Birmingham fish and chip shop Seavers is staying ahead of the game when it comes to healthy eating by pushing for clean ingredients in all its food, from the batter and mushy peas to kebabs and breading for southern fried chicken
The government is stepping up its campaign to combat obesity and, although initially, its focus was retail, last month it gave its biggest indication yet that foodservice is very much next on its list by revealing proposed calorie limits for popular takeaway foods such as pizzas and pies.
With pressure mounting on food outlets to make changes, one fish and chip shop leading the charge is Seavers in Oldbury, Birmingham, which is taking its products one by one and looking at ways it can strip out colourings, additives and unnecessary sugar and salt.
Wanting to see a return to real food containing simple and familiar ingredients is the vision of owner Bal Singh. After running two fish and chip shops in the 1990s, he opened a chain of juice and smoothy bars following a shift in the market towards healthy eating. When the recession hit 10 years ago, high rates in the shopping centre locations he was in saw that market die a sudden death and Bal was forced to get out. Still wanting to focus on healthy eating, he got back into fish and chips eight years ago when he opened Seavers, a modern new-build shop on the edge of town.
Serving cod, haddock and plaice, approximately 50% of the shop’s sales are fish and chips, the rest is generated by items such as kebabs and southern fried chicken.
Wanting to improve the reputation of these fast food items, the first change came when Bal looked at the quality of his kebabs in the wake of the horsemeat scandal in 2013. Impressed with an all natural doner and chicken kebab from UK Kebabs, Bal encouraged the company to create a tikka version. After four months of testing, Seavers was the first business to sell a colouring free tikka kebab which, instead of artificial colourings, uses tumeric and paprika to give it its familiar red hue.
It was the dawn of a new era for Bal who, ever since then, has applied this clean approach to other products. For example, he’s worked with Middleton Foods to remove the artificial colouring from his batter mix, he’s switched to all natural mushy peas from Sam’s Natural Kitchen which contain just three ingredients - peas, sea salt and spirulina - and he’s made the move from beef dripping to Flavoil’s high oleic sunflower oil. Next on the list is to redevelop its curry sauce and the breading for the southern fried chicken.
“More and more people want to know what they are eating and what’s in their food,” says Bal. “They want to eat more healthily, I saw that from my days in the juice and smoothie bars. So we’re taking one step at a time and seeing how we can make each product better.”
A man clearly on a mission, Bal is leaving no stone unturned. As well as chips, the takeaway offers customers the choice of sweet potato fries and rice - the latter is white rice but even that’s getting the Bal treatment and is soon to be switched to wholegrain. Even the drinks offering has been overhauled with slushes converted to sugar free mixes and the addition of Viveau Vitamin Water in the fridge.
And the plans don’t stop there, they continue well into next year not only with a host of grilled options, including chicken, fish and vegan, being added to the menu but with a range of healthier marinades too. Bal explains: “One of the most popular items at the moment is grilled chicken as everyone thinks it’s healthy. It is until you add the sauce, that’s the unhealthy element, so we’re trying to improve that. If we’re going to promote something as being healthy, it has to be just that.”
Of course, Bal has to pay a price for the lengths he goes to - healthy options rarely come cheap and this is reflected in Seavers’ prices. Bal admits he’s the most expensive shop in his area, but offering something different - something healthier - and being transparent with what’s in the food justifies those prices. Bal comments: “We’ve had to drop a couple of percent on our margins but we’re going to gain more in customers. We’ve also got a really smart, clean shop, which helps. If you walk into a chippy and it looks tatty, you’re not going to expect much from the food. But if you go into a good, clean shop, then you expect to get good food there and people will pay that bit more.
“We believe in what we’re doing. Everyone thought I was stupid when I spoke about doing a natural kebab. They were saying no one’s going to pay the price, but it’s a brilliant product. It’s not that expensive, not when you look at what goes into it, and customers like the word premium. They are willing to pay for something if it’s of a higher quality.”
Bal’s clean approach is clearly working, not only is trade increasing - the shop handles between 1,200 and 1,500 transactions a week - but its average spend is getting higher and customers are coming in more often. Bal adds: “We tend to get customers in who maybe only eat fish and chips once a week or even once every couple of weeks, but when they do come they will spend £20, £30, £40 a time. Our aim now is rather than a customer coming in once a week, let’s try and get them in twice a week. They will come if they have a different choice to eat.”
A key part of Seavers' success is the way it communicates its point of difference to customers by promoting the approach it’s taken. There are posters up outside and it’s even created a little booklet to pass on to customers explaining its natural kebabs. Bal comments: “Every now and then we’ll get a customer say “kebabs are all the same”, so we say "no they’re not actually. Ours are all lamb, they’ve got none of the nasties in them." We have to communicate with the customer and explain what we are selling and why ours are priced that little bit higher. Once they understand that and then taste the food, they are willing to pay the extra and that’s why we’re getting customers coming back twice a week, sometimes more, now.”
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Last year, Seavers hand-delivered 25,000 Christmas cards containing a £5 gift voucher which it date stamped from the beginning of December to the end of January. “It worked really, really well,” says Bal. “We had about 700-800 come back and people were saying thank you for the card. It was a great talking point and definitely got people in during a period when we would have been slightly quieter.”