Mitch Tonks has weathered the storm of the demise of his Fishworks chain to open Rockfish, his popular seaside seafood chain. Lisa Jenkins hears how the fisherman and restaurateur has plans for more Rockfish restaurants by the sea
Seafood chef and restaurateur Mitch Tonks has reached a point in what has been something of a rollercoaster career where he is happy to sit back and focus on the success of the up-and-coming staff in his business, having been supported along the way by a number of influential industry heavyweights.
Now aged 52, he has come a long way from first venturing into the world of food at the age of 27, when he swapped his accountancy job in London for a fishmongers in Bath, before launching the Green Street Seafood Café in the city. Food, and seafood in particular, had been a passion from an early age, having spent childhood holidays by the sea in Dartmouth, combined with inspiration engendered in him by his grandmother's cooking of eels and pig's heads for brawn and baking of bread.
In the intervening years Tonks built up a major business through the creation of the Fishworks chain of restaurants, for which he was recognised through a handful of awards (including Tatler Restaurateur of the Year 2006). Then, having floated the company on the AIM Market at the London Stock Exchange and taken on some ill-advised investment advice, the company collapsed into administration in 2009. As Tonks says, "I wasn't just looking out over the cliff – I was off it."
Having learned from the mistakes he made along the way – opening too many restaurants at once and losing sight of the original independent model – he has gone on to create a group with more stable foundations that has now flourished and grown to a portfolio of seven sites and the Seahorse, over the past 10 years, with more on the way.
At the Seahorse, Tonks is preparing for the future by propelling his young team to the forefront, handing over the reins to head chef Jake Bridgwood, sous chefs Matthew Redcliff and Ben Tonks, and two protegés, Joe Hopkins and Harry Stokes. Tonks' daughter Isabel works front of house.
Friends in high places
The stability of the company today, which Tonks has grown for the next generation with chef Mat Prowse now supporting him in an operational role, has a lot to do with the key individuals from the wider industry who have guided them along the way. After hearing John Barnes, former chairman of La Tasca and Harry Ramsden, speak at an industry conference about "breaking the chains", Tonks invited him to get involved in his restaurant, although it initially took some persuasion. "Eventually, he came down for supper at Rockfish Dartmouth, and loved the model," explains Tonks.
Barnes invested in the company and joined the board, as did Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of casual dining chain Leon, and long-term supporter Stephen Leadbeater, former chief financial officer at Young's Seafood, as well as The Times' restaurant critic Giles Coren.
The latest addition to the board is Will Beckett, co-owner of the Hawksmoor Group, who joined as chair in 2016. Tonks had been working with Hawksmoor as a consultant, sought out by Beckett to provide advice on the Hawksmoor's fish and seafood dishes. "I asked Will if he knew anyone who might like to be chair of our board, and he wondered if we'd like him," says Tonks.
"He's an awesome force and we started to benefit from his entrepreneurship straight away. He really helped me define my goals and set out our long-term plan. Will brings my ambition out. We talk about where the business is going, what we're doing – he's a sounding board. But he also keeps the pressure on and reminds me to keep thinking like a big business with the right longterm systems, people and environmental policy. He has extraordinary leadership skills and has taught me to build something at scale with integrity."
Rockfish catches the tide
The Rockfish group of restaurants started in 2010 as an evolution of the Fishworks chain: a casual type of beach hut where customers could eat in or take away traditional fish and chip shop food, but with a particular chef focus: oysters were available by the half-dozen, along with roast scallops, langoustine and fritto misto – as well as the traditional deep-fried haddock or cod with unlimited chips and homemade tartare sauce.
"Rockfish has been a series of developments," says Tonks. "We've evolved. We design our own tablecloths [paper ones with the menu printed on them], we introduced kid's packs early on and our takeaway restaurants have a completely gluten-free menu."
Tonks now describes his role in the company as the visionary, concentrating on food, service and ingredients, whereas Prowse spends his time developing systems and new projects – the latest being Rockfish Poole, planned to open on 1 February 2020, and another branch in Sidmouth, with an opening date yet to be announced.
"Mat's organisation skills are amazing and come from his classical chef training. He doesn't have an ego and works incredibly hard. I trust him implicitly and he is literally my right arm," says Tonks.
In the same boat
Tonks' background as a fishmonger has given him a perspective on the value of seafood and fisherman to his business, and he has invested in a fishing boat with Nick Fisher and Jamie McDonald and skipper Nick Rich, in order to supply his own sites. "We have the best seafood in the country on our coastline," he declares.
"I'm a genuine enthusiast, and sometimes our fishermen get a really hard time [about discards and unfair quotas] – unfairly in my opinion. They are at the forefront of sustainability issues and we're incredibly lucky to have them. We should be proud of them and bang the drum."
"Nick shares our ethos when it comes to quality and sustainability. I think there is something unique and wonderful about fish restaurants working directly with fishermen."
Sustainability is a watchword for the group, and at the Seahorse, where there is more flexibility with menus, the dishes that are served are often what his fishermen supply.
"We take everything at the Seahorse that's landed: small dabs, gurnards, lesser-spotted dogfish. Our chefs have to work with what is delivered," he says.
"It infuriates me when I see London restaurants stating they've got line-caught bass on the menu. It just can't be line-caught, and consumers don't understand that. I've had a supplier trying to sell me hand-dived scallops and they most definitely were not. I've seen it all."
Tonks has big plans for the Rockfish group: to open one new Rockfish every year, and maybe a seafood shack-style eatery too. He is looking at taking the brand elsewhere in the country, to Cornwall, south Wales and up to the northeast. Along with this he has ambitions to own a small mussel farm, to have a few more boats for line fishing and maybe establish a connection with local scallop producers.
"We'd like 20-30 restaurants over time, but only if we don't have to start compromising," he says. "We all want to build a business we can be proud of, where we create jobs in the towns that we're in. The restaurants make a difference to the regeneration of the local community, and once they have, other operators will follow. Just like they did in Padstow with Rick Stein."
5 South Embankment, Dartmouth TQ6 9BH
8 South Embankment, Dartmouth TQ6 9BH
Sutton Harbour, 3 Rope Walk, Plymouth PL4 0LB
20 Victoria Parade, Torquay TQ1 2BB
Brixham Fish Market, Brixham TQ5 8AW
Opened April 2015
Pier Head, Exmouth EX8 1DU
Opened December 2016
9 Piazza Terracina, Haven Road, Exeter EX2 8GT
Opened March 2019
48-49 The Esplanade, Weymouth DT4 8DQ
Opened August 2019
The Quay, Poole BH15 1HJ
Opening February 2020
Rockfish reported £500,000 in group earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) for the 2018/19 financial year. The figure is a slight decrease compared to £600,000 from the previous year and is despite the group seeing restaurant EBITDA increase from £1.35m to £1.40m, due to higher central costs. The group also reported an increase in sales from £6.9m to £7.95m.
David Strauss was appointed restaurant director, the business was refinanced and Rockfish during this period secured investment from asset management firm Gresham House Ventures to fund its aspiration to hit 16 sites.
Tonks says: "2018/19 was a real turning point for our business. We saw some tremendous like-for-like sales, opened one restaurant, but also paused to consider what was going on in the wider industry and economy, and focused on strengthening our senior team and building the pipeline for the future."
Will Beckett, chairman of Rockfish and chief executive of Hawksmoor, says: "Rockfish continues to amaze me – it's such a special business, consistently opening wonderful restaurants while also contributing to the local economy in areas most restaurateurs have never visited, let alone considered opening in, and to the local fishing industry.
"Mitch and his team have a wonderful blend of ambition and pragmatism that I think will serve Rockfish well for many years to come."
From the menu
- Carabineros carpaccio with Ibérian lardo and fennel £15
- Txangurro, a baked crab dish with sherry and brandy from the Basque region £14
- Suckling pig ravioli with sage butter £12
- Tagliolini with Alba truffle £30
- Whole Dover sole with rosemary and olive oil £42
- Spaghetti con fritti di mare £28
- Cacciucco, a rich seafood stew from Livorno made with our local seafood £28
- Zabaglione with walnut meringue and Valrhona chocolate £6.50
- Crostata di Mandorle, almond tart with Valrhona chocolate and apricot £7
- Wild prawn carpaccio £9.95
- Caesar salad with sardine ‘boquerones' £7.95
- Brown and Forrest smoked salmon with honey, mustard and dill dressing £8.95
- Line-caught haddock, served with unlimited fresh-cut chips and tartare sauce £15.95
- Galician cheesecake £6.50
- Chocolate, caramel and popcorn £6.95
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