Trenchers is a must-visit for the thousands of tourists - and locals - that flock to Whitby throughout the year. General manager Andrew Wilkinson talks expansion, working smarter and staff recruitment
How long have you worked at Trenchers for?
I started when I was 13, which is about 26 years ago now. I left when I was 18 - it was the summer that Trenchers had a fire and the whole place burnt down - and went to university before going into hotels, pubs and restaurants and then banking. I came back about ten years ago and I’ve been the manager for the past nine years.
Has Trenchers changed much in your time?
Yes and no. The footprint of the building is the same now as it was 20 years ago - although the original building was a quarter of this size initially. The takeaway is relatively new; that opened when I took over as general manager 10 years ago. It’s taken a long time to get it to where it is now, but it does really well and the standard of food matches that of the restaurant, which is important to us. Our fish and chips are essentially still the same, the way we do everything in-house is still the same, the batter is the same, even the fish supplier is still the same. We’ve tried to maintain the high standards that the owners set out and just be on top of absolutely everything. I’m hoping that one day we might expand even more. I think another 40-50 seats would be nice. We could go upstairs and maybe outsource the prep off-site. I’ve been speaking to a few shops that are doing that now and, rightly so, because this is where we make our money, in the restaurant!
Does trade still vary across the year?
It used to. In fact, we used to close the first week in November and reopen on Mother’s day in March. But now the customers are banging the door down. Obviously, trade peaks in summer and drops in winter, we might do half our summer trade in winter, but it’s still very good and more than worth being open. But that’s Whitby as a whole, not just Trenchers. It’s become more and more popular as a destination all year round.
Do you change the menu very much?
It can be hard to integrate new ideas, so we’ve got our core and we change the things outside of that. We look at what is and what isn’t selling using the tills and the figures and if something hasn’t worked over the year, we review it.
Are you constantly assessing the figures?
Yes, we work with a gross profit margin, as opposed to a cash margin, and each menu item needs to hit that GP. If it doesn’t because it’s too expensive then we just won’t put it on. We don’t want things making the menu expensive. So we have a ceiling and it’s important to stick within those margins.
Is it getting harder to stick to your margins?
The margins are definitely lower than they used to be, but we certainly don’t want to sacrifice quality, I’m not going to start looking at cheaper products. If I can get the same product cheaper elsewhere, brilliant, that’s part of my job. The other thing I won’t sacrifice is portion size.
What do you do then?
We set our menu prices for the whole year so, take fish for example. We use mainly wet fish and the price can drastically change. At the moment we are paying £9 a kilo for haddock, other times we might be paying £6. So we set our prices somewhere in the middle to absorb any increases. If at the end of the year, we can see the cost of fish is higher than expected then we do have to look at prices.
What’s your biggest challenge at the moment?
Getting staff is a real challenge, especially with more and more places opening in Whitby, because it’s not a big town. We have about 13,000 people living here and the population of Whitby on a weekend in August is a lot more than that! So we are competing for the same staff sometimes. What I would say is that we don’t struggle with staff retention. Once we get the right people, we look after them and train them so they stay here a long time.
Trenchers opened in Spanish City in Whitley Bay last year. How's that doing?
It’s busy. It’s not Whitby, but it’s doing well and it’s a beautiful venue. It’s been interesting for the owners to see what goes into it too. I think they can see that when you have a venue like this, where the main focus is quality and customer service, you can’t get too big too quickly, so maybe the second one will slow any thoughts of a third, fourth or fifth down.
But there could be another Trenchers opening?
I think there probably will be a third, I’m not sure when, but we’ve got to make sure everything is right before we do.
How have you seen the fish and chips scene in Whitby change?
There are certainly more fish and chip shops than there were when I came back 10 years ago. But I think they’ve all got a lot better because competition drives you on and makes you better. If you don’t improve, you get left behind, especially in a place as competitive as Whitby. I honestly can’t think of any bad shops. Everyone does a good job and that helps make Whitby what it is.
With several new openings recently and another in the pipeline, do you think Whitby has reached capacity now in terms of fish and chip shops?
I think so, but saying that Whitby is very, very busy and there will be a queue outside here, a queue outside Magpie and one outside Quayside every day during the summer.
Does the amount of competition worry you?
If there weren’t the people in Whitby then I would be worried, but the numbers coming here seem to be going up and up. Our restaurant is pretty much full all day, every day during the summer and you can’t get any busier than full. That’s when the takeaway comes into its own. Overall, we’re up 10% this year, which isn’t abnormal, but we were up the year before so it’s been the icing on the cake.
How do you improve on those figures?
You’ve got to be innovative I think and work smarter. Having the right people in the right places is very important in keeping costs down and getting money through the door. Our waiting staff and frying staff are key members of the team, they have been with us for a long time and they get better at their jobs every year. I think people forget how important it is for them to be so good at their jobs as they are the ones that get customers through the door that little bit quicker, and we need that level of turnover as there are always customers waiting. Giving them the right tools to work with is also important. We’ve given our staff tablet ordering systems that print all the orders off. I think that’s saved 20% of their time running around the restaurant taking orders. Having the right menu is important too as the wrong menu can slow you down. So making sure everything is as efficient as it can be is where we try and get better each year.
Will you offer click and collect or delivery?
I would like a piece of the delivery side of things but, without sounding arrogant, the customers are there in front of us, so at the moment we want to concentrate on the ones that are coming to us and queuing. Plus, doing delivery this time of year would be virtually impossible.