Rockfish continues to be a thriving business with ongoing expansion plans along the south west coast. Founder Mitch Tonks and operations director Mat Prowse let us in on some of the secrets of its success
It seems as though Rockfish owners Mitch Tonks and Mat Prowse can do no wrong right now. Its growing chain of six restaurants and takeaways - built on the belief that the fish caught in the waters off the south west coast of Britain is the best in the world - are thriving with two more in Weymouth and Poole due to come onboard by the end of the year, taking the total to eight.
And you have to hand it to them, since opening the first outlet in Dartmouth ten years ago, each new location since seems slightly more beautiful and edging that bit closer to the water than the last. In fact, in Exeter, where the latest Rockfish opened just two months ago, there was no suitable location so a stunning, purpose-built glass and steel restaurant was constructed which, at just four feet away from the quayside, couldn’t be any closer to the water if it tried.
“Being by the coast is really important to Rockfish,” says Mitch. “Not only can customers enjoy their seafood while looking overlooking where it’s caught practically, but there’s always the feeling that seafood tastes better the closer you are to where it originates.”
As popular as the locations are and the notion of eating locally caught, sustainable seafood is, the concept of a daily changing menu is also crucial to its success. Made possible by the fact that all Rockfish’s six restaurants are within easy reach of Brixham fish market, which lands up to 40 different species, the chain has arguably the best pick of the most diverse catch in the UK. Add to this the fact that Rockfish employs its very own fish buyer, who is on the market floor sourcing the day’s catch each morning, and not only is the menu sure to vary, but costs are also kept down as there’s no middleman - especially pertinent now with ever-rising fish prices.
Getting the concept of a menu that changes daily over to the customer isn’t always easy, but Rockfish has turned this into an experience by using pre-printed tablecloths featuring the names of the 20 or so species of fish it buys regularly and arming its staff with a bounty of information. Servers then simply circle the species available that day before explaining the best way to have it prepared, served and cooked.
Mitch comments: “The catch varies daily and when it’s gone, it’s gone, but that’s okay, we can deal with that with our tablecloths. It might be that we have cuttlefish so the servers may recommend it chargrilled or roasted, or if it’s MSC hake from Brixham they may suggest having it grilled or fried. We make sure everyone knows their stuff as it’s a really big deal for us to get across to the customer that the fish they are enjoying is landed that morning and that they’re eating it that day, overlooking the water pretty much where it was caught.”
Rockfish maintains close relationships with all its suppliers but no more so than with the fishermen that are responsible for its key menu items. In fact, after talking with a local fisherman about how much of his catch goes abroad, Mitch agreed to buy everything he lands, which means it’s all coming to Rockfish. Mitch adds: “It’s so exciting that we are helping to support that fisherman and for him to be able to see that his fish is staying here in the local area. Plus it’s another story that we can pass on to our customers. It’s what makes us unique.”
While many come to Rockfish because of the wide range of fish available, others can require a bit of persuading and there’s nothing Rockfish enjoys more than to encourage diversity, which is why it runs a special promotion on the third Friday of every month where customers can enjoy a locally landed species from the takeaway with chips for just £3.
“We love educating our customers about the wide range of local seafood on offer so we do things like whiting, gurnard and plaice all for £3,” says Mitch. “We know that no matter what we do, cod and haddock will still be the number one best sellers by a huge margin, but we’ve found customers do come round to the idea of trying other species. Since the hake fishery here became MSC certified, we’ve really pushed hake because it’s local and sustainable, and people are loving it.”
With Rockfish all about changing the way people experience seafood in the UK, a host of new kitchen equipment has been needed. Using KFE to source its frying ranges, the Dutch company also actively worked with Rockfish’s other suppliers to allow for a coordinated approach to the kitchen install. Mat explains: “We have the ranges for frying but we’ve also invested in things like a plancha and a chargrill. It means we can offer more than just fried fish. The chargrill, for example, gives almost a BBQ flavour, while the plancha is a flat, hot plate which cooks the fish really quickly and keeps the moisture inside.”
Further investment has been made into dedicated gluten free fryers, also supplied by KFE. Retrofitting these into the existing sites required changing the kitchen layout to create space, but it was a feature Mitch was keen to integrate, with Mat adding: “Mitch didn’t want those avoiding gluten to only have the choice of one or two items on the menu. We’ve got our own gluten free batter and now, with the dedicated pans, everything on the menu is available gluten free.”
Rockfish is clearly more than a fish and chip shop, it’s a seafood restaurant, but what’s ultimately made it such a success is that it’s one that is accessible to all, whether it’s grilled mackerel for granny, a bottle of fine Portuguese wine and dressed crab for mum and dad, or cod and chips for the kids. “It’s easy to sound like we’re the M&S of seafood, but we’re really not,” says Mitch. “We just focus on creating beautiful, sustainable seafood restaurants that people love working at and customers like eating in.”