Sitting in The Seahorse in Dartmouth, waiting for Mitch Tonks to turn up, you can see why this 40-cover, Italian-inspired restaurant is one-of-a-kind. Priced at the slightly higher end of the seafood spectrum, it is unique in every respect, from the menu to the food to the service, it’s a combination of factors that simply couldn’t be replicated anywhere else.
Rockfish, however, is a different concept. With the emphasis firmly on serving sustainably sourced, local seafood at a price that’s affordable for all, it has already grown to eight sites, with a ninth under construction and a tenth by the end of next year; although this wasn’t the aim at the outset.
“We didn’t do it with building lots of restaurants in mind,” explains Mitch who had visions of cooking away in the one kitchen until he was 70. “We just did it because we thought we could fill the gap between a traditional chip shop and The Seahorse. Between me and my business partner, Matt, we have got nine kids and we were kind of reflecting on where can we go and eat seafood that’s like really good. The answer was nowhere.
“So we actually started off with a range, frying fish and chips. It was something we didn’t really know anything about. And we thought we could do a good job, being chefs, and how wrong were we! I mean, we made all sorts of mistakes in the beginning.”
Quickly realising that consumers were not going to eat fish and chips three times a week, Mitch introduced grills and planchas to take the offering up a notch and widen the seafood options available, making Rockfish the firm favourite that it is today.
While Mitch loves nothing more than experimenting with the menus at both The Seahorse and Rockfish, he’s very much the driving force behind the decisions that determine the future direction of the business too. In six months time, he wants all the fish on the menus to be MSC certified – which itself will cause challenges as popular items like squid and prawns may well have to be removed – he plans to reinvent the traditional fish and chip takeaway model by opening smaller Rockfish sites, and he’s even launched a fishing boat, setting sail plans to eventually catch all of the fish served at his restaurants.
With the restaurants all showing a profit from day one, it would have been easy for Mitch to have rested on his laurels, yet he never forgets the people that helped him get to where he is today as well as those that deliver his vision day in, day out – his staff.
“You can’t grow a business without people,” he says. “Without good people, we have nothing. It’s just four walls.”
Its why he’s redesigning the whole proposition of working in hospitality to make it a more attractive place to work, starting with the introduction of a rolling four day week in the kitchen, then moving on to develop an apprenticeship scheme later next year and, finally, launching a cookery school that will encourage youngsters into the trade and train them to be a Rockfish chef.
While Rockfish may not be finished on its journey, the fact that the restaurants are full and recording double-digit growth year-on-year is enough for Mitch to be content, adding: “One of the things that I’ve learned in life is the word ‘enough’.
“I think for people to sit down and realise that we’ve all got enough and that we don’t need another pair of shoes or another dress or another suit or another car or a bigger house, it’s simply that they need it. When you arrive at ‘enough’, you’re a billionaire.”
Hear what Mitch Tonks has to say on a host of other subjects from the price of fish and chips, the dangers of growing a business too big too quickly, what it is he loves about Nando’s, and why he gives TripAdvisor a wide berth, in our podcast here.