Like a lot of people following the Covid pandemic in 2020, Lauren Walker reassessed her situation and made a life-changing decision. She left the Elite Fish & Chip Company, the family business in Lincolnshire where she had worked with her sister and father ever since she was a teenager, to carve out her own path.
Opening Sisters Fish & Chips in North Hykeham, Lincolnshire, with her husband in October of the same year, it has been an opportunity for Lauren to create something for her future family and to do things her way.
“Sisters gave me something to put my stamp on and do things a little differently to how I'd grown up seeing fish and chips done,” she says. “I’d only ever known the Elite way of doing things.”
Located on a housing estate with a captive audience, first things first was to tackle the low fish sales. Lauren switched from IQF to frozen at sea while also introducing Ceres Yorkshire Batter Mix. The two together have resulted in year-on-year increases in fish sales, with the last quarter showing a 38% share of sales.
Lauren comments: “I had never used a batter mix before in my life because at Elite we made the batter ourselves, so that was a whole new concept. We must have tried every batter mix going to find one that we liked because they are all so different. The Yorkshire Batter Mix was the most similar to what we were used to in terms of how the product looks, tastes and fries. And it holds well so it stays nice and crisp.”
To expand the business, reach new customers and increase repeat visits, Lauren has extended the menu, for example, by incorporating gluten free items as well as gourmet burgers and wraps cooked on a hot plate.
“The burgers and wraps have become really popular and allow us to do specials. So for May, we did Mexican wraps and burgers for Cinco De Mayo and right now we have our festive ones for Christmas. It means we can diversify the menu and change it regularly without making it much harder for us as generally, we've got the combination of ingredients,” she adds.
Ensuring her business never falls victim to menu fatigue, Sisters also offers several different varieties of homemade fishcakes. Currently, these include a traditional lemon and parsley version and a more adventurous chilli and lime.
“We use the Ceres Fishcake Mix because it makes life easier as it has all the components in it,” says Lauren. “The seasoning gives a nice base to start from and then you add your extra flavours. The product’s consistent and the profit on those is really good because we are using up our offcuts of fish rather than wasting them.”
In a bid to push the business even further, Lauren has added a delivery service by signing up with Just Eat. “It wasn’t something we were able to offer ourselves because of the costs involved, especially when we didn't know what the uptake on that would be,” she says.
“But by introducing it, it's allowed us to reach a whole new customer base that we would never have been able to reach: customers that are not capable of collecting their food as well as those in some of the smaller villages that surround where we are but that don't have fish and chip shops.”
Flanked by two busy roads which would put many off offering delivery, Sisters has overcome this issue by only accepting orders based on the time it takes to deliver rather than the traditional option of distance from the shop.
Lauren explains: “We set a limit of 15 minutes from our shop and that changes daily based on how busy it is in the area. I know how hard it is to keep fish and chips nice and high quality once it's packaged and I didn't want to get it to people and it be poor quality or cold, because that's where most of your complaints or issues come from, food being cold.”
With Christmas now here, Lauren’s thoughts have turned to how she can make January a busy one for the shop and maximise sales during what is generally a quiet period. She plans to repeat an offer that worked well last year - a fish and chips meal deal.
“During the year, we don’t do deals on fish and chips,” says Lauren, “but last January we did and we didn't see the drop in sales that we would normally expect. It surprised us because you set yourself up for January being a quiet month and, although we did see a drop, it wasn't anywhere near what we expected.”
With the biggest challenge for next year still sky-high energy bills - the shop has gone from paying £600 a month for gas and electricity when it first opened to £2,500 - Lauren is having to weigh up increasing prices against staying affordable.
“That jump in costs is so hard to justify and we’ve tried not to put our prices up too much and keep with prices that are affordable and within what other shops are charging around us, “ she says.
Instead she has cut staff hours as much as possible but now says it’s about managing all her other costs and just riding it out.
“Our plan for the next two years is to just keep pushing, to just be consistent and to keep going,” she explains. “Right now, it's about sustaining what we’ve got and in the future it will be about that growth.”