Switching to a gluten free batter and introducing a number of coeliac friendly products is seeing trade increase on a weekly basis at Rothley Fisheries in Leicestershire
When Jim Burke and his wife took over Rothley Fisheries in the quaint Leicestershire village of Quorn 27 years ago, it was no more than a small takeaway, while coeliac disease — an intolerance to gluten — was something that was seldom heard of and even less understood.
Fast forward almost three decades and the chippy has had two extensions, it incorporates a cosy, carpeted 70 seater restaurant decorated with fishing memorabilia and features a menu of which 60% of its products are gluten free.
The move to embrace customers with coeliac disease — which is estimated to affect one in every hundred people in the UK — was not intentional. Far from it. In fact, if trade hadn’t started to falter a few years ago, which Jim blames on a general downturn in the eating out market as a whole, the opportunity to grow the business in this way may well have been overlooked. Investigating areas in which Jim could boost trade, he noticed a growing number of customers coming in to the shop asking for gluten free food, which lead him to trial a gluten free batter from Middleton Foods.
“Since we took on the business, trade has gone up five-fold,” explains Jim. “So trade has always increased, up until the last couple of years that is. With the recession, austerity and eating habits changing, it’s had an affect not just on us but on all food outlets. Even McDonald’s has noticed a downturn in takeaway trade recently.
“I didn’t want to move into pizzas and kebabs. I didn’t want to be a jack of all trades. I wanted to do one product and do it well.
“I started off doing the odd bit of gluten free fish now and then, and very quickly it got to the point where I was being asked for it every night of the week. We started eating it ourselves, too, and that’s when I noticed how nice the batter was. It had a nutty, crunchy texture and it puts just a very thin coating on the fish. Because it’s made with maize flour rather than wheat flour, you feel less bloated too. I just found it more palatable and more digestible.”
With demand for gluten free food increasing and the shop finding it a strain during busy periods to have one of its three pans dedicated purely to gluten free, Jim took the decision to fry all fish - of which he offers cod, plaice, salmon, lemon sole and halibut - in his gluten free batter. It was a move that proved the catalyst for Jim to convert more of his menu to appeal to coeliacs and now it boasts gluten free sausages from 42nd Street, which are offered plain or battered, as well as curry sauce and gravy. Alongside its peas and beans, customers can now enjoy a complete range of condiments.
By capitalising on the increasing demand for gluten free food and providing coeliac customers with a safe place to eat, Jim has reversed the downturn in trade.
“Trade is increasing on a weekly basis,” he says. “All the time it is going up and the quality of the food is good, if not better. Customers are coming from neighbouring villages and further afield because they either can’t get gluten free from their local fish and chip shop at all or it's only available on a certain night of the week, which doesn’t always suit them.”
Frustrated that he’s not been able to switch his entire menu to gluten free - Jim found it difficult to source pies, scampi and fishcakes, mainly due to cost rather than availability — he’s confident a time will come when this will be the case.
“The main issue we had was with the pies,” he explains. “Although we did find a manufacturer, the pies were priced at £3 each and we are currently selling ours at £2.20, so there was just no way we could put them on our menu, they would be too costly. I think it’s just a matter of time, however, before more products are available and the price comes down, because there’s certainly the demand there.”
Absorbing the increased cost of going gluten free is something else Jim has had to bear the brunt of — his batter bill alone has doubled. However, he has the forethought to see the bigger picture, adding: “I’m hoping that, in the long term, if we sell more we’ll get that money back anyway. So hopefully the increase in trade will compensate and we won’t need to increase our prices.”
With the gluten-containing items now cooked in a stand-alone fryer away from the main range, the shop is able to serve customers much more efficiently, while staff have peace of mind that no cross-contamination will occur.
Jim has also seen a number of additional benefits since using the gluten free batter, notably its effect on his oil. "The carbonisation of the oil with the gluten free batter is not as harsh," he explains. “The oil doesn’t darken as quickly and also the oil level doesn’t seem to go down as fast now. I’m actually making a saving because the oil longevity is much better with the new batter mix.
“With times as they are in the fish and chip industry at the moment, we need incentives to get customers in and going gluten free is definitely an incentive. Coeliacs are part of a very big community and they are always making, and being asked for, recommendations and that’s really how word has spread for us. And I’ve had no adverse comments about what I’m doing from my non-coeliac customers either. It is the way to go, I think.”