It’s 8pm in Euxton, Lancashire, and fish and chip shop owner Andrew Crook is gearing up for a busy Friday. But rather than the usual queue of hungry locals after battered cod, mushy peas and maybe a chip barm (or butty, for southerners), the pavement outside remains deserted.
Instead, a steady stream of cars pull up, ready for one of the employees of Skippers of Euxton to pop open the boot, place their order and wave them on their way. Step aside, McDonald’s drive thru, the age of the drive-by fish and chippy has arrived – and this is only one of the innovative ways in which fish and chip shops have remained open to feed a nation stuck at home and bored of cooking.
The National Federation of Fish Friers has estimated that of the 10,500 fish and chip shops in the UK, nearly 80 per cent are open for takeaway, with many investing in new technology and delivery services to abide by social distancing rules.
As a result, fish and chips has soared to the top of the takeaway leaderboard, with delivery platform Foodhub recording an increase in fish and chip orders of 208 per cent since lockdown began. Indian and Chinese have, by comparison, fallen from the top 10 most popular options, replaced by garlic bread, chicken nuggets and – another British staple – sausage and chips.
“It’s a food that’s seen us through two world wars, so it’s no surprise to us that as soon as we opened, people flooded back,” says Crook, president of the NFFF and a fish fryer of 20 years. Fish and chips was one of the few foods not to be rationed throughout the wars – a testament to our undying love of the high-street stalwart.
Despite its clear popularity, the fish and chip industry is one that has fallen behind competing takeaway cuisines in recent years, with few offering click-and-collect or delivery services and many without contactless card machines. “You expect Chinese and Indian takeaways to do delivery, but this is a relatively recent development for us.”
As a result of lockdown, many shop owners have had to invest in newly designed websites, click-and-collect services and apps to allocate pick-up time slots to customers to avoid queuing and allow a steady work pace for staff.
“The time-slot app has been a real game-changer,” says Crook. “I’m getting so many messages from customers about how much they love it. We always thought it was a good thing to see a queue building outside, but this way we’re more efficient, we can guarantee the safety of staff and customers, and people love that they can pop in and out in a minute.”
Though Skippers is only trading Wednesday to Saturday for supper, opening for lunch on Friday and Saturday, it has made 90 per cent of its regular turnover. “We’re making almost the same as we usually would, operating a fraction of the hours.”
One duo has taken things a step further with its own mobile fish and chip van, catering to the surrounding villages. Ashley and Matt Phillips of Shap Chippy in the Lake District were, incidentally, in the process of modernising their business when the pandemic hit the UK. “We were extremely lucky in that we already had an app being developed for us,” says Ashley, who took over the business with Matt in July 2018, going on to come second in the National Fish and Chip Awards in 2020.
“We closed our shop for three weeks at the start of lockdown, during which we installed Perspex shields and changed the set-up of the restaurant to allow our chefs to work safely,” explains Ashley. “It was sheer luck that we had everything in place for app ordering, so we were able to open first for delivery-only, and later for click-and-collect. We’ve also been able to go cashless.”
Conveniently, the pair had a freshly painted fish and chip van waiting to be picked up in Peterborough. “We kitted it out with all the frying equipment, and started our first lot of rounds this week,” says Matt. While one operates the shop, the other will visit a different village in the “Shappy Wheels” each evening, serving a streamlined version of the shop menu that includes halloumi fritters and homemade mushy peas.
“We’ve had rounds of applause as we pull into the car park,” says Matt. “People have been taking pictures, sending us messages. It’s unbelievable. People really appreciate being given the opportunity to have a night off cooking and to come out, have a chat – at distance, of course – and enjoy some fresh, hot food. Some have even sat in the car park to eat as they couldn’t wait to drive home.”
Both Crook and the Phillips hope this may lead to permanent changes in the industry. “The majority of fish and chip shops are independent, hence why it’s so difficult to modernise as an industry,” says Ashley. “One good thing to come out of this is that businesses have to adapt to survive, and for us that’s meant taking a step into the future.”
Of course, becoming fully tech-savvy carries a risk of alienating loyal customers who lack the know-how or access to internet ordering – but Crook is well aware of this. “Last week we did take £4 in cash. It was from an old lady who only carries cash, and I wasn’t going to let her go hungry, so I let her pop it in a tub, where it’s since stayed.” Crook also delivers to another regular, an elderly lady who is self-isolating and unable to come to collect her order.
“We’re still very much a community service,” says Crook. “I know loads of fish and chip shops who have been cooking up all their surplus food and delivering it to the local hospital – we’ve been doing all sorts.” Technology aside, the humble fish and chippy, with its steaming windows, glass-chrome cabinets filled with golden battered fish and glass jars of bobbing pickled eggs, remains an institution at the heart of communities – pandemic or no pandemic.
Three more fish and chip shops going the extra mile
Rockfish, the small fish restaurant and takeaway chain run by Mitch Tonks, is selling homemade fish pies from his Brixham takeaway, alongside locally smoked haddock and asparagus. Check @therockfishuk on Instagram for details.
Hennighan’s in Machynlleth, Wales, has been operating as a takeaway in lockdown, and on VE Day provided Meals on Wheels and Cartref Dyfi care home with free fish and chips.
The Corner Plaice in Croxley Green, Watford, has been firing up its fryers to cook for homeless people. Meals are being donated to homeless charity New Hope, which is supporting 125 people sleeping rough and living in temporary accommodation.