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So solid crew

Identifying early on the demand for variety and healthy options has seen John Molnar open his third Cod’s Scallops in Nottingham in seven years. With a solid concept and crew, he’s not ruling out more sites either

You’re a chef by trade, so what lead you to fish and chips?

I’ve got over 30 years experience working in various restaurants and hotels but I’ve also got a couple of pubs in Nottingham. Fish and chips were always, and still are, one of the most popular selling dishes. I had a fantastic relationship with my fishmonger and I was talking to him one day, saying I really think I can do something slightly different to what the norm is so I started looking at the potential of opening a fish and chip shop. I spent about 18 months driving up and down the country looking at really good operators, what they do and why they do it. I drove as far south as Rockfish and Rick Stein’s in Cornwall and as far north as Colmans in South Shields. When Fish & Chips at 149 won Fish & Chip Shop of the Year, I rang Matthew Silk and Tracy Poskitt and asked to spend a day with them, which they kindly agreed to. Although I had the knowledge of the chef, it is very different in the fish and chip world, it’s quicker, it’s more intense, so I wanted to be well prepared.

What did you learn from these visits?

The key for me was the quality that people were serving, it was fantastic. And the way food was cooked to order and how it was sourced, all the things that we do now was what all these places were doing. When I was growing up as a kid, a chippy tea was something we had on a Friday night, it was all in a hot box and you pointed to the bit of fish you wanted. Sometimes it was good and sometimes it wasn’t so good. Things have changed a lot since then and understanding that set me up to open the first Cod’s Scallops in Wollaton in 2011 and then Carrington in 2016.

But you’ve gone further than cooking to order and sourcing sustainably at Cod’s Scallops, haven’t you?

Yes, we have. As well as sourcing a well managed sustainable product, I wanted to source a really good variety of fresh fish from around the UK, so we can offer 20 to 25 different species each day. We have our core list of what we want and then the rest is dictated by our fishmonger, so he says "you really should buy some John Dory this week as they are amazing".

How do you manage such a wide variety of fish?

Our menus are on velcro, so if we have no lemon soles, for example, we take it off or put a sign up saying “still at sea”. Any fish we can’t get, is too pricey at the market or the quality isn’t good enough, we don’t sell. My ethos is that if we’ve got mackerel, herring and sprat on the menu but we’ve got no sprat, we’ve still got one or two other oily fish. Likewise, if we don’t have dabs, I’ve still got plaice and lemon soles, which are all flat whites. A similar sort of species is always available. And we don’t buy a lot, so once it’s gone, it’s gone.

Offering so many different varieties doesn’t slow service down?

No, because we geared the shops around what we wanted to offer, so we have induction cookers and planchas which cook fish and shellfish very quickly. A piece of pan-fried sea bass will take the same time as a piece of battered cod to cook. We just staff it so on busier nights we have someone on the baked section. If a big order comes in for, say, one steamed mussels, one oysters, one scallops, one crab, two haddocks then, yes, obviously that’s harder to get out than six haddocks but it’s no different to shops offering six burgers with six different toppings, we just offer different fish.

It’s a concept that’s clearly working as you’ve just opened your third shop?

Yes, Long Eaton opened a month ago which shows people really like the product. 60% of our sales are still battered cod and haddock, but 30-35% is baked fish, and we offer two or three salads of the day, for example, we do a quinoa, beetroot and feta salad. Everything we do is available to takeaway as well, so it’s a really healthy, nutritious meal from a chip shop for £7-£7.50. It’s what more and more people are after and we’re getting customers coming in three times a week. They might only have battered fish once, but they’ll come and have baked fish and a salad on the other two days.

How have you found it going from one site to three?

It’s not easy but the quality of staff I have make that process easier. Some of the senior staff have been with me for 16-17 years so they get the concept, but even the newer members understand what we are about and like coming into work. In January, I introduced private medal care for all my staff and their children as I felt I had to offer something that people wanted in order to retain them. Of course, that’s a cost to me, but if I don’t have to then spend £5,000 running ads to recruit staff, or paying overtime for people to come in and do extra hours, then that works for me.

Do you think it’s a good time to be an independent business?

Yes, the thing is with the chains, they opened too many too quickly and they offered way above what was sustainable from a pay point of view. I was up against some chains looking at some other sites prior to opening in Long Eaton and I was offering the market rent and they were offering £15,000 above. It’s coming back to bite them now. I think people want the security of a chain but they want the niche of an independent, and I like to think we tick that box.

Do you have plans to open more shops?

Yes, I want to grow organically, I don’t want to be owned by the banks and I want to do it at a pace that I can sustain. Having key staff is crucial though. When I went from one to two, I knew I had three or four staff who were itching for that next level and if I didn’t give it to them they would have gone. We’ve just opened the third site where we have 21 members of staff and four of the most senior members came from one of the other shops, which shows the strength and depth I have to do that.

Where are the opportunities for fish and chips?

The industry needs to look at what people want to eat and tailor their shops to that. I’m not saying I’m unique because I’ve visited many shops doing salads and grilled and steamed fish now, but I think that’s the key point people need to look at.

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