Walk through the main doors of Syston Service Station and you’re faced with a tough choice: turn left into the smart Spar convenience store or right into the ultra modern Mackays fish and chip shop. Luckily for owners James Kemp and Simon Mackay, most customers visit both parts of the business as they complement each other rather nicely. Part of the Carsley Group, the men along with their business partner Charles Masters took over the site back in February 2015. Then it was a Mace store, with the 3,000sq ft space decked out in Mace’s corporate blue. They immediately switched to Spar and put in a stud wall, which took the sales space down to 2,000sq ft. They then used the other 1,000sq ft as a stockroom while they considered their options.
James takes up the story: "At this point I submitted a change of usage application to change what was a stockroom into a hot food takeaway within the existing shop. After a few minor hiccups this was granted and we then had the decision to make of what we could use the space for. If we had a Subway we’d lose our sandwich business and if we had Greggs we’d lose our Ginsters trade so we chose a chip shop. We thought that the traditional British chip shop as we knew it was on the decline so we’d revive it."
They did their homework: "We had a friend who was an ex-BP area manager who had a chip shop in Nottingham so we picked his brains," says Simon. Mackays may be named after Simon, but apparently the name was chosen simply because it suited a chip shop better than Kemps or Masters.
They invested £150,000 in the fish and chip shop. Most of that money went on the Florigo range, which cost an eye-watering £52,000. But James says it was worth the spend as it’s described as the ’Rolls Royce’ of ranges thanks to its great efficiency, low emissions and low odours. They used fish and chip shop specialist Barland Shopfitters, as they were keen to have something that was modern and inviting. They’ve certainly achieved that, and to show it off, they intentionally leave the menu boards lit up at night and also the front of the range so people can see what they offer.
Quality is key to the operation: "We use the best-quality food, the best oil and we have a triple filtration system so everything is as fresh and as best as it can be," says Simon.
The fish comes in from Loughborough-based Central Seafoods six times a week it’s not the cheapest but it’s good quality, it’s local and they deliver. Potatoes come from Bourne in Lincolnshire. "Most fish and chip shops today also sell burgers and kebabs. We wanted to go back to the traditional ways of just selling fish and chips and serving the best fish you can buy," he adds.
The fish they sell is caught and frozen at sea: "If you don’t do that it could be 10 hours before it’s back on land. The quicker you freeze it, the fresher it tastes and in this business, you’re only as good as your last meal."
The fish has the skin taken off, is coated in a very light batter and is always fried in clean oil. Mackays also make their own (very tasty) fish cakes, mushy peas and curry sauce. And the chips are twice cooked to ensure they are crispy.Attention has been paid to the packaging too, with the fish and chips placed in biodegradable boxes rather than paper, which can make the food sweat.
Meal deals include large cod and large haddock for £6.49; scampi for £5.49 and pies for £4.49 all served with a regular portion of chips plus a side (peas, beans, curry and gravy). All sides are homemade apart from the beans, which are Heinz. Lunchtime specials are popular such as cod and chips plus a side for £3.99.
They serve Pukka pies as the Pukka factory is just 300 yards down the road James says they must serve the freshest pies in the country as they’re baked one day and served the next.
Fridays are the busiest day with several local companies having what have been dubbed ’Fat Fridays’ and enjoying fish and chips for lunch. One of their best customers is luxury car maker Bentley. And on Friday nights the place is manic, with queues of people as well as telephone orders coming in.
Key to the operation is consistency so that means having a good fryer in this case, Neil Hodgson as well as two junior fryers.
Mackays is open from 11.30am to 2pm and 4pm to 9pm on Mondays to Thursdays and on Saturdays; 11.30am to 9pm on Fridays and from 4pm to 9pm on Sundays.
"Other food-to-go concepts concentrate too much on the day trade, but with fish and chips we’re picking up the evening trade from 6-9pm," says James. And picking up trade they certainly are as just 10 weeks in their sales were already at their Year Two target; plus the presence of the fish and chip shop had helped the Spar store’s sales leap too by 10%.
Syston Service Station is in a residential area with lots of chimney pots. There are already two chip shops in the town about a mile away, but there’s no parking. In addition to easy parking, Mackays is fully licensed and has a chiller with alcohol in it behind the till; plus customers can get Nectar points on their fish and chips! The chip shop has boosted the alcohol sales by more than 25%. Also available from the chip shop are sweets and chocolate, sited in a special wall display.
The site is shared with the Parkers car parts company, from which they have a
20-year lease. The previous owner of the shop had had a refit so Simon says all that was needed was a ’lick and stick’ paint job to get rid of all the Mace blue.
"Spar was keen to get in here and their brand is very strong so we went with them," he adds. "They helped with all the remerchandising."
Fuel sales are currently around the 5.5mlpa mark and Simon says they are very happy with BP, as it’s a good strong brand. There’s no car wash or jet wash because there’s limited space, but there is a free-to-use ATM which is a big draw. "We’ve got plenty of parking so it’s convenient and on Fridays people from the local factories queue to get their wages out."
James and Simon are keen to engage with their customers they can regularly be found behind the till serving and having a chat. Mackays has a Facebook page and has received rave reviews.
The business asked for feedback and requests monster onion rings, pineapple fritters and cheese & onion pies for vegetarians were all added to the menu following requests.
Mackays is now looking at joining the Trip Advisor website.
James and Simon are keen to keep their customers interested. They do a Fish of the Week and Pie of the Week and are currently looking forward to offering a winter menu considering items that stick to their traditional theme.
Simon says: "Our investment paid off, particularly on the range. It’s been a fun ride. We could have gone cheap from day one but I’m glad we didn’t as what we offer works and we’ve exceeded our sales expectations."
"With rising overheads and low fuel margins we feel it more important now than ever to make as much profit out of every square foot you have without compromising on quality and standards," adds James.
"We love a challenge and a fish and chip shop suited this site. We could roll it out to other sites. Indeed if anyone has a spare 1,000sq ft of space they’d like to fill, they should come and see us." And he’s only half-joking!