paper. What we look for is that smile. It’s what sets us apart.”
Secondly, every member of staff goes through an internal training programme which puts them on a career progression with set goals and training. “We realised pretty early on that retaining those 80 people was going to be the cheapest and most cost-effective way of staffing our businesses and, therefore, training was essential. This would also then give us a high proportion of staff satisfaction and customer satisfaction.”
Little did they know at the time that this practice was going to put the business in good stead when future opportunities to expand came up. And they didn’t have to wait long as late in 2016, a prime site on Cleethorpes Pier became available which, with 500 seats, would take the title of the world’s largest fish and chip shop from Willerby. “At that time many people had advised us against it – due to the massive risk and potential loss. Many didn’t think it was possible to fill a 500 seater restaurant serving just fish and chips, but we did,” says George. “So we went for it. Staffing it was never going to be a problem; because of the training we had in place at Willerby we knew we had a core group of 30-40 amazing people who were looking for progression that wasn’t available at the Willerby restaurant. It was almost like Cleethorpes came about to create a pathway and career prospects for these people.”
Just three years on and Papa’s has added a further six restaurants to its portfolio including two more in Hull, two in Scarborough, one in Bridlington and one in York, each one creating new openings for staff. For example, the general manager at Scarborough was a food runner at Cleethorpes until a year and a half ago, the general manager at Cleethorpes started as a runner at Willerby, and so the story goes on.
While each new site has been significant in its own way, one of its biggest moments came last year when Papa’s purchased the three-storey former Harry Ramsden’s site on Scarborough seafront.
George comments: “We knew the restaurant and the location really well and, for us, it was a dream come true. We spent our lives looking up to Harry Ramsden’s which was synonymous with fish and chips in Yorkshire. To be able to take this over was an amazing opportunity.”
As well as expanding the team and the business, one of the biggest growth areas for Papa’s has been in its back of house infrastructure, for example, it’s developed its own e-kitchen platform. George comments: “It’s made everything so much easier because I can’t order every piece of stock or ensure every fridge temperature has been taken on time at every restaurant. But this enables us, as well as the chefs and the management team, to check and monitor each kitchen’s performance as if we are there.”
Despite now owning eight restaurants and employing around 350 staff, George struggles to see Papa’s as a chain. “I actually hate the term chain,” he comments. “We are a family business and each of us enjoys working seven days most weeks to maintain our high standards – there are no investors which gives us autonomy and control over our direction.”
With a big proportion of Papa’s growth being organic, George is careful not to set any targets, preferring instead to focus on its team, sourcing the right products and keeping customers happy. “Growth comes after that,” adds George. “If it comes before that, that’s when massive holes develop. So the focus for us is on building and strengthening the team, developing the infrastructure so people can flourish, and always reinvesting in the businesses.”
So, is future growth on the cards for Papa’s or is it staying there? “I wouldn’t want to say because I honestly don’t know,” says George. “But one thing’s for sure - we will always have fun serving fish and chips!”