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Kings of the capital

Brothers Ali and Ahmet Ziyeddin are celebrating 35 years at the helm of London’s oldest surviving fish and chip shop, Rock & Sole Plaice in Covent Garden. We caught up with them to talk about life running a busy London shop

Tell me a bit about the history of Rock & Sole Plaice?

Rock & Sole Plaice was the third fish and chip shop to open in London, that was back in 1871, and it’s the oldest surviving chippy in London as the others got taken out during the Blitz. It has so much history to it. For example, on a Saturday, one of the last things a chip shop owner would do was pay their potato bill, which they would all do round here as this was a fruit and veg market. During the war, there wasn’t any other food you could have prepared outside of your house. So, if an area had been devastated, to keep morale up we would feed them. Everyone would meet at the shop here and say “right, Clapham has been hit but Croydon is OK, you’re nearest so you can send stuff there”, and everyone would rally around and organise amongst themselves how to distribute to the worst hit areas.

I guess a lot has changed since then?

Everything on the plate is still the same, but everything around it has changed; that’s the best way to put it. We’ve always bought the best quality fresh fish and the best quality potatoes because we want to serve a good product. We fry in groundnut oil, not because it’s the most expensive, but because we think it’s the best. When you’ve got very few ingredients that you work with, any corner cut shows itself.

If the food hasn’t changed, what has?

Middle class caterers coming into the area. I hate them with a passion. Lumberjacks without an axe, I call them. Basically everyone thinks it’s easy to do this game, so they come in and flood the market by selling their food cheap. All this does is devalue the product, then when they realise they are earning less than the minimum wage, they pack up but the damage has already been done.

You’ve survived that and on pretty strong prices. How have you achieved that?

Yes, we charge £14 for cod and chips but we’re very transparent. With some restaurants there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors and when you get the bill you find you’ve been charged extra for this and that. We give good portions, the quality is very, very good and we’re in Covent Garden, so our overheads are high.

How have you maintained standards day in, day out for 35 years?

Everything here is military. In fact, catering came about because of the military, armies on the move, people needed to be fed, so we have our procedures and everyone follows them. We haven't had to go and select fish from the market in over 20 years because we have known suppliers and they know us. If they dare send in a rogue box of fish, they know they are not going to have our business.

I won’t call one of my guys a frier until he’s done two seasons because there’s so much to know. For example, during spawning season, when the fish are reproducing, they lose half their weight and the flesh is very flabby. You need to have the knowledge of how to change your cut, for example, to make the most of that situation. I’m always testing potatoes for the week ahead as the quality can be different. I could buy them from the same farm, but if the land in one field is higher than the land in another, the quality of the potatoes might vary. It’s constant vigilance.

How many customers do you serve?

We get an average of 3,500 people per day coming through the restaurant and takeaway and that’s a real mix of locals, office and shop workers as well as tourists, as it’s a real tourist trap round here. But we consider everybody to be a customer and round here we can serve everyone from the homeless to millionaires, so our menu reflects that with £14 fish and chips down to £2.50 portions of chips.

You celebrated 35 years in business by giving away chips for 10p a portion. Some people will say this is crazy, so why do it?

Oh, we lost money hand over fist doing it but it’s not all about the money. It’s more of a thank you to the community. Without their support we wouldn’t have got here. We don’t have a loyalty scheme whereby a customer comes in and on their tenth visit gets something free. We know our customers, so every now and then we’ll say “have a few more chips,” or “have  that on the house”. We don’t see why a customer has to come here ten times before to be classed as “loyal”.

How many portions of chips did you sell for 10p?

We ran the promotion across two days and got through five tonnes of potatoes, which is really going some. It’s been a good test of everyone, man and machine. It’s good to push yourself and see how you handle it.

Is central London a demanding area to operate in?

It really is and the rest of the fish and chip shop game is about to experience the same conditions that we’ve had for 30 years. Every day there’s a new restaurant opening, so you can never sit back on your laurels and say what we’re doing today is going to look after us tomorrow. That’s really only happened in London and a few major cities up until now but, as these big chains and corporates need to grow, they are now considering sites that might not have been their first priority. So whereas a shop may have had an area to itself before and done very well, now they’ve got all these new concepts. They compete with the best in the area, the best can’t always compete so they drop their prices, and all of a sudden they are into fish and chip shop prices. Where does the fish and chip shop then go? Lower prices? I think the industry in the next two years is in for a tough time. There are lots of good contenders, don’t get me wrong, but a lot of shops have been resting back. They’ve got to be ready for the amount of competition coming their way.

Do you think the industry as a whole needs to increase their prices?

Definitely. We ate in a hotel round the corner recently and one of the items we ordered was mini fish and chips. It was £8.50 and there were two bits of fish about the size of your finger and a few chips. I worked out that according to the weights, if they were to cook our fish and chips in their restaurant, they would be charging £98! All the hotels and even pubs are charging more than we are. And they say things like “freshly battered”, “freshly delivered” which misleads the public as there was nothing fresh that came in that door. It made us realise that the hardest place to be serving fish and chips is in a fish and chip shop!

What do you do that’s unique to you?

We’re the most copied fish and chip shop in London, so every chip shop pretty much has what we have, we just do it better! Our chips are quite unique though - they are chunky 24mm chips. It was my dad’s idea, he didn’t like the wastage, especially when the potatoes were slightly smaller, so he played around with the knife settings to see how he could cut the chips in a different way. You could say he was a miser, but we actually get a better product because the greater the size, the less oil is absorbed.

How do stay current in such a competitive marketplace?

We are constantly looking at what others are doing and we try and move with them. We’re looking at doing deliveries in a few weeks time and we’ve also started monitoring customer feedback by employing someone in house to deal with that. Up until last year, not a single thing on the internet was monitored or responded to for eight years. Our star ratings were terrible, but since we’ve started addressing that we are now up there on the Google search. We’re about to look at portion sizes because there was a time when fish and chips was designed to fill people up, but that’s not the case now. Not everyone wants a plate full of food. And we’ve also added homemade sauces and flavour shakers to the menu for customers to add to their chips, which include flavours such as spicy sweet potato, beef stroganoff, chilli steak, chipotle, peri peri. We don’t charge extra for them, they just add another cost effective item to the menu. 

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