Making a good living from a convenience store on a parade of shops in Southampton, Raj Khaira decided to capitalise on the fact there were 185 flats above his shop yet no takeaways to service them by turning his hand to fish and chips.
Thinking it would be money in the bank, Raj opened Top Catch in 2016 on a very low budget, without any training and completely staff-run.
“I didn’t have a clue if I’m honest,” admits Raj. “I was doing well at the Premier store and I thought I’ll have a fish and chip shop, I won’t work there and it will be easy.”
Very quickly Top Catch ran into staffing problems, trade dropped and Raj knew he needed to step in and take things seriously. Working six days a week as the main frier, he made a call to Ceres.
“Stelios came straight down and introduced me to his Natural Batter Mix, how to make it, how to drop it into the oil and he got me used to my temperatures and everything,” says Raj. “Since then, my batter has been really, really good. I get lots of spikes, none of the batter blows off and it stays crispy. I’ve tried other batter mixes but I just don’t think there’s a product out there that is superior. How I make my batter now is so different to how I made it three to four years ago.”
“Anyone that isn’t doing homemade fishcakes, I ask what are you doing? Not only are you able to put your fish trimmings to good use, but the fishcakes are so quick and easy to make. I even have the counter staff making them when we have quiet periods.”
Ensuring no leftover mushy peas go to waste either, Raj makes pea fritters and refrigerates them ready to use the next day. The peas have plenty of flavour with Raj using Ceres Pea Seasoning.
“I like my mushy peas with bite,” he says, “so I tend to add about six teaspoons of pea seasoning to every kilo of peas I cook. I just love Ceres Pea Seasoning because it makes a great product taste amazing.”
Understanding how important it is to have processes in place, Raj has recently added Ceres Super Absorbent Cloths to his fish prep. He adds: “I’ve had to learn not to pat the fish too much because the cloths can draw out too much moisture, so I just wrap them in the cloths before adding them to my rice flour. After a busy Friday, you’ll be surprised how much moisture they absorb.
“It means you get a really nice, even coating of flour – you don’t get any of the clumps – and the batter sits nicely on the fish and seals it. If you want to try and stay ahead, you’ve got to use the cloths.”
The improvements have resulted in a complete change of fortunes for Top Catch, which won a place in Fry Magazine’s 2021 50 Best Takeaways and was also the highest-rated fish and chip shop on Google for Southampton.
Confident he knows what he is doing, Raj has now sold his convenience store and thrown everything at fish and chips, even opening a new branch last year just under two miles away in Shirley. There he made sure he did everything right from the get-go by investing over £150,000 in a refurbishment, a new range and staff training.
“People can work very efficiently in the new shop and we can get the volume out,” says Raj. “A customer can come in, place an order, be served and be out the door in eight to nine minutes, which is not bad at all.
“And it’s set up for the next 10-15 years, I know I don’t have to add anything. If our turnover goes up by £20,000, we are ready for it.
“It’s funny how things work out. The industry is, for me, one of the best I’ve worked in. If you’ve got a problem there’s always someone willing to help you.
“It’s given me the passion and drive I lacked in the early days and now I work every day in the fish and chip shop because I’ve fallen in love with it. I’m now constantly wanting to improve my products and asking can I get this better, or am I’m happy with that?”