Robert Smith, owner of Anstruther Fish Bar in Fife, believes his is the only shop that weighs every fish prior to serving, but it’s key to maintaining a consistent product which is, in turn, what ensures this busy chippy keeps getting busier
Spanning the width of three shop fronts, Anstruther Fish Bar has quite a presence in the traditional fishing village of East Neuk in Fife. Situated immediately opposite a picturesque harbour, it’s an enviable location and one which is a hive of activity as pleasure yachts and tourist boats mix with commercial fishermen landing an array of shellfish including lobsters, crabs and prawns.
Since buying the business in September 2005, Robert and Alison Smith have built up the takeaway and 52 cover restaurant to a point where on a busy day in the height of the summer it can get through a staggering 40 stone of fish a day - equivalent to around 1,200 fish suppers. But it’s not just the summer months when business can boom, this winter has taken the pair by surprise with the shop selling 22 stone of fish in one day. “It’s unheard of this time of year,” says Robert. “I would say 15 stone is what we would normally do in the middle of January.”
So what is it that’s keeping this busy chippy chirpy? Primarily, says Robert, it’s the premium quality fish it serves - fresh Scottish haddock predominantly, along with seasonal specials such as mackerel, lemon sole and halibut and locally landed shellfish including lobster and crab.
Around 80% of Anstuther’s fish is landed at Peterhead just 100 or so miles away where it is then taken straight to a processing and filleting factory owned by Robert. “It’s what I was doing before I got into fish and chips,” he comments. “What it means for us is that we get the pick of the crop and every fish we get coming in to the shop is the same size, the same quality and the same standard. It’s been a godsend to us, especially in the days when fish was getting scarce.”
What it also ensures is that Anstruther’s customers are guaranteed the freshest possible fish and, depending on when it’s landed, that can often mean it’s in the shop ready to be fried the very same day.
As well as quality, Robert’s a stickler for consistency, adding: “There’s nothing worse than going to a place once and the food is great and the next time it’s not. We try and keep consistency at the forefront of our minds so if you buy a fish supper from me in January, you’re going to get the same fish supper in July and August.”
In order to maintain consistency, Robert buys the same top quality ingredients, even when prices continue to rise. No surprise there, it’s what you would expect of any top shop, but what you might not expect to see is every fish being weighed after it’s fried and, yes, that’s every fish, even on those busy summer days.
Aiming for a weight of 8oz, fish is taken out of the pan, loaded on to a rack which slides across the range to the server at the other end who then weighs it before placing it in the hot box.
“I think we must be the only shop in the UK that does it,” says Robert. “I know from being a fish merchant myself for 26 years that a piece of fish can look like a big piece of fish, but when you pick it up there can be no body or weight to it. You might fry it and think that looks like a nice bit of fish, put it in the hot box and sell it to someone and then they come back the next day and complain because there was nothing in it. Whereas if you weigh it, you’re getting it spot on every time.”
Also important to the growth of the business is reinvesting back in to it, and over the years Robert’s reinvented the colour scheme, changed the shopfront and designed its own marketable brand complete with a new logo and website.
Updating the frying equipment has seen two new Kiremko ranges installed, one main range, which includes a meter long fish pan, four round chip pans and a chip box, as well as a second, smaller one comprising a three basket snack pan and a meter long fish pan.
Robert’s most recent investment has been a bespoke back bar unit designed by KFE. Not only has it reorganised the space to make it more workable, but it’s also given Robert a number of new pieces of equipment, enabling Anstruther to extend its offering.
Robert comments: “Beforehand, the back wall just comprised stainless steel tables, fridges, microwaves and the till. What I’ve got now is a unit which is about five meters long by two meters high which all the equipment fits in to really neatly, and they’ve given me a four burner cooker, a stainless steel griddle for fish and burgers and a new pan, which we’ve dedicated to gluten free.
“Gluten free is something that we started doing three to four years ago, but when we were really busy we didn’t have the capacity to dedicate a pan to it. Now we can offer it every fortnight, even during the busy times.”
Further changes are in the pipeline, including an extension of the menuboard across the back wall, making way for a magnetic section which Robert plans to use to communicate important information about the business.
“It’s going to look brilliant,” says Robert. “When people are in the queue, they’ll be able to look up and read these facts about us, which we can change as we go. For example, a lot of customers think the takeaway boxes and the trays we use in the restaurant are cardboard. We need to make it more apparent that they are not cardboard, they cost us a fortune as they are fully compostable and return back to the earth in 100 days, so this is our opportunity to educate people on issues like that a little bit more.”
With Anstruther Fish Bar the first chippy in the UK to gain MSC certification, Robert remains committed to serving his customers a wide range of sustainably sourced fish and, while the main menu stays the same, there’s a range of ever-changing seasonal specials.
“At the moment we’ve got a seafood platter on which includes things like haddock, smoked haddock, monkfish, prawns and calamari,” explains Robert. “It’s proving really popular, although the lads tear their hair out sometimes as they have to cook everything separately and they can take different times to cook, but that’s the great thing about having the extra pan now as we can easily do that.”
Next on the agenda is to refurbish the restaurant, although finding time when it’s open 362 days of the year isn’t easy. “We’ll probably look at it next January and close for a week to re-invent the interior. We can’t really extend, but I might try and rearrange it a bit so we can push it to 60 covers,” concludes Robert.