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A second chance

Pete Fraser, owner of Harbour Lights in Falmouth and Frasers in Penzance, talks about going from one shop to two, keeping sane and keeping profitable

When and how did you get into fish and chips?

In 2000, I left the Royal Navy after 19 years chasing Russian submarines around the North Atlantic and was very keen to start my own business. It could have been a taxi company or hair salon, but by wonderful luck, I found fish and chips, officially the friendliest industry in the land. The location was perfect, Harbour Lights hangs over the very picturesque Falmouth Harbour.

Did you always want a second shop?

Not initially as I was on such a steep learning curve, but eventually I thought “blow it, let’s go for it”.

When was that and what happened?

2009, despite Harbour Lights having a very coastal location, my eyes were drawn inland to Cornwall’s capital city of Truro. The writing was on the wall for financial disaster, the rent I agreed was sky high and my market research was minimal. However, probably my biggest error was not having enough systems in place in shop number one. I spent my time rushing between the two shops and profits were heading backwards. It got quite scary.

It doesn’t sound like the best of decisions then?

No, at the time my self-belief was low and my bank balance even lower, however, I am a great believer that life’s biggest challenges provide the best opportunities to learn. After two years of pain, I managed to eventually sell the Truro shop on, which meant I could re-stabilise my business interests and start to operate in a lot more professional and wiser manner.

You went on to open Frasers in Penzance in 2016. Has that gone any better?

 Penzance is mine and my wife’s home town. It’s another stunning coastal location. We had been eyeing up this particular site for many years when I got the sniff that it was coming to market, the same day I raced down and made the deal. I’m very pleased to report that Frasers is rocking. Bringing in the same philosophies from Harbour Lights of concentrating on producing the very best possible food and serving it in a fun engaging manner have really worked.

Was Frasers a natural progression or did you have to make changes at Harbour Lights in preparation for opening a second?

Yes, I would like to think a natural progression. I believe growth is a lot healthier than staying still. To me, a great business is one that is not reliant on the owner’s physical presence all the time at the shop. Don’t get me wrong, I still have the biggest of smiles on my face every day I walk into either of my shops, but by putting the necessary systems in place and building up management teams that are empowered to make decisions, a lot of the time I am there it is because I want to be, not that I have to be.

Are you saying it is that easy, Pete?

Not at all. There is no magic wand. What is required is a true desire to change the role you play in your own business, a willingness to learn new ways of doing things and then a pile of work to make the necessary changes, but if you feel at times your business is running your life - as opposed to you at the helm - then maybe there is a better way. Convert painful experiences into decisions that things must change. Vivid in my memory is personally having to peel and chip 48 sacks of spuds one hot Saturday in August ten years ago or so. That really hurt my tired bones, but it led me to make the necessary changes in my business so that Peter Fraser would never find himself in the same vulnerable position ever again.

Where do you suggest the best source of learning is?

I started off by saying that I, 18 years ago, by wonderful chance stumbled upon officially the friendliest industry in the world. It is, it really is. Just pick up the phone and ask advice from anyone in the industry that you feel has got things right, or who you could learn from. When I bought Harbour Lights I knew absolutely nothing, I walked into the nearest chippy to my home and said with a big smile on my face “help”. Luckily the person I was speaking to was the late, great Dave Hutchinson, an early winner of Takeaway of the Year. Wow, I have so much to thank that man for. On a weekly basis I still pick up the phone and have a chat with a colleague in the industry, a problem shared is a problem halved.

If anything I am talking about is ringing any bells for you, please read The E Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber. He was the originator of the expression “Work on your business, not in”.

What are your thoughts on the future of the fish and chip industry?

Rosy. Very rosy. Despite more competition cropping up in the high street every day, be it a burrito bar or KFC’s latest chicken dish invention, we hold the keys to a magical food that can bring cheer and comfort like no other. We have much to celebrate and have fun with. Fish and chips, done properly and served with a smile, as we say in Cornwall, “ansome”.

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