For Marco Maestri, fish and chips are very much a family affair. Over the past 40 years, he, and his father before him, have run Bristol’s Clifton Village Fish Bar – a site with food almost as iconic as the city’s famous suspension bridge situated just half a mile to the west.
In 2010, the family added a second site, in nearby Stoke Bishop, ensuring that no proud Bristolian – or visitor to their city – worth their salt (and vinegar) misses out on Clifton’s award-winning catch.
"The Clifton shop was my father's business, and then I took it over 20 years ago all by myself," says Marco. "We focus on quality ingredients – the best potatoes, MSC accredited fish. Obviously, you can go elsewhere in the city and get cheaper alternatives, but I’m a firm believer that you get what you pay for – quality is something we’d never compromise on.
"The Clifton site is in a very popular area of Bristol, so we get a lot of visitors, tourists to the suspension bridge, to the area in general. There’s also a healthy student population and a number of bars and pubs nearby. In normal times we could be serving until midnight most weekends!"
Of course, these aren’t normal times. Marco, like so many in his industry, has had to adapt his business in light of the pandemic. Both shops are open 7 days a week but run reduced hours.
"It’s been a big adjustment. I over-ordered initially, worried we might not be able to get deliveries in, and then basically, one day, there was more going out on wages than what we had coming in, so we closed for about five weeks right at the beginning the pandemic and in that time, we rethought things."
When Marco reopened his shops, introducing takeaway, click and collect and delivery options, he did so with the help of Sarson’s’ free Stay Safe kits, which included signage and vinyl floor stickers helping denote safe socially distanced queuing. Having seen the offer on the company’s Facebook page – and as a decade long Sarson’s customer – he immediately took advantage.
"We rearranged the sites, took out all the tables and chairs so no one was able to sit in. Initially, we drew lines on the pavement outside around the corner. People were understanding, happy to wait outside when the weather was good!
"In terms of support, the social distancing kits – alongside the free point of sale items which we had already claimed – were fantastic, people loved them. From the product itself, to the resources on offer, it’s clear that they care – that quality is at the heart of the Sarson’s brand, which is important to us, because whether it’s offering the best potatoes, the best fish or the best vinegar, quality is everything.
"Put simply, our customers tend to prefer well-known brands and just associate them with good quality. If you go back 10 years, we used NBC, mixed with water, but it’s just not good enough now. Sarson’s is fish and chips - it's that distinctive taste which just pairs brilliantly with the chips. Our customers just get it – after all, everyone’s got a bottle of Sarson’s in their cupboard at home – it’s the gold standard.
Now, on a busy day, Marco oversees 70 orders across both delivery and click and collect. Initially, the challenge of being able to offer a product like Sarson’s on his takeaway orders was not lost on him.
"People know how they like their fish and chips and when it comes to salt and vinegar, everyone’s different, so when Sarson’s introduced the sachets, that’s where things really stared to take off – suddenly we could put the choice back in our customer’s hands."
Following guidelines restricting the use of ‘serve-yourself’ condiment bottles in the wake of Covid-19, Sarson’s reintroduced convenient and hygienic 7g sachets for operators to use for delivery and take-away.
The company was initially inundated with calls from operators to provide them with the new hygienic format, bowing to pressure with a short run of sachets, especially designed to offer customers the great taste of the UK’s number one malt vinegar and ultimate peace of mind.
"We love them, they’re unique, and being able to offer Sarson’s in a sachet adds an even greater perception of quality to our takeaway business. It’s just another example of the brand supporting the industry. At the moment, we’re going through 5 boxes a week!"
With a Government announcement setting out a roadmap to unlocking the country forthcoming, how is Marco feeling about the current situation?
"It's hard at the moment because you don't know how to staff properly. You’re never sure how busy you’ll be – it’s all over the place, but we’re learning something new each day."
What would he like to see happen after lockdown?
"I'd like to see the fish and chip shop industry thrive. We’ve really adapted and there’s things we can carry on with – the tech and the delivery systems – which make it easier for customers.
"But I would like to see people again, hopefully soon we can go back to normal and have everywhere open. All the businesses – pubs, bars, restaurants, everyone – they need each other.
"Happier times are coming. Things have been tough – we’ve been grateful for the support of our customers and of brands like Sarson’s. But now I’m ready to see whatever the new normal looks like. Let’s just hurry up and get there!"
Situated just yards from the shoreline on Scotland's beautiful and rugged north east coast, lies one of the gems of the fish and chip world, The Bay in Stonehaven. It's something of an understatement to say that Calum Richardson, its irrepressible chef director, is a stickler for quality. Over the past 22 years – 13 at The Bay – he has cooked for and become firm friends with chef luminaries including Tom Kitchen and Raymond Blanc. Though their cooking styles may differ, the three share an unflinching belief in doing things the right way. With a keen focus on sustainable sourcing, seasonality and using only the best, freshest ingredients, Calum has – from his modest Aberdeenshire flagship – been fundamental in helping elevate the humble British staple to new heights. His menu changes daily, depending on the catch landed in nearby Peterhead, and includes options from MCS certified haddock – served battered, breaded, baked or griddled – right through to fresh local scallops.
It's this constant drive for quality that Calum says keeps customers coming back for more; buoyed through low season and high by a healthy tourist trade and a throng of loyal locals, The Bay serves up 250,000 portions of award-winning fish and chips per year. When it comes to condiments, Calum is just as exacting, choosing Sarson's Malt Vinegar to compliment his food every time.
"I'm a firm believer that if you source the best fish and you've created a batter so there's no nasties in it why would you put something on it that's not going to make the final product sing?"
"I know my industry and I've seen the debates online about non-brewed condiment; the reason some shops take it is simply on price and not quality. It's also very weak, so you have to use more and could spoil the food by putting loads of – effectively – ‘water' on your chips.
"For me Sarson's is the number one; we wouldn't use anything else in the shop. It has that traditional smell that you just instantly link with fish and chips – it's that memory you have as a child. I can be walking around the corner to the shop and suddenly I'm hit with the smell; there's nothing like it – it's so evocative and Sarson's has a massive part to play in that."