The boss of one of the UK’s largest fish and chips chains has told Sky News that industry prices are stabilising but yet to reach their peak.
James Lipscombe, chief executive of The Chesterford Group which runs 38 takeaways and restaurants under several brands, spoke of a mammoth effort to maintain sales volumes as the industry grapples with unprecedented price rises and consumer caution amid the energy-driven cost of living crisis.
Despite news last week that the headline rate of inflation fell in January for the third consecutive month, food price inflation has maintained upwards pressure on the number.
Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in supermarket grocery bills and at the local chippy.
The spending calculator produced by the Sky News Data and Forensics Unit suggests the price of a fish and chips takeaway is up 21.7% during the last year nationally.
That has forced many restaurant operators to adapt their customer offering – with meal deals and cheaper products, such as sausages and nuggets, taking a more prominent role.
In his interview, marking 100 years since the family business opened the doors of its first shop, Mr Lipscombe admitted that the cost of fish had proved too much for many.
“We’re paying 50% more for cod and haddock on this time last year… That has been driven by a supply and demand facet but also the war in Ukraine.
“Russia supplies about 40% of the white fish that comes into the UK… and the government has put a tariff on that, forcing us to go elsewhere and driving prices up.”
The company now ships its cod and haddock directly from a fishing business in Iceland, rather than buying it through wholesalers, he explained, adding that it also allowed his firm to maintain its commitment to sustainable fishing.
“We had to implement five price increases over the past year to offset the cost increases coming into us.
“We’ve had to raise our prices by about 14% because the cost increases from our suppliers are as much as 40% higher across the business.”
Cooking oil was up by 75%, while potatoes were heading north of £400 per tonne due to increased fertiliser costs and the effects of the hot summer last year, he said.
But he added: “We’ve seen prices stabilise. We have seen a reduction in demand in the sector as a whole… particularly for fish.
“What I am not seeing is a flattening out of wider food inflation, with things like pork and chicken nuggets both up 10% this year already.”
Mr Lipscombe said another price rise for his customers was on the way in April as a looming hike in the minimum wage rules means the business was facing having to find an additional £250,000.
“We try to be leaner at what we do, more efficient, but the levers are limited,” he admitted.
He added that if he had to agree a new energy deal for the business it would add a further £1m to his costs at current prices.
On the prospect of customer costs continuing to rise, he said: “I think [they] will do.
“It still represents very good value for money. We’re still saving the same customers in terms of amount. The price point has damaged fish demand but we’re still serving.
“Fish and chips has a very strong future but we have to work hard to keep customers coming into our shops.
“A stabilisation of prices, around these levels, is ahead but we haven’t seen the peak quite yet.”