Adding an upstairs restaurant to the takeaway has created an all-year-round business for Harbourside in Plymouth, Devon. Owner Sarah Lock pulls up a pew to tell us more
You bought Harbourside in 2009, so how has business been?
We’ve got busier year on year. It seems in Plymouth as a whole there are a lot more people eating out, especially students. We’ve won a number of awards too, which has put us on the map. In terms of portions of fish and chips, we serve about 1,000 customers on a busy day and 300 in the quiet times. I would go so far as to say we’re actually too big for the building now.
Is that why you decided to add a restaurant?
Yes, but it was also so we could give a more premium offering. You can’t beat eating fish and chips hot on a plate straight after it’s cooked. We do have seats downstairs for about 20 but it’s more like McDonald’s style of service where you order at the counter and take your food to a table. It was somewhere people could come to eat and stay out of the rain really. I could see we were losing custom because we didn’t have that eat in facility and, as I had the flat upstairs, it made sense to make the second level into a restaurant.
How many seats have you got upstairs now?
About 35. It’s not huge but I’ve got a very high turnover on my takeaway, so it was never going to be possible for me to have an 80 seater restaurant as the range just wouldn’t cope. Plus the staff would probably have a breakdown!
Was it an easy decision to go from a takeaway to operating a restaurant too?
Yes and no, I knew it was going to add a bit of pressure in terms of staff and extra overheads but we’ve kept it really simple. The menu is the same as downstairs but instead of using boxes we serve the food on metal plates with greaseproof paper. We’ve found these don’t break so we are not forever replacing them! And we’ve only had to employ one extra person to work the restaurant. My biggest concern actually was more to do with whether people would be a bit put off with upstairs seating, but actually the views up there are better and it’s nice and quiet.
Do you offer waitress service upstairs?
We did initially but we’ve just this January changed it to ordering at the counter because we were finding when we were getting groups coming up together it was very difficult to decide who to serve first. So ordering at the counter with a number works better for us.
How do you get the food upstairs?
We installed a Stannah dumb waiter as I couldn’t expect the staff to keep going up and down the stairs. It was a bit tricky getting it in as we had to have it in the right place on the ground floor so as to be in the right place on the first floor. I went for the smallest one which can take about 12 meals at a time. It did mean losing a few seats downstairs, so essentially we’ve lost eight downstairs to get 35 upstairs.
Do you charge more for eating in the restaurant?
Yes, about 25% more to eat upstairs but there are extra facilities now such as the toilet, a baby change, cutlery etc. Our regular cod and chips to eat in is £7.95, so it’s still an inexpensive meal compared to eating in a normal restaurant, and I think that’s where it’s important to get the balance right. I didn’t want to open and charge over the top prices just because we have a restaurant.
"I did open another shop in a city and although it was busy no one wanted to sit in, so don’t assume just because you’ve got the space that you should convert it."
How much did it cost to convert upstairs?
We did it for about £50,000 and we were only shut for one morning while the staircase was fitted so we didn’t lose any sales. That was really important to me as it’s not just what it costs you to do the work, it’s how much it’s going to cost you while you’re shut.
What impact has opening the restaurant had on sales?
We’ve seen a 28% increase in sales since opening upstairs and we’re finding Thursday through to Sunday we’re really busy in the restaurant all day and all night. People are spending more too. They are now having a glass of wine or a pint of beer, which customers downstairs tend not to have. The biggest difference is in the winter. In the summer, customers are happy to eat their fish and chips walking along, but when it was cold they didn’t really have anywhere to sit and eat, but now they do. We used to be quite seasonal and now I do a really good trade in the winter. For me, it’s better to be busy all year round as it’s much easier to staff; we haven’t got to worry about losing staff over the summer. It also means all that training isn’t lost and we get a higher customer service rate too.
Did you have to invest in extra staff training?
Yes, that’s a must as you can’t just chuck food at people in a restaurant. We do it all internally and we have a customer service book that all members of staff must follow so they know how to welcome customers, serve their food, ask if there’s anything else they can get them and so on. Now, of course, the staff get tips if they do a good job so that drives them too. We also have regular mystery shops to make sure everyone is doing a good job and to highlight any areas we could improve upon.
Would you recommend other takeaways add seating if they have the space available?
I definitely think there’s a shift towards people wanting to eat fish and chips in. But then I’m in a tourist area and I was begging for more room. It’s different if you’re in a busy city. I did open another shop in a city and although it was busy no one wanted to sit in, so don’t assume just because you’ve got the space that you should convert it.
Finally, last summer you opened Harbourside Gluten Free just a few doors down, how’s that working out?
Really well and we’re getting a lot of positives from coeliacs. I just can’t offer gluten free at Harbourside as the takeaway is too small. But here, there are no gluten containing products whatsoever so there’s simply no chance of cross-contamination. To be able to offer that extra service to my customers and be safe in the knowledge that we are doing it correctly and safely is fantastic.