Following a complete update of the shop, St John’s Fish Bar is better than ever. With gluten-free options and brand new frying systems, you won’t find a better place to tuck into this classic British favourite. We sit down with owner Ben Miles to discover why there’s more to fish and chips than just vinegar and mushy peas…
Tell us, Ben, how did you get started in the business?
This interview is actually perfect timing! We took over the shop on the 1st August 2011, so our fifth anniversary is coming up. I started my journey as a Friday night fryer when I was 18 years old. By the time I turned 20, I was a full-time manager – I clearly had a knack for it! As time went on, people came and went, which gave me the opportunity to buy a stake in the business. Thanks to the support of loved ones, and the bank, there was enough money to buy 50 per cent of the company.
Well, the shop looks great!
Thank you. When I first took over, there was a lot that needed updating. We took over in the summer, which can be a quiet time for us as the schools are out, so we focused on getting through that period before implementing our changes. Once September hit, business picked up again.
At Christmas, we started offering delivery, as well as catering for groups and events – we once had an order for 200 cod and chips! These additional services opened a lot of doors for us.
The biggest project for us was the refurbishment, which turned St John’s Fish Bar into the shop you see here today. We got £40,000 worth of frying equipment installed.
Was it worth it?
What makes frying equipment worth that kind of money?
Two things: fuel efficiency and a healthier product. The quicker and hotter a fryer fries, the better the food. With fast and clean frying only a small amount of the oil remains in the food, making it better for you. Good fish and chips don’t have to be sinful. Quality is important to us here, so making sure you have the best equipment is worth the money.
I notice you offer a gluten-free option…
Yes, that became available after the refurbishment. We used to have three fryers and now we have four. The fourth fryer is used only for our gluten-free products. We use rice flour and Middleton’s Dove Farm batter mix – both 100 per cent free from gluten.
Did you want to keep up with dietary trends?
That’s not how it started out. One of my children is dairy intolerant. When I did my research, as a parent, it dawned on me just how many people suffer from dietary intolerances, which triggered a desire to offer my customers genuine gluten-free options – I can’t deny anyone some delicious battered cod!
How many fish do you sell a week?
As an estimate? I’d say 700 pieces of fish a week. We also get through one tonne of potatoes!
That’s a lot! Where do you source all that cod from? And how do you deal with the issue of sustainability?
This issue is important to me, as I’m in this business for the long haul. I pay the extra to make sure my cod is sourced from monitored waters. Our fish come from the North Sea near the Faroe Islands, where the trawling is regulated carefully by the Marine Stewardship Council. To be more specific, every piece we serve is from Area 27 of the North Sea. The oceans near the Faroe Islands were used for fishing under Winston Churchill during World War II, and are just as fruitful today as they were then. The density of the cod population is still incredible to this day. Every boat has a license stating how much they can catch and where. They are all tracked by the MSC. The area is completely protected from being over-fished and it’s great to know where our product comes from. It is certainly worth paying the extra.
So, it’s delivered frozen…
I get asked if I serve fresh fish regularly, but fresh fish hasn’t been served in fish and chip shops for 15 to 20 years. Nowadays, when fish are caught, they are cleaned, frozen and packaged onboard. It takes 6 to twelve hours for a fish to be deep-frozen. When the box arrives and it’s opened, you smell the sea. They call this sea-fresh. With fresh fish, by the time it arrives at the shop, it could be as old as a week.
You seem very passionate about the subject…
Absolutely! And I believe it’s important that there is an understanding of sustainability. Not just for my business, but in all industries. I often get asked to deliver presentations to pupils of the local schools on the subject. It’s an investment in the future.
With the future in mind, what’s next for St John’s Fish Bar?
Taking a break after the refurbishment! But we are always discussing what more we can offer our customers. Putting grilled fish on the menu is currently under discussion.
Finally, how do you like your fish and chips?
A small, skinned, battered cod with chips, a little bit of mushy peas on the side and a can of Shandy Bass.
ST JOHN’S FISH BAR
74 St John’s Rd, Royal Tunbridge Wells, Tunbridge Wells TN4 9PH
Monday-Saturday 11:30am–2:30pm, 4:30–10pm