The founder of Flying Fish Seafoods on why quality will always be his priority, on setting up Flying Fish at Home during the pandemic, and how James Martin crashed his website. Lisa Jenkins reports
How did you end up working in the fish industry? Was that your plan?
I didn't have a plan. I was expelled from school at 15. I was hyperactive and a bit of a handful; now I think it would be diagnosed as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. My school struggled to control me and my mum was pulling her hair out – I was a bit wild!
My uncle has a shellfish company [Lochleven Shellfish] in Fort William in Scotland, and I'd been to Fort William on childhood holidays. My mum decided to send me to him. I'm from Cirencester in Gloucestershire, so it was quite a change for me to be at sea with my uncle and cousin, fishing for razor clams and hand-dived scallops. However, I'd be packing the catch – none of the diving!
When I came back to Cirencester aged 16, I found a job at New Wave Seafood, with Tim Boyd. My brother worked there too. I was box-washing, cleaning the gutters and yard – it was hard work. My brother taught me a lot about work ethic and not taking shortcuts. I worked my way up to filleting the fish, then into buying and, eventually, I got invited to work upstairs in sales, which was a big thing – and much warmer than the factory downstairs.
This is when I started to get to know the chefs and that fuelled my passion for quality products – I always wanted to exceed their expectations. By the age of 25 I was sales manager for New Wave Seafood, but as the company diversified into a wider market, I wanted to do something on my own. A friend of mine, Gary Rawle of Westcountry Mussels in Fowey, set me up with an industrial unit in Cornwall. That's where I wanted to be, right by the source of the best fish and seafood in the world.
In July 2006, aged 26, I moved to Cornwall to establish Flying Fish Seafoods and my wife and son followed me soon after.
How did the business develop?
It was just me and a guy to help me at first, but I had a good base of customers that I'd built up and they all wanted to carry on their relationship with me.
I mostly bought from Plymouth market. I'd be up about 6am to buy the fish, collect it and drive it back to the unit. By 8am I'd be on the phone to the chefs with what I had. I'd be prepping and boxing up by 10am and then drive through the night to be with the restaurants by 6am the following morning.
I delivered twice a week, but as our client base grew, we were able to make more regular deliveries. We started out in the Cotswolds and Gloucestershire – David Everitt-Matthias at Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham was one of my first customers. He is the epitome of consistency with his dishes. He always said: "If it's not right, it's wrong", and that spurred me on to ensure I always had the best fish for him.
Chef Hywel Jones at Lucknam Park in Chippenham, Wiltshire, was the very first customer in the Flying Fish order book. And as we started to gain a reputation, we picked up Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons and grew the Oxfordshire business, then the Hand & Flowers in Marlow – this was in the early days when Tom Kerridge was starting out.
The Fat Duck and the Waterside Inn were big wins – I sweet-talked them with some of the best fish and seafood in the back of my van! When Ashley Palmer-Watts and Heston Blumenthal opened Dinner we were able to accommodate more London clients. We started to work with chefs that I'd worked with at New Wave Seafood – chefs such as Agnar Sverrisson at Texture and Ollie Dabbous, supplying them all with the freshest day-boat product, boat-to-door in 24 hours.
The Fat Duck and the Waterside Inn were big wins – I sweet-talked them with some of the best fish and seafood in the back of my van!
What impact will the Covid-19 pandemic have on restaurants in the UK?
I believe there will still be a massive demand for really good food, cooked well, by people who know what they are doing. It is so ingrained in us now in the UK. I think the industry will bounce back quickly. As soon as Paul Ainsworth – my first customer in Cornwall – opens again, I'll be there! However, there will still be customers worried about physically going into restaurants until they feel safer.
I'm convinced, though, that if the restaurants we supply continue to offer quality ingredients, the customers will come back. And I don't think the crisis will have a massive impact on fine dining. As long as chefs are chefs, they will demand high-quality fish and seafood and I don't believe buying habits will change. I'm confident we will keep all of our customers. I don't think we will lose people over price.
My feeling is that, as we come out of lockdown, we will all want to look after our suppliers more. More people have been buying direct during lockdown and have therefore experienced higher-quality products. I hope this will continue and more people buy British fish and seafood from good sources.
But, one of the challenges as restaurants do start to reopen is that everyone will be fighting for the same customers. What will happen then is that margin will be squeezed on the product. You can't put a price on quality, and if I'm squeezed too tightly on price, I won't be able to look after the fishermen, who in some cases during lockdown have had their livelihoods and stocks trashed.
If I'm squeezed too tightly on price, I won't be able to look after the fishermen, who in some cases during lockdown have had their livelihoods and stocks trashed
What do you look for in a fisherman or in your suppliers?
I only use certain people for certain things: I only buy Porthilly oysters and mussels from St Austell Bay, and salmon is from Loch Duart and halibut is Gigha halibut. Hake I only take from a couple of boats that I know are good.
Depending on the season, we try to use in-shore day boats with a small crew – "enough for need but not greed". The quality is always excellent with my smaller boat fishermen, but with the bigger boats, for example, with hake, when it's caught with a gill net it can be especially good. I use about 100 boats in the summer.
I buy online now via the markets in the south-west: Newlynn, Plymouth, Looe and Brixham. Looe is a tidal port though, so it has restricted landings. I used to buy at the ‘shout' auctions, which I miss, particularly at Brixham fish market – it kept the community together. They use a Dutch auction-style [where the price is reduced until a buyer is found] at Brixham, which in the long run is better for the fishermen to obtain the right money for their fish.
Do you have an opinion on Brexit and fishing quotas?
Brexit will only work for fishermen in the UK if UK consumers buy British fish. About 60% of our fish goes to Europe because European chefs and consumers are willing to pay more. They want it more – it's part of their daily diet. To support British fishermen, we all need to look after them. Quotas are another problem all together and very complex.
Are your customers more educated about seasonality, sustainability and quality now?
Chefs have become far more educated in the past 10 years in terms of what they are buying and where its coming from – they understand quality. Seasons are instinctive for chefs and they will match fish with seasonal vegetables: asparagus with lobster; Jersey Royals with red mullet. Fishing seasons are predominantly spring and summer, but seasonality doesn't always equate to sustainability. For instance, turbot shouldn't really be eaten in the summer as that is when it's spawning. We work closely with the Cornwall Good Seafood Guide and if everyone buys responsibly they can eat fish and seafood without a heavy heart.
If everyone buys responsibly they can eat fish and seafood without a heavy heart
Have you got any radical plans for Flying Fish Seafoods in the future?
Right now, due to the Covid-19 crisis, we are running Flying Fish from Home. We set it up about six weeks ago and James Martin – who's also a long-term customer of ours – mentioned it on This Morning on ITV. He wanted to help me support the fishermen who were struggling. We got 250,000 hits on our website in three hours – it crashed our website. So 10 of us got on the phones and took 1,000 orders in 24 hours. It's still doing well as a new service. Other than that, we will keep doing what we've always done.
After coronavirus we will continue to buy and supply the highest-quality fish and seafood and continue to speak to the chefs daily.
I'm obviously more involved in business meetings and strategy now, but we have a great team here, including David Sharland, our operations manager, Matt Eggins, general manager, Bryn Martin, finance manager, Jodey Barbery, sales manager and Harry Squires, our logistics manager. People respect what we've done and that I know my stuff. Post-lockdown, they will support us as we've always supported them.
How do you stay motivated and cope with the early mornings?
I'm in the fishing industry but also in the catering industry, so I get the best of both worlds. My passion is selling amazing seafood, but I'm also passionate about selling it to chefs who really appreciate it – and their passion for putting it on the plate. That is what gets me up every morning.
And what keeps you up at night?
My responsibility to my customers and making sure they have the best possible fish and seafood. Being a good middleman, buying it right and selling it right and making sure there are no quality issues.
Could you tell us a couple of your favourite restaurants?
I often eat at the Old Butchers in Stow-on-the-Wold, owned by Peter and Louise Robinson – they cook fabulous lobster and Pete makes the best steak tartare. I also love the Cornish Arms in Tavistock and the Beehive at White Waltham in Maidenhead.
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