Having only opened Seacrest Fish & Chips in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, 18 months ago, owner Anthony Stavrinides found himself going back to the drawing board this month and remodelling his fledgling business to survive the coronavirus pandemic.
“For us, reinventing ourselves is a question of survival rather than just something we thought we would do,” remarks Anthony who is still pretty dazed and confused by current events.
Coming into the industry as newcomers, Anthony and wife Nicole had their fair share of struggles – continually rising fish, potato and oil prices put pressure on the new businesses while an overcomplicated menu meant the pair were working twice as hard as they needed to. But with both previously working in heavily regulated industries – Nicole an A&E worker and Anthony managing care homes – they put their ability to systemise things into place, scaled back the menu, refined their working practices and were finally getting a grip on the business.
Then coronavirus struck, putting the future of their takeaway in jeopardy. Anthony has had to rethink everything he’s learned.
“In order for us to stay open in the long run, we had to close because it was getting worrying,” he comments. “We had a sign on the counter telling people to social distance, but customers would move the sign while leaning on the counter! We closed for two weeks to look at what we could do to make it safe for us, because we’ve got a four-year-old daughter, and for our customers.”
The time out provided a catalyst for Seacrest to start a click and collect and delivery service. “What really kickstarted me to go down this route was reading an article Stelios wrote for the Ceres website about setting up click and collect and delivery,” Anthony explains. “It was something that had been on the ideas board for some time, tragically it’s taken this to get it in place.
“We did think about going with Just Eat or a similar company, but we wanted to give our own online service a go first, more just to test the waters and make sure we could cope with four different services – online, telephone, click and collect and deliveries – and also to maintain control and our identity.”
There were teething problems, naturally. An influx of orders all for the same timeframe being the biggest, but this has been ironed out now with their system only accepting three orders per 10 minutes and limiting delivery to a mile. The takeaway has also closed to lunchtime trade, operating only between 4.30-8pm.
Business is steady although customer patterns have changed – the regulars have dropped off as the trade from people leaving the local pub is no longer there and passers-by are practically zero. The business is benefiting from other, quite well-established shops in the area being closed, however.
“As much as I don’t want to capitalise on a crisis, we’ve found we’re getting a lot of new customers ordering online. They have already given positive feedback to say the food is great and the delivery is working well. So we’re ticking over and probably at a level equivalent to what we were making before.”
If there’s one upside to all this, the change of pace is giving the pair a better work-life balance with Anthony and his wife working fewer hours, but they do miss the banter: “People come not just for the food but for the hospitality, which sadly in the current crisis isn’t the case,” he explains. “It was always like Cheers in here, we would know all our regulars, punters would walk in and we’d say “Hi, Dave. How you doing?” We’d make them feel welcome and make them want to come back. I’m missing that.”
As well as appreciating his customers, Anthony also has much respect for his suppliers, in particular Ceres, which provides Seacrest with its batter mix. Anthony comments: “Stelios was so helpful when I set up the business, even though I wasn’t a customer back then. We chatted a lot and he’s given me some great advice.
“The podcasts have been really interesting, the range of different people he interviews is fantastic. Even if I’m not speaking to Stelios directly, his other channels are so useful. Especially in a local community where everyone is a competitor, you don’t always want to chat business with them and tell them what they are doing, so it’s nice to be able to hear advice and information from other people, more established people in other areas of the industry.”
With major changes to the business now made, Seacrest is prepared for when the country re-emerges from lockdown and, if the business retains the new customers and the old ones return, Anthony envisages the shop could be roughly 25% up over the next six months.