Chips and chandeliers have combined to create a winning formula for Harry Ramsden's, which this year marks its 70th birthday. The company, born out of a wooden hut in Guiseley near Leeds, is now a 35-strong chain and expanding internationally.
The majority of Harry Ramsden's restaurants operate under a franchise agreement, and all offer the same combination of a traditional fish-and-chip supper in luxurious surroundings, complete with monogrammed carpets and stained-glass windows. It's a company boast that, were it not for the accents of the staff, a diner would have no clue from his surroundings which part of the country he was in.
Given the success Harry Ramsden's has had in replicating its operation around the UK, it is somewhat surprising that there are no "me-too" fish-and-chip chains challenging the company's leading position. It is not because there are too few players in the sector for a serious rival to emerge. According to figures from the Sea Fish Industry Authority, there are currently about 8,500 fish-and-chip shops across the UK, which makes it a sizeable market by any standards.
The vast majority of these are individual businesses operating from one location, though there are a few exceptions, where an owner may have three or four outlets. An example is the East Midlands-based company Georges Tradition, which has outlets in Belper, Chilwell and the Derby suburb of Allestree as well as a franchise operation in Istanbul.
The result of this fragmentation is that there are no big brand names to give consistency of quality to the fish-and-chip sector, and it remains very much the Cinderella of catering. Standards of food, service and shop image vary dramatically, from excellent to downright appalling. Against this background, the few individuals who do more than dole out steaming packages of soggy potato across a scuffed Formica counter stand out as sector stars.
A good example of a fish-and-chip shop which has earned a reputation far beyond the borders of its home patch is Chez Fred, in the Bournemouth suburb of Westbourne. It is jointly owned by Peter Capel and his son Fred, who is also a director of another leading fish-and-chip restaurant, Whitecaps in Barnet, noted for its pizzeria-style decor.
The 48-seater take-away and restaurant Chez Fred, which was national fish-and-chip shop of the year in 1991, has been trading successfully on its present site for nearly 10 years. In spite of the fact that Chez Fred is doing something right with its mix of comfortable, traditional decor and high-quality fish-and-chips, Peter Capel says the company now harbours no ambitions to launch a nationwide chain of restaurants, after a bruising experience with franchising in the early 1990s.
"We were in franchising with one shop in Golders Green, and we got our fingers burned and lost a lot of money," he says. "The problem is that it is very difficult to replicate a good fish-and-chip shop. It is OK with something like Kentucky Fried Chicken, because the machinery to produce the food can be automated, but you can't automate fish and chips because the fish are all different shapes."
Capel says that future expansion will be focused on developing the restaurant in Bournemouth, and possibly adding another Chez Fred take-away to the one already open in Parley Cross, near Ferndown in Dorset. Chez Fred has already acquired the premises next door to its Bournemouth site, and intends to add another 20 seats by year end.
Another award-winning fish-and-chip shop set for expansion on home turf rather than in new locations is Olley's Traditional Fish and Chips in the London suburb of Herne Hill. At present, the shop, voted 1997 Greater London winner in the national fish-and-chip shop of the year competition, only operates as a take-away. However, owner Harry Niazi has won planning consent to add a 35-seat restaurant next door. To be decorated in the distinctive Olley's style, complete with jade tiles and rustic beams, it is expected to open in September.
Though Olley's has been trading from its current position for 11 years, it was only four years ago that the shop was refurbished into its current look. Niazi says the change in decor did not result in an overnight increase in business. That has happened steadily as word got around that Olley's offered something different.
"You have to change and look at innovative ideas," he says. "People like how we look and say that the shop is like a boutique, but the most important thing is the product, and that is why customers come."
Niazi agrees with Capel that expansion by adding more shops is difficult, given the nature of the product. "Unfortunately," he says, "right through the country, fish and chips taste different, and it's a shame that there are some fish-and-chip shops out there that don't do the industry justice."
Richard Taylor, Harry Ramsden's finance director and chief executive, international, maintains that, despite the views of Capel and Niazi, the company has been able to "systemise" the service of fish and chips, though rivals suggest that the company still has difficulties guaranteeing consistent quality throughout its network. Taylor says the success of Harry Ramsden's has encouraged individual operators to improve standards.
He says: "What we have done - and this is what other people have said to us - is we have given something to aim for as a standard. People can say, ‘We are better, or not as good as, Harry Ramsden's.' I think we have given fish and chips back a bit of the respect it probably deserved."
However, Taylor says there are still a lot of fish-and-chip shops in business that appear to ignore the fundamental principles of retailing. "There are obvious things," he says, "like making sure the shop is brightly lit and clean but, for some reason, some fish-and-chip shops don't bother. They don't look at things with the customer's eyes, and they don't realise that by making the shop smart and attractive, provided it is in the right location, they could improve their business."
The view that those companies seeking to offer a high-quality product are let down by the vast rump of one-man-bands is echoed by Georges Tradition owner Andrew Constantine. He says: "We are up against the small independents who are happy to make a couple of hundred quid a week from their fish-and-chip shop."
Constantine adds that, when faced with competition from a rival seeking to offer a high-quality product, the one-man-bands fight back by dropping their prices and increasing their portion sizes, to attract customers. He admits that this tactic is difficult to combat. "We may have the strongest image, the cleanest shops and the best-trained staff," he says. "Everything is there that should be, but there are always customers who will opt to go around the corner to get double the size of portion of chips for a lower price."
In spite of such obstacles, Constantine is confident that there is a future for companies like his, which are determined to make the service of fish and chips a respectable part of the catering industry.
As evidence, he points to the fact that the company is now able to recruit experienced catering people. "That is down to Harry Ramsden's," he says. "Because of what it's done, people can see the potential in the industry. Before, they would have said, ‘I'm not working in a fish-and-chip shop - that's disgusting'."