With a 2012 National Fish and Chip Award all wrapped up, family-run chain Seniors is pushing ahead with plans for expansion. Managing director Alastair Horabin talks to Rosalind Mullen
Need to know
Lancashire firm Seniors is a family-run fish and chips chain. It was launched in 2000 by Alastair Horabin's father, Richard, a self-employed fish merchant of 30 years who moved into the fish and chip business with the purchase of the original Seniors in Blackpool.
He used "external finance" to buy the take-away shop, which had been trading since 1923. It already had a good reputation and was turning over £4,000 a week, but needed some love and attention.
Richard revamped the layout and menu and retrained the staff. He spent £50,000 on refurbishment and added a 65-seat restaurant.
By 2006, he had added a purpose-built shop in Thornton, with 100 seats, plus a take-away operation. This was followed by the 50-seat Seniors Lytham St Anne's in 2009.
In the past three years the business has consolidated. Richard is planning for retirement and his son Alastair, 27, now runs the company, while other son Dominic, 22, is a director.
This fledgling chain specialises in take-away fish and chips, although it also offers pies and sausages as well as grilled and baked fish. Each shop also has a relaxed, upmarket seating area, which Alastair describes as "not traditional or old hat". The market is quite simply people who love fish and chips, but customers aged 18-35 and families are where the Horabins anticipate growth. Price-wise, the aim for the take-away menu is to compete with the likes of McDonald's and KFC.
Why customers choose it
The price-point is crucial. Alastair works around the £5 mark for the average fish and chips take-away order, which includes a side order such as mushy peas or fruity curry sauce. He always has half an eye on the recession so the most expensive fish - sea bass and chips - is still only £6.50 on the restaurant menu, with an extra £1.50 to "go large" on any fish.
The menu offers sustainably-sourced fish. When the business started they offered 13 varieties, but because of restrictions in the fishing industry they have reduced that to five varieties daily, including haddock, sea bass and cod, plus specials such as John Dory, red snapper and brahma brahma. The fish comes from Fleetwood Docks. Cod and haddock are caught in working boats in the seas around Russia, Iceland and Norway and frozen at sea - Alastair maintains frozen fish is better quality than fresh.
In addition, the three diners are fully licensed and restaurant customers can order house wines, Boddingtons beer and lager, and round off their meal with a locally made ice-cream from Moo2You (£1.80 for one scoop) or a warm dessert supplied by Lathams of Broughton (£1.95).
Bolstered by the success of their three existing diners and the recent National Fish and Chip Award, the Horabins plan to open a fourth take-away diner in a former HSBC bank in Bispham this August. It marks an evolution in the business and Alastair describes this new site as comparable to a Subway or Pret A Manger in style.
The plan is to keep expanding just over every two years. "We'll start to go more aggressively, without taking the focus from the family," Alastair says. "The aim is to expand close to the M27 in sustainable residential areas."
Besides word of mouth, marketing is mostly done through the website, www.thinkseniors.com. For the past year Alastair has worked with PR and marketing team The Rabbit Patch to rebrand the website, which will go live when Bispham opens.
Alastair recognises that although he has won a national award, he needs to keep moving to meet the challenges of the burgeoning take-away market. The aim now is to put more emphasis on other menu items such as the locally made pies, puddings and sausages, which he stresses have a high meat content.
"We are trying to promote other menu offerings. We want to make people aware that we also serve good-quality sausages with 80% pork. We have a good baker supplying pies made of the best steak and chicken, and we have hand-made desserts. We want people to know that it's not just our fish and chips that are good quality."
Alastair spends a lot of time in the car driving between the three present sites. Each site has one restaurant manager and one take-away manager with two assistants. Managers are typically long-serving and have worked their way up within the company.
Alastair's brother, Dominic, is increasingly taking on more responsibility. Even so, Alastair himself works six or seven shifts a week across the three shops and can always be found frying on a Friday. "I enjoy it more than the paperwork side," he says.
Spotlight on the National Fish and Chip Awards
Fish and chips is not recession-proof, but according to Alastair it's still a tradition on a Friday in the North.
Nevertheless, his career to date has been a baptism of fire. Having worked his way through the ranks from the bottom, he was starting to take more responsibility for the family business at about the time the recession hit.
The business bottomed out with the recession, but hard work, driven by the family addiction to fish and an ambition to win the National Fish & Chip Awards, boosted standards and trade.
It culminated earlier this year when Seniors Thornton won the awards' 2012 Independent Takeaway Fish and Chip Shop of the Year title. The Horabins had been aiming for this for the past 10 years, having been a top 10 finalist in 2006 and taking third place in 2011.
"We're obsessed with quality. We worked a decade to win this award," Alastair says.
In today's tough market, the fish and chip sector is competing with a huge variety of take-away food outlets, so awards such as this help to generate positive publicity as well as motivating staff.
Alastair believes the current fish and chip champion status is helping him to grow the business and reckons it has already contributed to a 10% rise in sales during the economic difficulties. Pre-recession winners of the award have been cited as seeing a rise of up to 100% in turnover, but Alastair is realistic and adds that being a runner-up in previous years had already lifted sales: "I'm overjoyed at 10% - it reverses the UK trend."
Facts and stats
Average spend £4.75 for take-away fish and chips;
Annual turnover £1.5m
Plans to have five shops in the next two-and-a-half years
Wage bill £500k