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Fish and Chips Shops Spruce Up to Meet Hamburger Challenge

May 13, 1988

BARKINGSIDE, England (AP) _ The Hi-Tide is no longer your run-of-the-mill fish and chips shop. The American hamburger, fried chicken and pizza have seen to that.

Instead of the greasy, colorless decor that typifies many British fish and chips places, the Hi-Tide is a large combination restaurant-takeout business refurbished with ″Old English″ decor of wood beams, exposed brick and lanterns.

The kitchen gleams and the large staff is eager to please.

The reason for this is just down the main shopping street of this tidy northeast London suburb: a hamburger stand, a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet and a pizza parlor. McDonald’s is coming soon.

Fish and chips are still Britain’s biggest-selling fast food, but the trade is under siege and having to fight back.

″The competition is very, very fierce,″ said Hi-Tide’s owner, Eric Laycock. ″I’d be lying to you if I said it didn’t hurt.″

Not only is there competition, there are image problems too. The health- conscious are shunning fried foods, and young Britons say eating fish isn’t trendy.

Bob Kennedy, marketing director for Edinburgh-based Sea Fish Industry, says fish and chips shops ″are maintaining their level of sales but they are not sharing in the expansion of hot food takeaway as a whole.″

Said Brian Phelps, president of London’s Fish Friers Association: ″We’re having to pull our socks up, obviously.″

Fish and chips have been a national food since the 19th-century industrial revolution, when trains and steam trawlers started bringing it to the neighborhoods of the new working class.

The meal usually consists of succulent cod, deep-fried in batter, and stubby French fries called chips, all sprinkled liberally with malt vinegar and salt. Mushy peas are optional.

Until the advent of modern packaging, the fish and chips came wrapped in an old newspaper to soak up the grease. A order now costs an average of 1.25 pounds ($2.34), about half the price of a Big Mac, fries and soft drink.

Nicknamed ″chippies,″ fish and chips shops generally have been small businesses run by married couples out of the front rooms of their terraced houses.

But gentrification of these terraces has driven out many shops, and they are scarce even in central London today.

As the new competition has intensified in the past 10 years, ″chippies″ are becoming larger, and chains and partnerships are forming. Although most shops remain English-owned, Chinese, Greek and Indian immigrants are moving in.

Britain had 9,500 fish and chips shops in 1986, representing 52.1 percent of the multibillion-dollar fast-food market, down from 10,750 shops and 55.3 percent in 1981, according to Sea Fish Industry.

Today, annual fish and chips sales total the equivalent of about $935 million, the National Federation of Fish Friers said.

The fight for survival is multi-pronged.

More are providing seating for their customers.

Laycock, who offers 42 seats, says: ″Takeaway is too blunt, it is too quick. You can’t converse with a customer like in a restaurant.″

The shops have improved flavor by using better batters and oils, and are packaging meals in lidded cardboard boxes, Phelps said.

Industry associations now run training courses for their members and are countering the health issue with a low-key public relations campaign.

″People say that fried food is unhealthy and too much fried food will lead to heart disease,″ said Arthur Parrington, head of the Leeds-based national federation. ″We say, ’Moderation in all things.‴

Laycock, 45, says he spent 100,000 pounds ($187,000) renovating the run- down fish and chips shop he bought in 1974. He reports business is better, and he is considering getting a liquor license.

As a director of Old Bylands Ltd., a 20-shop chain, Laycock travels to outlets to teach managers how to fight the competition from the hamburger, fried chicken and pizza.

″There will be less of us. The ones that are left will be highly specialized and efficient,″ he said.

″This is a very dying trade, but I think we still have a place in English society.″

End Adv Friday AMs May 13

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