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Facing facts

Running a successful fish and chip business involves making some brave decisions, as Garry Rosser, owner of The Scallop Shell in Bath, found this year when, among other things, he closed his takeaway service

From the outside, The Scallop Shell looks very much the same business that owner and chef Garry Rosser opened in 2015. However, on the inside, it’s a very different operation.

The original 40 cover ground floor restaurant has been added to by way of an upstairs restaurant accommodating an additional 38 covers and, since August, there’s been a stunning all-year-round alfresco dining terrace seating a further 22. At 100 covers, and serving a range of fried fish as well as shellfish and grilled options, it’s a unique offering in the very competitive Bath eating out scene.

However, it’s been at the expense of the takeaway, which served its final customers in early July. It was a tough decision but the logistics of the building left the takeaway staff with such a confined space to work in that the team were trying to do two different operations in one area and instead of growing the business, it was having the opposite effect and diluting it.

“Unless you’ve got a separate area for takeaway, I don’t think you can do both.” explains Garry. “You’re trying to juggle all the time. For me, the best things are the simple things and sometimes you have to be really honest with yourself and say ‘look, if you can’t cope with it and it’s not enjoyable, then why are you doing it?’.

“When you’re coming in and you’re fire-fighting every day, it’s hard. I was in at half past six every day just to cope with the volume we were doing - and I wanted to add another 20 covers to that by opening the terrace!

“I was so focused on just getting through the day-to-day things that I started to lose my vision of where I wanted to get to and what I wanted to achieve, so I made the decision to close the takeaway.”

With the takeaway representing 25% of the business, the financial aspect of that decision hasn’t been as bad as Garry first feared. In fact, he found that because the takeaway was offering the restaurant experience in a box - the fish was cut to exactly the same size and the packaging was top end - in theory the takeaway was only making about a 40% gross profit. So when it closed, yes the business naturally lost revenue, but this was offset by savings made in other areas. Food costs alone, for example, fell by 11%.

The impact on Garry and his staff was immediate, however. “Within 48 hours it was just like a complete roof had been lifted off the building and the vision came back so strong,” adds Garry. “What I’ve found is that because we’re concentrating on one element of the business we’re much, much stronger now. Staff morale is at its all time high, so the guys are coming in every day on fire, and I‘m on fire every day too because everyone is happy and working well and producing quality.”

It’s lead to some exciting changes. For one, Garry has got his much-loved terrace up and running and he’s had time to focus on increasing the lunchtime trade by introducing a £10 Fishermen’s lunch. Offering a taste of old England, it includes a one course meal with all the sides, chunky bread and butter and a cup of Yorkshire tea. Appealing not only to tourists and locals, but also the older generation too, a demographic that The Scallop Shell hasn’t attracted until now, the offer has opened up another market for the chippy.

Garry adds:“My business totally changes at lunchtime. It’s about bums on seats effectively, so we work on three elements - quality, consistency and generosity. If we’re going to do a deal, we do the same size fish as we would normally offer and we run it six days a week, not just on days when we think we’re going to be quiet. Bath is a really, really competitive market, especially at lunchtime, and now we’re full almost every day.”

Garry’s also introduced a booking system, having done a Friday night stint on the door rather than in the kitchen. “The restaurant was full and I had 180 people on the waiting list. We can bang out about 300 covers, which is a lot. But that night I turned 20 people away. For me, that was wrong. We’re telling people to come, but when they do we can’t feed them. We had to stop that happening.”

The way customers order has also been reviewed. Instead of ticking their food choices on a menu and handing it to the waiter or waitress, it’s now back to basics and all done at the till. “The tick box looked good,” says Garry, “but with the restaurant getting so much busier, it meant we weren’t spending enough time with the customer. Now the customer goes to the till and orders their food so our staff have to interact with them.”

By no stretch of the imagination are the improvements finished. Garry intends to create a bar upstairs where customers waiting for a table can sit and enjoy a cocktail, whiskey or brandy and, believe it or not, there’s plans to open a takeaway, but this time in another part of town.

“About 80% of our customers have been really understanding about the takeaway closing,” explains Garry, “but we have had a few comments from people saying we’re up our own arses, that we’ve got this restaurant and we’re not interested in doing takeaway anymore. They are hard comments to digest as they hurt and they’re not true.

“What it actually means is they are upset because we shut it down. That said to me there is a demand for a takeaway. So the plan is to get the restaurant exactly where I want it - which will be just after Christmas - and then we’ll look for a new site on the outskirts of Bath where everything is right for a takeaway and I can do all the things that I couldn’t do here.”

Closing the takeaway and having the opportunity to step back and look at his business has been a key turning point for Garry, enabling him to get the restaurant back on track and move it forward. “It’s definitely important to come out of the kitchen, stand back and analyse what’s working and what isn’t,” says Garry. “I’m probably one of the worst for not doing that. But if you don’t, you get tunnel vision.

“The frustration I encountered every day trying to juggle the takeaway and the restaurant was really hard. I had so much I wanted to achieve and I just couldn’t see it happening. Now, it’s very clear and we’re moving forward. The drive now is unbelievable.”

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