Updated: May 16, 2019
From quiz nights at local schools to movie premieres for Warner Brothers, The Frying Squad caters for events of all sizes and budgets. Eamonn Staunton, owner of the London-based outlet, explains what it’s like operating a busy mobile fish and chip business
How did you get into fish and chips?
I worked in hospitality, mostly for food-led hotels and bars in London, Dubai and Tokyo, and I was doing that for about 18 years and then I decided to leave the trade. Originally I looked to do a hog roast business, but in 2007 I stumbled across a fish and chip van that someone was selling in Sevenoaks, Kent. I bought the van straight away and on the drive back I thought wouldn’t it be great to do a couple of functions a week with it.
Where are you with The Frying Squad now?
We’re now up to two vans and I hope to have three by the end of this year. Our business is crazy, we do 150 weddings a year, around 12 functions a week in the summer months and we’re rarely in the same place twice. Today we are doing a Housing Association clean up of an estate in Kent, tomorrow we could be doing a movie premiere for Warner Brothers. We’ve catered for the Brit Awards' after party where we served fish and chips and halloumi to 2,000 guests. We’ve been to M&S’s Christmas party and we get a lot of requests for Staff Appreciation Days - we've just done one for BMW - where we go along and cook fish and chips as a treat on a Friday for the staff. When we started we didn’t realise how the street food industry was going to explode or the opportunities available.
How have you seen street food change?
It’s changed beyond recognition from the ordinary burger bars and roadside cafes to every kind of cuisine you can imagine. I saw one the other day on Instagram doing Georgian cuisine. I do truly think, meeting the young guys that I have in the last few years, that we will see the first Michelin starred street food traders very soon, especially in London. The quality of the food is something else. Having said that, I do think street food has gone full circle now in that it is possibly oversaturated, but you never know what people will think up next!
How did you build up your business?
From the very beginning we focused on serving top quality, traditional fish and chips and we didn’t turn any business down. If the numbers were as low as 30 we would take it. Although they weren’t massively profitable events, when one person books us for 30 people that’s 30 new customers. And now 70% of our business is repeat referrals. For example, we do almost every school in the Wimbledon area, but it started off with one school. Word of mouth between parents and teachers lead to another school booking us and so on. A lot of these are quiz nights, which are really good for us as they tend to be during our quieter months, November to February, which keeps us going.
Do you ever advertise then?
Not really as it is genuinely people talking, especially the wedding venues. If one high-end venue sees us on a list, another one will approach us to do the same. It’s the same with the TV and production crews at events. We have over the last few years noticed the importance of having a stronger presence on social media, however, and we recognise now that that is certainly the way forward in our industry in terms of posting really good food photos on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. People eat with their eyes first and their stomaches second. And even though we have a strong website, we get most of our direct mail these days from social media.
What’s the best function you’ve been to?
The movie premiere for The Meg for Warner Brothers at Brockwell Lido, an outside swimming pool in south London, last year. That was amazing. Being about a shark, the film was shown on a huge TV screen in front of the lido. It was quite a difficult job as we had to take the food out on trays and it was raining, but it went really well and there were a lot of stars there including Jason Statham.
Is most of your business guaranteed work?
Yes, most of our work is corporates, weddings and private events. Occasionally we will take a risk and do what I call a pay-as-you-go event. Sometimes they are very lucrative and sometimes they are a disaster, mainly because of the weather. We’ve learned to always check the weather and staff the van accordingly! Recently, we did the Cambridge and Oxford boat race and it rained, which meant the queue went away. But it came back as soon as the sun came out and it actually ended up being a good one for us.
What’s on your menu?
We’ve got a simple menu and it’s predominantly fish and chips, but in the last few years it has changed. A few years ago everyone wanted gluten free batter. That trend has now peaked and it’s battered halloumi we get asked for a lot, especially if it’s a younger crowd. We did a 100% vegan wedding a while ago, which involved wrapping tofu in seaweed. It was hard work but it went really well and it means we now have a vegan option on the menu too. So we’re keeping up with the trends, which is important at many of the events we go to. We tend to stock the vans with 50% fish and then 50% sausages, vegan and halloumi as tastes are changing.
How do you organise the prep work?
We arrive early and arrange to park as near to the venue as possible. We prep there; the vans are very modern and large and can cope with up to 300 covers. We par fry our chips when we arrive and then cook everything on demand. Our cod is fresh from Billingsgate and we have it all filleted and portioned ready to use.
What do you take into consideration when agreeing to an event?
The only things we require are parking, which in London is not easy, and if it’s in a field then the ground has got to be flat. We cannot fry on a hill! If I don’t know the venue I’ll always go and check it out as I would hate to turn up and have to disappoint.
Are you tempted to open a shop?
We would like to open a shop and we are regularly looking at the tourist areas in London around St Paul’s Cathedral or the London Eye as tourists and fish and chips go well together. But we’re happy with our lot at the moment, we’re not paying massive rents and if we do a residency somewhere and it doesn’t work, we just drive off. You can’t do that with a shop!
What advice would you give to anyone starting out in mobile fish and chips?
Don’t turn anything down because you don’t know where it will lead. And treat your staff well because you definitely can’t do it on your own.
Does mobile fish and chips have a future?
Yes, if those people doing it serve top quality fish and chips and do it right. If you look at the shops that are doing well at the moment, they are the ones that are modern, they might have a little twist on things but it’s traditional fish and chips done in a modern way and served in a clean surroundings. That shouldn't be any different if you operate a mobile fish and chip van.
Photos by: Thompson Imagery