Spotlight: Chapman's Fish (Rye Fish Market)
For our second Spotlight feature this April, we spoke to Louise Chapman from our brand new members, Chapmans's Fish (also Rye Fish Market on Simmons Quay).
1. Thanks for talking to us! Could you describe your business to us?
We are specialists in locally sourced fish and seafood. We have our Rye depot where our catch is landed, our retail outlet now too, while our original business is the wholesale operation in Sevenoaks.
2. So when was your business founded?
The business started 35 years ago. Keith originally worked on market stalls selling fish and from there he built up Chapmans in Sevenoaks as a wholesale business supplying fish to hotels and restaurants in London and around the southeast. The Sevenoaks business has around 50 staff.
The site in Rye was purchased around 8 years ago. At the time the decision to buy the site was really based on creating a bit of a marketing narrative around the business - the fact that we land the catch locally. In fact, at the time we actually only had five or six boats, and pretty much most of the catch back then was sent straight back out to Europe to be sold.
3. Tell us about your background – how did it lead you to this business?
My personal background is not fish related! I was an IT journalist and then latterly I taught IT. A few years back we had got to a point where we’d decided on a change of lifestyle, and we had a grand plan that we would spend some of each year in France and I’d teach English as a Foreign Language – so I trained to do that and did it for a while here in the UK. But then two things happened – Brexit and COVID – and so the plans for a life change went out of the window! Instead we found ourselves needing to reinvent the business in order to survive.
When COVID happened my teaching work ended and I had nothing to do, so I originally joined the team just to keep occupied. But I quickly realised that the business was going to come to a halt if we didn’t work out a way to keep exporting following the chaos that Brexit caused.
4. What makes your business unique?
The really important thing for the fisherman is that we will take anything they land. This is a very different approach to many companies.
By doing things this way we are protecting their income.
We sell a lot in the UK but still have routes out to exports, and of course now we have the retail outlet in Rye.
At the moment never more than 60% of the catch goes to Europe. In fact in the last few weeks over 80% has been kept here to sell in the UK. Our goal is to keep as much in the UK as possible. There’s no point in sending it if it just adds to the food miles, no one is winning except the auction houses.
Most of the fish that goes to our Sevenoaks business is sold to London restaurants and hotels.
The Shop in Rye has really changed things for us. We sell an awful lot locally now. To date we’ve shied away from selling to hospitality businesses in Rye, simply because we’re not set up for deliveries locally. But we have started to do some, and it is great to supply some of the local pubs and restaurants, it’s a lovely story for them to be able to feature local produce on their menus as we can tell them exactly which boat their fish came from and the name of the Skipper and so on.
Another issue that gets in the way of us doing more with local hospitality businesses in and around Rye is that we pride ourselves on paying our boats within seven days. That’s unusual, to pay that quickly, and the fishermen of course appreciate it. So our terms are strictly seven days and that means any businesses we supply locally need to be happy with those terms too.
5. What are your business values?
Our people and the environment.
6. What are your plans for your business in 2023 – what are you focusing on?
We were fortunate enough to secure a regeneration grant via Rother District Council – which will be paid out over the next three years. That has enabled us to consider some further diversification to secure the future of the business and create employment opportunities.
Within the next month, we will have opened a Champagne and Oyster bar next to the shop in Rye. We’re really excited about it. The grant has meant we could invest in a portable kitchen which we can operate both inside the building and outside in good
@chapmans_fish on Facebook!
We’re going to work with local vineyards for our sparkling wines too. We really feel the Oyster Bar will be something different for the town, and we want to offer something that people are proud of. The bar will be licenced off sale 9-7.30pm and on sale 11-7pm. We’ve got a strong social media campaign in place but we’re hoping that word-of-mouth marketing will help put us on the map locally.
We’re also looking at developing our own product line of fish soup and fish stock. We can make both using our lowest value product – the fish that doesn’t otherwise get sold – it’s really a way of adding value by creating something from almost nothing. We’ll be selling that locally, but we’ll also use the Sevenoaks sales team to push it out through their distribution network.
The grant funding will also enable us to offer educational outreach. So with our portable kitchen, we intend to offer a filleting school – to demystify the whole process both for adults and for students. The sessions for adults will be a commercial offering but we’re also talking to Hastings College to offer free sessions for students to encourage the next generation to consider a career in this industry. A skilled blockman can earn up to £55K a year.
7. What challenges does your business face this year?
The biggest challenge has been the rise in energy costs. Obviously with the refrigeration requirements for a business like ours, we are energy thirsty, and our energy bills are now around £1k a week.
Added to that of course fuel costs have risen and that impacts the fishermen. When they go out in their small boats, they are out for around twelve hours which used to mean around £250 of fuel, it’s now more like double that. So they absolutely need to be sure that they will earn enough to justify the cost of going out to sea. Netters have been less affected by the fuel costs, but the trawlers have been affected the most.
Costs have risen throughout the supply chain. Environmental Health inspections have gone up by 20% as a consequence of the increase in paperwork created by Brexit, and those costs have just been passed on to businesses. There is no subsidy for the running costs of the business. Exporting a truckload of fish pre-Brexit would have cost around £200, now it’s more like £1500.
Of course, we’re thrilled to have secured the grant, but this is to enable us to create new revenue streams, not to help with rising running costs. We have to develop new revenue streams in order to keep going. We’ve had to come up with ideas that we wouldn’t have considered before and as many business owners have found – we’ve had to work for nothing for a few years in order to keep the show on the road.
8. What are you most proud of in your business?
Undoubtedly that we’re still here and we’re keeping going.
Covid hit us really hard. The business lost around half a million pounds – it very nearly wiped us out. But our priority was to not lay anyone off and we stayed true to that.
While it has undoubtedly been very tough, we are still going, and our staff numbers have grown. Pre Covid the Rye site had two staff; we now have ten.
We’re also proud to have so many women on our team, most of whom are local. We feel very strongly about providing women with opportunities if they’ve been out of the workplace for a while. The nature of the work here is that it actually fits in very well for mums who have to be available for the school run – their time with us is in between those hours and works very nicely for them and for us.
9. If there was one piece of advice you wish you’d had been given when you opened your business what would it be?
Buy shares in thermal underwear! But seriously, it would be to just keep going. We’re not naïve though we know that our Rye location has helped us enormously, the community has been so supportive and that has been invaluable, we’re very grateful for that.
10. What's the biggest change you’ve seen in your business or your business sector since you started?
A lot of the fish landed in the UK isn’t eaten here, it’s too small. Skate tends to stay in the UK but there isn’t a massive demand for it. Of course, fishermen need to be sure they can get a good price for their catch otherwise it isn’t worth going out to sea. Pre-Brexit It was easy for them to send their catch to France to the auctions where they were guaranteed a better price. It used to be the case that the export truck for France collected the catch and took it to auction and the fishermen got their money the following week.
That all changed with Brexit. Exporting is no longer a straightforward process. On January 4th, 2019 – the website that we were supposed to use to help us navigate the new export process wasn’t even live.
We realised we needed to get to grips with this quickly and we lobbied the local authority and the environmental health team hard in order to develop a way to work with all the new rules. I believe that we were ground-breaking in that we never had anything stopped at the borders.
To give you an idea of the complete change in procedure - the document pack required for every export post-Brexit takes around four hours to complete. We realised that most fishermen wouldn’t do it themselves – it simply takes too much time. The paperwork also has to come from an approved premises. So we took it upon ourselves to get to grips with the new system quickly so that we could do all of this for our fisherman. They don’t pay us for the service, we take a commission on what they sell. Since that time we’ve gone from around 5-6 boats to 150 – and we do the paperwork and exports for all of them.
Fishermen are understandably cross about the whole system. The promises that were made pre-Brexit haven’t materialised. We still have massive boats from Europe legally fishing in our waters - one of the big Dutch boats could hoover up enough fish in one catch as one of our small boats does in a whole year. Everyone had hoped that Brexit would make things easier but instead, the process is now harder. Fisherman have lost their independence and autonomy and there are greater costs.
We continue to work very hard to keep the local authority and the environmental health team happy. We’ve also worked to ensure we have a voice within the industry we sit on a lot of advisory bodies, and we’ve worked with politicians across all parties. More needs to be done for the industry but we are hopeful that things will change in the future.