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The main man

Updated: Mar 8, 2019

He’s one of the most respected operators in the industry and his restaurant is arguably among the best in the business. We speak to Richard Ord as he celebrates 50 years behind the range at Colmans in South Shields, Tyne and Wear, about the changes he’s seen, why he thinks fish and chips taste better now than they did back then and what’s stopping him from retiring

He had the option of taking up any career he wished to but, perhaps not surprisingly, Richard did just as the three generations that came before him did and joined the family business, Colmans, in 1969.

Living above the restaurant and takeaway, which opened on Ocean Road in 1926, Richard was naturally involved in the business from the moment he can remember and describes fish and chips as being “in his blood”.

“I was 15 years old when I started at Colmans and when I say started I mean at the bottom, learning the trade so to speak,” Richard recalls. “I remember starting with fish preparation. We got our fish directly off North Shield’s fish quay in those days so a lot of it had to be filleted and boned and there were lots of varieties back then. We sold six or eight different types, I remember we had what we called sweet William - known now as dogfish - skate, coley and whiting as well as your cod, haddock, plaice and sole.”

Richard may have been the boss’s son but there was certainly no favouritism and he was taught a strong work ethic, taking in shifts that started at 11 in the morning and finished at 12 at night, seven days a week through the summer season. Fast forward 50 years and that’s all changed, as Richard explains: “As we got busier and busier, I found the need not to open late in the evenings, so we gradually moved our closing time from 12 to 10, then to eight and now we finish at seven. I must add, when I was younger, the evening trade was terrific but it’s no longer the case now. The peak period now is teatime, that’s when we’re exceptionally busy. It’s actually a good lifestyle change as we’re doing more in shorter opening hours and it’s great for staff recruitment that they don’t have to work late hours.”

High standards

Putting in the hours and working his way up, Richard grew to love the business and the fish and chip industry more and more and, even after 50 years, still has the same passion. “If anything I love it more now," he comments. "Fish and chips has just got better and better. Standards are higher than they’ve ever been and the quality of fish and chips is better now than it has ever been, too.

“We all say that in the good old days the quality was better and that things tasted better but, take it from me, fish and chips have never been as good as they are now. I think the quality of potatoes is much higher now while the onset of frozen at sea fish meant the quality and consistency of fish improved and could be controlled. In the old days, the fishing trawlers would go out for weeks on end, so fresh fish wasn’t always as fresh as it was perceived. We’ve also seen a massive change in terms of the equipment we use. Frying ranges are so much more sophisticated and more efficient now. This has been a big advancement for the industry, making a huge difference in terms of the quality of the end product.

“And that’s what’s really important going forward; that everybody keeps standards high for each other because what we sell reflects on everybody else in the industry.”

“We all say that in the good old days the quality was better and that things tasted better but, take it from me, fish and chips have never been as good as they are now."

Those aren’t the only changes Richard has witnessed over the years. Back when he started, fish and chips cost just 10p, customers would regularly come in and swap newspapers - which Colmans would use to wrap its food - for chips, and there was only one other takeaway on Ocean Road, a Chinese.

“Fifty years ago, there was no Burger King, no Kentucky Fried Chicken or McDonald’s, not even any kebab or pizza shops,” explains Richard. “Now we have four fish and chip shops and about 30 food outlets within 200 yards in either direction. The competition is huge and it’s why we’ve got to be on top of our game now.”

Open door policy

With an open door policy, a willingness to pass on his knowledge and a keenness to help others, Richard has become not just a great friend to many in the industry but also an inspiration. Naturally, Richard had heroes of his own growing up, one of which was Harry Ramsden’s and he remembers regularly going down to the original shop in Guiseley to take a look at what they were doing. It’s something he advises operators today to do, adding: “If anyone wants to know how to improve, they have to get out there and look around. There are many great operators in our industry who are more than happy to show people around. We do it here, our door is always open and we enjoy doing it.”

And while many see Richard as a leader, he too sees that in others, naming his good friend Fred Capel of Chez Fred in Bournemouth, the Fusco family, which owns several takeaways and restaurants in Whitby, as well as the Murphys who have the growing Wetherby Whaler chain, as people he admires, looks up to and even still learns a thing or two from.

“I’m proud of them all,” comments Richard. “I’m proud of the industry as a whole right now. There are lots of shops coming up that are looking fantastic and people are investing in the industry. Back in my early days, people would open a fish and chip shop in their front room with a net curtain up. And that’s the impression people had of fish and chips; a cheap meal that anyone could do. We’re changing that perception now and people are realising it takes skill to produce good quality fish and chips and seeing that it’s no longer a cheap meal. What we need to remember is that we’re still the only one on the high street that sells a wild product. None of our food is processed, it’s a natural product.”

Given all the challenges the industry has been through in Richard’s time - he remembers the summer of 1974 particularly well when potato prices were the equivalent of nearly £40 a bag in today's money - what is it that has kept Colmans at the forefront and, more importantly, seen it grow?

“Quality in both service and our product, that’s what’s seen us through,” states Richard. “And it always will do, along with constantly looking at how we can improve our operation so that we never stand still.”

With the opening of Colmans Seafood Temple on South Shields sea front two years ago, Richard certainly can't be accused of standing still. A modern seafood restaurant that serves fish and chips, not only is the new venture proving a huge success but it’s also provided careers to Richard’s two sons, Richard Jnr and Dominic, ensuring a fifth generation continues the family tradition.

Richard adds: “Handing over the reigns was extremely difficult, but both Richard and Dominic have served their time at Ocean Road. They are absolutely passionate about the industry, which is terrific, and there’s no better feeling than seeing your sons in the business. My wife Frances and I are delighted, it really is a good feeling knowing it’s going onto the next generation.”

So is this a hint that we’ll be seeing Richard retiring any time soon? Absolutely not. “I‘ll never retire,” he remarks. “I wouldn’t know what to do if I wasn’t coming down to Colmans every day. It’s been mine and Frances’s life for as long as we can both remember. I’m delighted and very proud not just of Colmans but of the fish and chip industry. It’s provided us with a good standard of living and I can’t see a day when I won’t be doing this.”

“Colmans has long since been recognised as one of the best, if not the best, fish and chip shop in the UK and The Seafood Temple has helped propel the industry to another level. Richard always has time for people who visit him and his hospitality and generosity are second to none. Congratulations on 50 amazing years, you really are an exceptional person.”

Paul Williams, managing director, KFE

“Richard is a big character, a great ambassador for the fish and chip industry and he always has some words of wisdom. Many congratulations on your 50th year in business.”

Stuart Fusco, Quayside, Whitby

“For me, there is nothing more impressive than a shop which has delivered the very highest standards of food, service and hospitality year in, year out, decade in, decade out, for the best part of 50 years. Richard and his wonderful family have achieved this at Colmans - an institution rightly feted as the best in the country.”

Fred Capel, Chez Fred, Bournemouth

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