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Expect the unexpected

In June, at the start of the busy summer season, Fish! in London’s Borough Market found itself at the centre of an eight minute long terror attack. Although the business has bounced back, it’s had to get used to a change in trading patterns

Borough Market, close to London Bridge station, is a labyrinth of stalls selling a mix of locally grown, fresh produce alongside more niche foodstuffs from around the world.

One of the capital’s oldest and well-known markets, it’s also home to around 30 takeaways, bars and restaurants, one of which is Fish!, a glass and steel Victorian structure which, when it first opened on the site in 1999, was the city’s first restaurant that really made fish and seafood accessible to the masses. The family-run business with its diner-style concept, open plan kitchen and menu comprising solely of fish and seafood provides an informal venue where customes choose their fish, how they want it cooked and the sauce it comes in.

For those that want to eat on the hoof rather than pull up a pew in the 130 seater restaurant or the 70 seater heated terrace outside, there’s Fish! Kitchen next door where beer battered fish including cod, haddock, plaice, skate, hake and halibut to go is its speciality. 

While all the fish is sourced from the family-owned fishmongers, Jarvis based in Kingston, Surrey, prepped and sent up by 10am each day, the fresh produce is, not surprisingly, bought from the market traders just outside the door. It’s created a tight bond between the restaurant and the market and one that director Charlee Allan has watched flourish.

“For as long as I can remember, our vegetables have been coming from Borough Market, but now we also get our cheese from here as well as our chicken and bacon,” she explains. “Our bread is from Bread Ahead, which is literally just opposite us. We’ve seen the two guys set it up in the last couple of years and we’ve got a really brilliant relationship with them. It’s great to see new stories, new personalities and new produce coming through.”

It also means that the chef can vary the menu each day by simply popping out and seeing what’s available and, of course, the restaurant and takeaway rarely ever run out of anything.

It’s an idyllic set-up and one which on the night of 3rd June was put to the test when three terrorists wearing fake suicide bomb vests did a loop of the market entering its restaurants and pubs and attacking people with knives. Eight people died and 48 others were injured. It was an awful tragedy that closed the area for almost two weeks, but for Charlee it wasn’t totally unexpected.

“You can’t be prepared for a terror attack, however, the safely of our customers and our staff had been in the forefront of our minds for a while,” says Charlee. “We had seen the events in Paris and then more recently in London and obviously with the community here, people out having fun, eating and drinking, I knew we could potentially be a target.

“Weirdly four weeks beforehand I put up signs around the restaurant saying please be vigilant of anything suspicious going on and that we won’t be storing large bags and suitcases. People were taking notice of them and reading them, but one table smirked as if to say they are being a bit overcautious. Unfortunately, in the back of our minds something was saying there was no reason why it couldn’t happen.”

While the head chef at Fish! had undergone counter-terrorism training just a few weeks earlier, the rest of the team were given a safety briefing by Charlee in which they were advised that if anything was to happen, to make themselves, the customers and the restaurant safe. “In effect, we’re a big conservatory and we have heavy metal chairs in the restaurant, so I said to just keep as far away from the windows as possible and use anything to protect yourself. It was so strange because the staff we’re looking at me as if to say you must be mad.”

The events happened just as the shutters were coming down on the takeaway but the restaurant was still open. While no one inside was directly affected, both the neighbouring pub and bistro sadly were. The area was immediately declared a crime scene and closed.

Just 12 days into the start of the summer, which after Christmas is the restaurant’s busiest time, the attack and the subsequent closure had a huge impact on business. The restaurant alone averages 3,000 covers a week with an additional 10,000 through the takeaway. Never had it been shut for any length of time before, the longest being for a few days over Christmas. “It was a huge loss for us,” explains Charlee. “Not just trade but stock as well. We open seven days a week and a majority of what we use is fresh, so we had a lot of stock in our fridges that we lost.

“Fortunately, we did have terrorism insurance from day one - looking back now that was a very good move on my father’s part - so that has covered us for some of the impact, but it’s still been a long process. At the end of the day, however, our staff are safe and alive so nothing else matters. That’s our stance on it.”

When the area did reopen, Fish! like many of the other eateries, was keen to get back to business. With a huge outpouring of love on social media and a campaign launched with the hashtag #loveborough, life surprisingly returned to normal almost immediately. However, for Fish! it experienced a change in trading patterns which the business has had to adapt to.

Charlee comments: “The first week was slow, but after that the weekday lunches and dinners were packed out. However, the Saturday, which was always our busiest day, was down. I guess people that live and work in London have to be here and get on with it, so were still going out for lunch or dinner after work. But those coming into town of a weekend were clearly dubious about it and not coming.”

Even three months on, that pattern has remained with the weekdays now busier than the weekends.

While it was decided special offers and discounts were not necessary to drive footfall, Fish! did put a cocktail on the menu from day one and donated a percentage per drink to the Red Cross to help the victims and their families affected by the attack. Customers also had the option to add a donation to their bill, which together have raised over £10,000.

Whilst the events of that night will stay with the team forever, it seems to have had few lasting effects on the business. Its partnership with Deliveroo and UberEats continues to provide a constant stream of orders throughout the week and its click and collect service helps ease the mid-day traffic through the takeaway, which can get 30 deep at its peak.

Relieved that her team and her customers are safe, Charlee says it’s well worth shops taking their team aside and discussing the threat of a terror attack, adding: “You should at least have a little chat with the management, even if it’s an informal chat to say “Look, if this were to happen, and God forbid it doesn’t, what would we do?” Because it can happen, it happened to us. It’s just you think it never will.”

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