Britain's most northerly chip shop - 10 years of frying at Frankie's
by Tom Morton -
Local, sustainable, high quality: The chip shop at the edge of the world
It’s a decade since Gary Johnson decided he was fed up with the 50-mile round trip from his home village of Brae in Shetland to the island capital Lerwick, just to get a fish supper, and, with wife Valerie and daughter Carlyn, opened a fish and chip shop.
Little did Gary dream that within a decade, the family would be travelling to Japan and Singapore to demonstrate fish frying and develop new businesses, and offers would come in to franchise Shetland fish and chips to places like Dubai. And Frankie’s, as it would be called (named after a former family pet) would be officially named best fish and chip shop in the UK, in 2015.
As for being the most northerly, it was always going to easily achieve that accolade.
The family business in 2008 was centred on the local garage and its associated shop, bus service and transport hire divisions. Fish and chips was something completely new, although daughter Carlyn had studied catering at college and Shetland’s natural seafood resources were an obvious asset. But this wasn’t to be any old chipper. It was going to be very special indeed.
Valerie Johnson and daughter Carlyn Kearney tell their story.
Valerie: Frankie’s was built in 2008, when we decided, there had never been anything like this in the village we live in Brae, before - a seafood type business. We had several other businesses but the nearest fish and chip shop was in Lerwick and Gary, my husband, says he simply got fed up travelling 50 miles there and back to Lerwick for a fish supper. We had a greenfield site, which we thought would lend itself to building a purpose-built business.
Carlyn: I had originally left school to go to college to train in professional cookery, so at the time I was working in catering anyway. So I decided to join the family business when they decided they were going to build a fish and chip = neither of them having any experience in any catering!
Valerie: We wanted it to be a nice experience, for people to come here and enjoy the food we provided, and I always looked right from the beginning at using local produce, and at sustainability, which I think over the last ten years has grown immensely. People are very much aware of what they’re eating and the provenance of the food - specifically the local provenance of he seafood we have. And I think because of where we live, surrounded by the lovely fishing waters - we had to have the lovely fresh fish that we do have. We couldn’t have gone down the route of frozen Icelandic seafood. It had to be from the fresh waters here - and the premier quality product and the raw product is so good that you really can’t go wrong with cooking that. There’s the SSQC, the Seafood quality control - they go and check what’s landed at the markets, the put the quality on the fishboxes, so you know what you’re getting. And then again it progressed from that, from knowing it was really good quality seafood we were getting, to looking more at the sustainability side of things. Realising that the haddock was coming from sustainable fish stocks in the North Sea which had been accredited by the Marine Stewardship Council, and that was our step in achieving that whole ‘from sea to plate’ traceability - that had to be done by the fishery being accredited, our supplier being accredited and us being accredited.
Carlyn: Our main fish supplier is Blydoit in Scalloway, and when we decided that we wanted to go down the route of being as sustainable as we could be, we approached them about becoming MSC certified for the species of fish that we were keen on using, and they said they would go along with it. It’s about that relationship you have with your supplier, and phoning them up every day to ask what specials we can put on our menu, what specials have been landed at the market that morning. So it’s about having a close relationship with them. We also use mussels and scallops and crab on our menu, so they come from SSMG, just across the road from us at the Sparl in Brae, and our crab comes from Shetland Crab as well. So again it’s a case of phoning them daily for our order, seeing what’s available. Some times with the weather scallops aren’t available.
Valerie: There’s always the continual trying to have enough staff at peak times. In the winter months it’s always just a trade thing - hospitality businesses are always quieter - but we have to up our staff quite a lot in the summer. While the new Total gas plant was being built at Sullom Voe, we were busy all day, throughout the day ,every day, but things have become much more focussed on peak times now - except in the summer, when tourists make it continually busy from morning until night.
We employ up to 27 people during the summer - because of our situation in Brae being just a few miles from the oil terminal, one of Shetland’s biggest employers, a lot of people are taken up there with jobs, so we do have to struggle sometimes to have enough people to cover. And it’s the kind of business where people tend not to stay. It would be nice if more people would see the benefits of this as a profession, of making it into a career really, in the hospitality industry. It’s something we’re very passionate about - employing young people, and we do employ a lot of young people, and putting them through the college, through the hospitality course, so that people can see the bigger picture. And of course we want those young people to see the quality of the resources we have here, the food here, the sustainable fisheries, and we can share our passion with them.
Carlyn: We run the Frankie’s Fish Course. We take raw seafood, fish and shellfish into schools, and we do presentations and talks on sustainable seafood, on the different kinds of fish that we sell and on the benefits of eating fish as well.
Valerie: We do a lot of shellfish, which is quite unusual, especially for a fish and chip shop. If you go down to the mainland, in Scotland and the North of England it’s haddock, and then south it’s cod. Not so many would have all the shellfish we have on - the langoustines and the like, which are very popular.
We stopped doing skate because of its vulnerability as a species. Although it probably would be popular it’s one of the ones we don’t have on, as we choose to have only sustainable species on the menu. the Marine Conservation Society has its Good Fish Guide - you can look that up daily and find out what’s good to eat and what’s not. We follow that because that’s part of our ethos- what’s good to eat and what’s sustainable.
Awards…when we began to build the business I didn’t even know fish and chip awards existed. So it’s something which came afterwards and I suppose because I felt we were bit isolated here, a new fish and chip shop trying to do different things, I began looking at what similar businesses on the mainland were doing, and got into the sustainable side of things and the awards. If you have a new building that’s a good start - a nice, new, clean fresh building. Our outlook from the beginning was to do something just a bit fresher, to get people in the door, and I think living in a small place you have to attract everyone. You have to appeal to the young, the old - to everyone, so they’ll come here. and tourists of course. One thing that attracts the tourists is the fresh seafood - they can point out the window to where the mussels are grown.
Carlyn: We’ve had cruise ship groups coming here by bus, and one German group asked if we could supply fresh seafood to their ship - including 800 oysters, lobsters, crabs and more. The cooks on board had been working with frozen fish and the passengers, once they’d been here, just didn’t find it acceptable. so we ordered everything up and took it on board the ship.
People from the mainland, from all over the world, from Japan, Canada and Australia have come up here after seeing our success in the awards. And they’ve wanted to come not only to Britain’s most northerly fish and chip shop, but also one that had won all these awards, including the UK’s best fish and chip shop in 2015, and others too.
Valerie: Entering any awards is a huge platform for your business - it enables you to show what you want to do and where you want to go. We’ve been to Japan, for the British Food Fair - Carolyn has been there frying fish for a couple of weeks, and to Singapore to set up fish and chip shops there.
Carlyn: It was two Englishmen who were trying to set up a a British fish and chip shop in Singapore, trying their best to make it as British as they could, but the difficulties of being in Singapore meant things were a bit tricky - things like trying to source the right potatoes, we had lots of problems with that, and with trying to get the right species of fish too. They’ve got three now in Singapore under the name Smiths Fish and Chips.
Valerie: We have been asked over the years about franchising in Dubai and other middle and far eastern places. That has happened to other fish and chip shops - they have been approached to go further afield. We have had a right good in-depth look into it, but it has generally been in countries where the economy was fluctuating a bit - it would just be a total different ball game. And they all wanted what we have: our footprint - Shetland seafood, which would be a bit of a headache so far away, logistically. But it would be brilliant to be able to do that. It would be a huge thing for Shetland and Scottish seafood in general, to promote the same quality and consistency we do here, but take it somewhere abroad. It is achievable but I don’t know if it’ll happen. I think if we continue to do what we’re doing, which is being consistent, because you’re only as good as your last fish supper. We have to keep trying to train the staff, sourcing really good quality food. Just doing what we’re doing.
Frankie’s Fish and Chips: www.frankiesfishandchips.com
Posted in: Restaurants