As the Fusco family marks 50 years operating in Whitby, third generation frier Stuart Fusco talks about how far the business has come now that it has four restaurants and takeaways plus a mobile unit
It’s been half a century since your family purchased its first restaurant in Whitby, Royal Fisheries, so what are your earliest memories of the business?
My earliest memories are being at Royal Fisheries before it opened, watching my dad cut fish and helping him set up, stacking the pop shelves and putting stock away. I would have been three or four, so about 37 or 38 years ago. I remember my mum used to work Saturday lunchtimes so I used to play out the back. It was quite fun.
How has the business grown since then?
It's grown considerably. It really started when I left uni and decided to come into the business. At the time, my dad was full time and he employed another full-time guy, so there weren’t enough hours for myself. My dad made the decision to buy another shop but there wasn’t really much available and so, a bit reluctantly, in 1999, he went for Quayside. It was a lot of money and it was a big jump, increasing the size of the business 100% overnight. Sadly, in 2006, my dad died and it was a case of me and my mum getting our heads down and running the two businesses for a couple of years. My brother Raymond then became old enough to come into the business and, about the same time, so did our other brother Adrian. As we increased in numbers, it gave us the opportunity to expand. In 2013 a site in Whitby came up for sale which I’d earmarked as a good site for some time, so we bought that and opened the first Fish Box. Since then we’ve opened another one just outside Whitby in Robin Hood’s Bay.
How do the three business work together in Whitby?
They actually work really well because they appeal to different markets. Royal Fisheries is predominately a locals’ shop whereas Quayside, although it’s only a five-minute walk away, it’s predominately tourists. The Fish Box caters for a different market again, it’s a bit more transient as it’s an express set up, so people eat and go.
You were never tempted to bring them all together under one brand?
No, we’ve always kept them separate mainly because when you’re in the same town and only five minutes apart it would have given a negative impression, I think. Although a lot of the locals know we own all three, they do have different identities. Quayside and Royal Fisheries are one-offs and very hard to replicate, whereas when we opened Fish Box we knew that we were creating something that would travel to other places, so if we do open up more it’s likely they will come under that brand.
Are there any shops that you would like to buy in Whitby if they came up?
There are one or two we’ve said we might be interested in but, at the same time, we’ve probably saturated Whitby now. The locations we have got are all great, so we’re probably best leaving them alone.
How is your relationship with the other fish and chip shops in Whitby?
Because we’ve lived in Whitby all our lives we know most of them well enough to have a good chat to. A few of the smaller ones we don’t know, but it’s mainly locals that have always had the shops and so they’ve been passed down the generations. There’s a friendly rivalry, I would say!
How do you succeed in such a saturated market?
Whitby is so competitive - there are about 12 or 13 shops within a square mile - and we’ve got a lot of very well-known shops in amongst them - The Magpie, Trencher’s, The Fisherman’s Wife. It’s actually hard to get bad fish and chips in Whitby because it’s such an aggressive market it forces everyone to raise their game and be good all the time. So we are slightly OCD about getting everything absolutely right every time. We spent a lot of time getting the product right and trying to be consistent. Our batter, for example, we used to make our own and it was okay if you had someone experienced making it, but if other people made it there were times when it wasn’t quite right. We then moved to a batter mix but were never quite happy with it. Eventually, we had our own bespoke one made and we use it everywhere now and it works really well.
What has changed and what has stayed the same over the last 50 years?
Essentially our product has stayed pretty much the same, albeit just a few tweaks. It’s everything around it that has changed - computerised tills, handheld order pads, uniforms and general food hygiene and safety. I was looking at some old photos from 2001 - the first year I entered Young Fish Frier of the Year - and I’m working in a t-shirt and no hat, it was the way it was done then. Now, we’re in chefs whites, we’ve got hats and the correct shoes, not just trainers. The whole industry has got a lot more professional. Frying ranges too have changed dramatically. I remember the range we had at Royal Fisheries didn’t have a temperature gauge at all, the gas was either on or off and you would flick a bit of batter in and if it sizzled you would put your fish in, then your chips to cool it down before it basically caught fire! Nowadays I don’t think you could physically get the pans that hot!
What has been the biggest challenges the business has faced?
My dad passing away put a big hold on everything we did. He would do 70-80 hours a week in the shop and do all the fish buying, the potato buying and the fish cutting, so it was a big learning curve for me as I’d never done it all on my own. He would be loving it now, especially with all the family in the business. On a day-to-day basis, I would say our main challenge is staffing - trying to get the numbers never mind the quality - but I think that’s across the board, it’s not just in our industry.
What’s had the biggest influence on the business?
I think for us it was entering Drywite Young Fish Frier of the Year and Fish and Chip Shop of the Year. With Quayside being very touristy, we’re appealing to a market that doesn’t live in the same town, so the nationwide PR it generated when we won was great for getting our message as far as possible.
Who do you take inspiration from?
In our industry, there are lots of good operators. Rockfish are doing really well in the south and Fish’n’ Chick’n, although we don’t hear too much about them, are doing great business, and people like Fred Capel and Richard Ord have always got something to say, whether it’s telling you what you’re doing right or what you’re doing wrong. But if there was one business, it would be McDonald’s, which I know is a bit controversial, but it’s a step ahead of everyone. Take the staffing issue, it has already thought of that and has brought in apps and TV ordering screens which means it can cut down on the number of staff it needs and avoid training as many. There are lots of elements from that business that I think we can take and use in our industry.
As one of Whitby's longest established businesses what has been the key to your longevity at that local level?
Being consistent and consistently being at a good level. Whether it’s locals or tourists returning year after year, people want the reassurance that they are going to get the same quality product every single time.
What do the next 50 years have in store?
We’re just opening a central prep unit which will do all the chips and all the fish for all the shops, and our offices will be there too. It’s on the outside of town, about two miles from the shops. At the moment the chips for Fish Box are done at Royal Fisheries and we struggle for space. So this will not only alleviate that issue, but it will also give us the opportunity to expand, which we are keen to do.
We’re also working on the top floor of Quayside, which has never been used. When it’s finished it will seat another 80 and we can have functions up there too. It’s got great views of the harbour, Whitby Abbey and out to sea.