UK fish and chip shop owners are scrambling to find alternative means of keeping their businesses afloat as coronavirus brings the UK restaurant economy to a near standstill.

UK's phenomenal fish & chips sector
  • There are currently some 10,500 fish and chip shops in the United Kingdom. That dramatically outnumbers fast-food outlets, including McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
  • British consumers eat some 382 million meals from fish and chip shops every year, including 167 million of just fish and chips.
  • Annual spend on fish and chips in the United Kingdom is in the region of £1.2 billion ($1.4 billion)
  • 80 percent of people visit fish and chip shops at least once a year, and 22 percent visit fish and chips shops every week

Source: National Federation of Fish Fryers

Some shops are finding it very tough, National Fish Fryers Federation President Andrew Crook told IntraFish, as the death toll in Britain passed 100 last week following the biggest single day rise. It has since more than tripled.

In addition to the closure of shops to sit-down meals, the pressure on the fish and chips sector is compounded by raw material costs. Fish prices are rising radically with the pound sterling having fallen 8 percent over the past week. Rising potato prices adds another variable cost to shop owners.

"I have to say my own shop is holding up at the moment, but I don't see that happening forever if over-70s stay at home. We are going to have to find new way of getting out to customers," Crook said.

Coronavirus is provoking fear among chips shops that they will have to cut jobs as business activity scales back. For example, owners may be forced to prioritize staff with bills to pay over students on the payroll living with parents.

Kelly Barnes, owner of the award winning Krispies fish and chip business in Devon, southwest England, made the decision to close her store on Monday fearing for the health of her 13 staff.

While working in close proximity makes social distancing all but impossible, part of her staff were already self-isolating, a factor that also weighed in the decision.

"The fish supplies aren't an issue because all our fish comes from Norway," Barnes said. "It's not the demand we can't keep up with, it's the fact that we cannot risk our staff's health."

Barnes will pay her staff on Friday. After that she expects a government program to pay 80 percent of wages.

The UK Finance Minister unveiled a £350 billion (€374.6 billion/$407.7 billion) rescue package last week for the UK economy, including £330 billion (€353.2 billion/$384.4 billion) in loans and £20 billion (€21.4 billion/$23.3 billion) in other aid.

While grants of £10,000 (€10,703/$11,648) for 700,000 companies getting small business rate relief are available, loans are not best option to fish and chip shop industry, Crook said.

Regardless of the announcement, some, like the owners of the Sandon Road Fish Bar in the Midlands town of Stafford, have made the decision to close.

"This is not a decision we have taken lightly and I have had a lot to consider to the point I have hardly slept," the chippie owner wrote on its Twitter account.

"The thought of my staff or customers and myself catching it is too great a risk."

Lesley Graves and Des Anastasiou, owners of Burton Road Chippy in Lincoln, made the same decision, for the same reason.

"Our team has worked above and beyond the call of duty, but the safety of our customers and team alike must come first," they wrote on Twitter.

Changing models

With foot traffic down, chip shops that have opted to remain open have been forced to change models to survive. The industry is turning to contactless deliveries, ordering on line and using "click-and-collect" services.

Chip shop owners are also allowing customers to park outside their premises, effectively turning their outlets into drive-through facilities.

Crook, whose shop began deliveries three weeks ago, said the sector is very resourceful, particularly at using social media platforms such as Facebook to interact with the community and solicit business.

Some are suggesting fish and chip shops start shrinking their delivery areas, however, because the numbers of people wanting food delivered will become more concentrated.

Owners are also hoping to find willing volunteers to deliver on foot to feed the elderly who are likely to be stuck inside.

"Takeaways have a special part to play because they can help feed people," Crook said.

Supply amid lower demand

Some chip shops have opted to alter their menus to keep up with the changes.

Millers Fish and Chips in Haxby, Yorkshire northern England won the National Fish and Chip Shop of the Year award in 2018.

Spelling out the decision on the businesses' Twitter page, the owner said they have had to some hard thinking about how to allow the business to survive.

This has meant dropping cod and plaice from the menu and introducing a daily line-caught haddock service.

"Because the species are not as popular as haddock it is very uncertain of what volumes we will sell," Millers said. "We have removed these from the menu to ensure minimal waste."

Crook said he doesn't expect a disruption in raw material supply. He has received guarantees from Norwegian suppliers about the continuity of supply, praising them for remaining in close contact. Crook is was planning to speak with Icelandic and Barents Sea suppliers soon.

Can Chippies bounce back?

On Monday Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlawed gatherings of more than two people and ordered the closure of stores selling non-essential goods such as electronics as he finally put the United Kingdom under lockdown.

"I think the impact on the impact on the fish and chip industry will be huge and there will some shops that come out and survive very, very well," Barnes said.

For now, Crook said, the industry is watching, waiting and bracing for the hit.

"It's damage limitation," he said. "We know there is a storm coming and this is the calm before it."

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