How seafood restaurants are fighting inflation
The war in Ukraine has hit the supply of grains and vegetable oils, while 70 per cent of the world's cod and haddock comes from Russian trawlers. Some restaurateurs fear a plate of cod and chips could hit £20. The FT's Daniel Garrahan and food writer and restaurateur Tim Hayward travel to southwest England to see how two restaurants which source local, sustainable fish are coping with inflationary pressures
Filmed by Petros Gioumpasis and Richard Topping. Edited by Richard Topping. Produced by Daniel Garrahan and Tim Hayward
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So Tim, we're on the road again. This time we're heading down to Cornwall. It's not holiday season. Where are we heading?
So we're going to Mevagissey. We're going to a little pub that's run by an interesting couple. They met in Bristol university. They took over a really rough pub in a really rough part of town.
In Bristol, yeah. They took over the lease on it. And they created quite a little phenomenon. I heard about them opening up a place down here in Mevagissey, which is a small fishing village. It's really quite tiny. I don't think I've taken you anywhere as tiny as this.
Hi. How's it going?
Nice to meet you.
So Kris, tell me about the King's Arms. We're here in the kitchen.
Kind of kitchen we've kind of done ourselves a bit. Done on a budget. Downstairs is the pub and the shop and this multi-functional space, as is this, this is our own kitchen, as well. We live upstairs. It might not suit everyone. But it does the job for the moment.
You're not from this part of the world originally. What drove you to leave Bristol and set up this business?
Basically just wanted to get out of Bristol, really. Had a small child, as well. So my wife especially wanted him to grow up in Devon. We kind of missed Devon and just overshot a little bit and ended up in Cornwall.
We've had all the places that we've managed and run. I mean, the Green Man was kind of like ours as well in Bristol. It was a quite small pub, as is this.
Is there much of a sort of divide between the people who've lived here forever and maybe those who are seen as kind of out-of-towners?
I mean, local fishermen and all the rest of the fishermen have just been fantastic. Farmers have been fantastic. We're here to buy local fish and local farm stuff, as well.
How much of the produce that you use here is locally sourced?
I mean, certainly all the seafood and all of the meat is. The veg, I do use Moore's a lot, which is the local fruit and veg shop. And they're fantastic.
So how did you guys meet? How did you start working together? The pub? The pub's the hub, I suppose.
Yeah, we just got friendly. And he decided they were going to do lobsters. I told him no way would it work. No one's going to buy lobsters.
I said, if you want a chance, it may. I said, but you're going to have to pay me. He said, no, we're going to try it. And give him his due, it worked.
We don't sell mega quantities. But it's about the quality, isn't it?
And it is. I love it. I love doing it.
What I like about Kris is he just has his three or four tables. He's not trying to fill the place up every night and do 20 lobsters, which would put a hell of a pressure on me to have to supply all these lobsters. He just... sometimes 20 a week, whatever.
That's the whole thing about it, isn't it? It's not just about the money. It's about having a way of life.
I want to support a family. And he's got a lovely kid. They come out in the boat. Kris comes out, Alfred comes. And then he catches mackerel.
So you actually go out and haul up pots?
I have done, yeah. I've done.
He don't like me sharing it. That's the only thing. One of the first times he come on the boat, we were over on the stacks. And I said, jump aboard. So he literally jumped. And he went right through the arches, the wooden arches.
I said, what are you doing!
He said, well, you said, jump.
I said, that's a figurative term, you fool. You've just gone through my arches.
Well, it's off season, right. I mean, I presume it's a busy area in the summer months or the holiday periods. Are you busy this week? Have you got many bookings?
Yeah, we've got a few bookings. Some locals want to come in and enjoy themselves. Yeah. We still doing pizza on a Saturday. So that's always a bit of fun. And we do Sunday, Sunday lunch, as well.
How do you manage all of that on your own? It's just you here?
Yeah. So you're in the kitchen, and you're downstairs in the pub as well.
It's only myself. My wife has another pub in Fishguard in Wales.
How many people can you get through the door? And how many people can you sort of serve?
15 to 20 is kind of comfortable, so long as it's just...
...so long as it's staggered a little bit.
You up and down the stairs all night?
Must keep you fit.
Yeah. You keep them busy with food and drink. That's it, you know.
So what size lobsters are you pulling in?
Well, everything. I mean, the ones like Kris asks for are about this big. And they're the smallest ones we do, isn't it, Kris? But they're like the biggest ones I get will be like that.
We take on the ones with one claw. Sometimes they haven't got any legs on them. And I'll take them because we can do other stuff with them.
It doesn't have to be a whole lobster on a plate. We haven't got enough. We just haven't got enough. It's basically if it's there, it's there. People can't have lobsters this time of year because the pots are all out.
So it's really a seasonal approach.
You're serving what's available.
Yeah. I mean, it breaks up, as well. It keeps it a bit more interesting. If I was doing Sunday dinners the whole year, it would get a bit boring.
How has business been? Obviously, you've had two very challenging years. Did you have to be creative in any way to kind of get through that period?
We've always sold wine in our pubs. But we started stocking a slightly larger range just because the opportunity for the shop was there. And obviously, that in turn, it gives customers a bit more choice, as well.
And you started doing pizza during the pandemic, as well. And that's something that you've kept going?
Yeah, we've kept that going. It's a bit of fun. It's a bit of fun for Alfred. It's a bit of fun for me, as well.
The fishing is becoming more niche. It is surviving. We are restocking the sea. The fish stocks will survive.
In the old days, which was bulk fish, bulk fish. We can freeze it. We can do this. We can make fish paste. We can make the...
Now we've got to treat it with a bit of respect and target the certain species which are going to make high money and people want.
Well, that sounds precisely the partnership you've got. Effectively together, you can get it out of the sea and into wealthier people's pockets.
At some speed. That's working.
I mean, we could charge... we could charge a high premium for people eating a lobster in the pub. But I want to make it accessible. So you don't have to be a super affluent from London. You can pop in, pop in for a day trip from somewhere, and...
Kris gets lots of locals in this pub. I mean, the locals never would go in and eat... never dream of eating lobster. A local per... lot of local people, I've never eaten lobster. Because they could never afford it.
But Kris has made it accessible, as he says, for the everyday person. And I think that's the way to be. We all have to do our little bit making it a good, nice world and a place to live in. And that's all I want.
So you've turned this place into a wine shop as well as a pub. And you've started selling pizza. Any other bits and pieces on the side?
We're trying to set up a food school at the Kneehigh Barns in Gorran. We do catering there, as well. It's a nice open area. It's a nice courtyard. Communal eating certainly fits in there.
So if we can get the children involved in the food school, teaching them stuff, which actually isn't very far from Gorran School. Yeah.
How old are these kids?
My son's nine at the moment. He's got a couple of years left at Gorran.
That's a great age to get them. If you can interest kids at that age, then you've got them for life.
We're off to Dartmouth next.
Bigger scale to the town we've just been.
Bigger scale. It's still a small town. But it's a larger operation than what we've just seen.
You've got an established restaurant and then other businesses around it. And he's looking to expand. And an interesting town with a good story.
Hey, Dan. How are you? Nice to see you. Tim, lovely to see you. Are you well?
Yeah. Not bad at all.
Welcome to Brixham. This is England's biggest fishing port. Probably got 50 or 60 fishing boats here from beam trawlers, potters, netters. We have a restaurant just here, another restaurant in Dartmouth. And I'm going to take you over to the premises that's ours where we prepare all the fish for the restaurants every day and show you what we do.
Does this place then supply all the fish for all of your restaurants?
Yep. Everything comes from this fishing fleet. So the auction happens here every morning 6:00. We buy the fish, take it to our premises, prepare it, portion it, and send it straight to the restaurants.
So this place must have been a godsend during the pandemic. But as we're coming out of that, we've got these inflationary pressures. Does it protect you from some of that, do you think?
I think it massively protects us, Dan. I think if I was sitting here as a fish restaurateur now and having to accept all the price rises that are coming in without being able to do any sort of make tactical moves, I think we'd be finished. So 70 per cent of the world's cod and haddock comes from Russian boats up in the Barents Sea. And obviously, with the current crisis that's going on that's not in the market anymore.
And so prices of cod and haddock have risen 40, 50 per cent, in the last week alone. And they're going to carry on rising. So it's good for the local industry here because we're now buying certain sizes of hake, MSC landed hake here. We're buying whiting, which is a fish that is always not really prized and valued. But we're buying tonnes and tonnes of it at the moment, filleting it down.
You saw the guys in there, they're preparing hake and freezing it ready for the summer. So because the reality is a plate of cod and chips are going to cost 20 quid. And some people are going to be ready for that. And then some people won't be able to get their heads around that.
So I wanted to be able to offer people local fish at a better price. So really, it's good all around. But I mean, it's something we need to manage with.
There's other pressures, like in all the Rockfish restaurants, they fry fish. They use sunflower oil. In two weeks' time, our supply of sunflower oil runs out because it's all come from Ukraine.
So what happens next?
I don't know. But I think these are the challenges that we're dealing with day by day. I mean, in a way, Covid was sort of easy. You knew your restaurants were closed. You had some help. And you had some money. And you were able to work around it and do some fresh thinking.
But now we're having to operate a business with inflationary pressures in energy, seafood. And really, you have to start thinking much more tactically about how you can do it and how you can move on. Yeah.
And customers are going to feel they've got less money to spend.
They are. We used to kind of fix the price that we would buy from here to there. And we would absorb the daily market prices. But in the future what we're going to have to do is pass on those market prices.
So if whiting prices go high, they'll be high in the restaurant because there won't be a chance to kind of level it out. So we're going to be changing our prices every day in line with market prices.
I've always dreamed of a business that catches its own fish, that processes its own fish, that served its own fish. And that's the reason you go to a fish restaurant, right? It's all about the supply.
And you need a fantastic chef to be able to handle it. And. You need fantastic people to be able to serve it. But to know that the fish has been caught by the restaurant's own boat makes it pretty special.
I would expect to pay quite a lot to eat here, properly, decently, and be treated. But also, you've got places where you've got little families and kids in high chairs. And there's a takeaway that looked like a chip shop to me further down the road. And you say you're covering everybody every price, as well.
Yeah. So the idea is, there's nothing nicer than having a piece of fried fish overlooking the sea with the smell of the water in your nose. That's a wonderful experience. And that doesn't cost as much as the restaurant.
Then you can go to the Rockfish and take your family in there. And you can eat turbot and Dover sole, but you can also eat some fried fish and chips, which is good. And then, of course, you come here and you treat yourself to some magnificent cooking and the same magnificent seafood.
And you believe that sustainability is possible down through all those price points?
Right the way to the chippy?
Absolutely. We're able to understand from the local producer organisations, from the fishermen themselves, scientists, the chat around the quay, you just know what's going on down there. And of course, that helps you to be able to convey the sustainable message.
So I know people travel. I mean, I've heard of people coming halfway across the country to come and eat here. But have you got locals as well that come in all the time?
Locals all the time. And we've had a £25 menu ever since we've opened. And we still got a £25 menu. And the locals come in and enjoy a £25 menu. They'll come and enjoy £50... all the fancy fish when it's high days and holidays.
And so we like to think we've made it the dining room for the town. And that's what you want for a restaurant to be, isn't it, you know?
And you're passing this on to your kids, the whole thing? Or you're bringing them into the operation as...
No. I think that it was one of the things that Matt and I always used to think about when we were in the kitchen is, who's going to carry this on afterwards? And I haven't cooked for the last five, six years. And Jake and Ben have been sort of working.
And it just made sense for them to take the food in their own direction. But they embrace the ethos of amazing fish cooked simply, fresh pastas.
I mean, dare I say, it's an Italian restaurant, really. But we never say that. And now it's the family restaurant, it makes it even more so.
Tim, we've got two different restaurants, two very different scales, with actually quite a lot in common when you look past the respective sizes.
I think they're very, very similar in one particular way. I want to give you a quote from a guy called Jim Harrison, who's American food writer and poet. And he said, distance from food preparation fills us all with cold abstraction. And what it means is, the longer the distance between where the food kind of comes from and how it ends up on your plate, the more rubbish is there.
So actually what both of these guys are saying, they both do in exactly the same way, is they're right up next to where the food comes from. What we've seen today is the literal physical contact, the hands of the man who took the fish out of the water touched the hands of the man who's going to cook it. And he passed it by hand to the waitress who brought it to your table.
Of course, sustainability isn't just about the food that is caught and served. You've got to have sustainability of a business model, as well.
And that's clearly the case here with the legacy model.
Well, I think we're lucky to have seen two family businesses. We're actually seeing more of these happening across the country at all kinds of different levels. It's interesting how succession is going to work.
I mean, obviously Kris's son is there. He's growing up with the business. That's one way of inheriting it.
Mitch has another sort of issue in his life. He's quite a celebrity, quite a well-known chef, particularly in the area. Now how will the place survive when he's known to be not still there? Will people still come here if Mitch isn't on the pans?
But actually, what he's done is, he's managing this beautifully. He's creating the idea and reinforcing the idea of it being a continuum of a family restaurant. And also, I mean, at a time when nobody can find staff, he's got some very, very high quality staff here. And they're obviously thinking, this is a place I want to work. He obviously looks after his people. It's another kind of sustainability, people sustainability.
I'm from regional Australia, Victoria. So not near the sea at all. Quite ironically, I left Australia, a very small town, destined for like, the big city. Just very naturally I met Ben, found The Seahorse. And it all just sort of felt really right. And it still feels right being here now. It's very calming.
I was struck by how busy it is today.
And how important is the sustainability ethos to your customers, do you think? Or is it just a question of the fact that you guys serve really, really great food in a really, really lovely environment?
I mean, people are obviously here because they're happy. They like the food. They love the environment.
But the sustainability is a super important thing. People are more and more aware of it. So you feel better about enjoying something that's really delicious and wonderful when you know that it is being sustainably sourced, as well.
One thing that we were really struck by was the atmosphere in the kitchen. It just feels like, you get this idea in your head about what a kitchen might feel like. And it doesn't feel like that at all in there. Is that because of the family set-up here?
Everyone here is incredibly close. There is a brilliant relationship, working and personal between everyone.
How do you keep that going? What's the secret?
A beer on a break, making time to check in with people, are they OK, taking a personal interest in how they are inside and outside of work.
Yeah, looking after each other, eh?
Especially over the past couple of years you've been through, it's really important.
And do you think that other restaurants around the country - and yes, customers as well - can learn something from these guys? I live in London. Can you ever really eat sustainably in restaurants there as you might here? The food has to get to London, of course.
I think one of the things we've proved is there are so many different kinds of sustainability, aren't there? I mean, Kris is sustaining by going to buy his fruit and veg from a fruit and veg business around the corner that will go out of business if he doesn't. So he's keeping twice as many people in work by doing what it is he's doing. That is all about sustainability.
All businesses can learn bits from each other. Not everybody can have a restaurant in an area like this. They have their own disadvantages - difficult to find staff, very, very seasonal customer base. These are problems.
But actually, they're able to do something that's very, very connected with their supplier. Other restaurants can't necessarily do that. But they should be looking at the creativity that's involved in problem-solving and trying to find their own routes out through it.
This is a powerhouse. They're making considerable amounts of money. And they're moving around within the business. It's being reinvested in the community, in the people, in the staff, in the suppliers. They're putting money back into boats and chilling machines and wrapping machines. By almost any standards that's a phenomenally exciting business story.