Although James Ritchie’s plans for the first fish and chip shop he bought with his ex-wife Bonny was to own it for a couple of years and sell it on, it quickly became their baby and resulted in them getting involved in the family business, Simpsons in Cheltenham. In 2016, the pair saw Simpsons triumph at The National Fish & Chip Awards and added a mobile fish and chip van to the business, while in 2017 came a second shop in nearby Stroud.
It all sounds pretty perfect but, as we know, life can be unpredictable, it doesn’t always pan out how we thought it might and it brings with it many challenges. This was certainly the case for James when he split with Bonny last year and came out as transgender. And for a while it caused him to fall out of love with the industry.
He comments: “We don’t have a huge LGBT community in the industry and even the people that are, are very quiet about it.”
He adds: “What I’m trying to do is normalise it, so that we can all come from different walks of life but we’ve got stuff in common, with the shops and we’ve got kids…nothing changes.
“I’ve found there are some people that have avoided me since then as they feel a bit awkward and I just want to say don’t be awkward, if we’re mates, we’re mates.”
With the support of his family, staff and friends, James has rekindled his love for the industry and is finding his feet, heading up Simpsons in Stroud.
But being his own boss has brought new challenges, with James commenting: “I’m running Stroud on my own…ultimately the success or failure of this business is on my shoulders now. It can be hard and it can be a bit lonely.”
James acknowledges, however, that the move has made him evolve as a manager, saying: “It’s different and I feel like I’m growing up more as a boss now than I had before because I was shirking a lot of the hard stuff.
“And people come in and they want to speak to the boss and it’s just me!”
James has knuckled down, given the market in Stroud what it demands in terms of more gluten free, vegetarian and vegan options and ensured that, despite price rises, fish and chips remains a value for money meal.
“We probably sell as many lite bites as we do regular portions of fish and chips,” he says. “It’s under a fiver, you’ve got a mini fish and chips, it’s half a portion for us so we’re making more profit on that anyway even though the taking isn't as high. We’ve just got to do more of them.”
As with many fish and chip businesses, the older generation makes up a core part of Simpsons’ customer base, but James is also focusing on those that will keep his business going, commenting. “The older people love fish and chips, they have that nostalgia thing, they are our bread and butter but, at the end of the day, they are not going to be around forever. And we need to make sure we are modernising as well to pick up the younger customers so that we’ve got a future really.”
Plus, another advantage of focussing on the younger generation James has found is the fact they have more willing to pay for convenience.
“They are used to things being more expensive,” says James. “The younger generation knows food is expensive and the older generation has this preconception that fish and chips is a cheap meal, so that’s what you’re fighting with the older generation.”
Find out how James involves members of the team in the business and what happened when the tables were turned and he went from being a Fish & Chip Shop of the Year winner to a judge in our FREE podcast available to listen to here.