Charles Darwent finds that fish and chips is still a firm British favourite.
The lunchtime clientele divided, it seemed, in two. Older northerners, thrilled and a little intimidated by the putti and chandeliers of this, Leeds' answer to the Sacher, had come in their best: rabbit collars, fondant-chocolate hats, suits with jackets buttoned up. The younger generation were in their best as well (Pringle jumpers, Reeboks), but, born of a more sophisticated age, were not so much impressed by the grandeur of the decor as by its history. A small, Pringle/Reebok offspring's request for lasagne was met with horrified silence ("The Child Who Asked for Lasagne"), and then patient explanation. "You can only have fish and chips here, lad," said his father, in hushed tones. "This is Harry Ramsden's."
Indeed it was. For over 60 years, since its eponymous creator opened his fish and chip shop opposite the tram terminus at Guiseley, between Leeds and the moors, Harry Ramsden's has fed the stomachs and imaginations of Yorkshiremen. In 1936 Ramsden borrowed £6,000 from suppliers and converted what had been a half-timbered hut (still maintained in the present restaurant's garden) into "the largest and most magnificent fish and chip emporium in the land". It was a magical recipe. For sixpence the mill workers of Leeds could leave the unglamorous world of back-to-backs and communal lavatories to dine in the sort of surroundings that they could only have seen in films. When he had made his pile, Harry built himself a handsome '30s home next door (named "Larwood House" after his favourite bowler), and supervised his own piece of Yorkshire history until 1956. Harry Ramsden's has subsequently been sold twice - to Associated Fisheries in 1965 and to the present management in 1988 - but Harry Ramsden still looms large in the minds of Leeds' epicures.
He is also much on the mind of his restaurant's latest owners. In 1985 John Barnes, former managing director of Kentucky Fried Chicken (Great Britain), approached Schroder Ventures with a plan to revolutionise the British fish and chip business by the time-honoured American expedient of branding. Barnes had examined AGB Research's data and discovered that, in spite of Spanish holidays and the fiendish encroachment of lasagne, the British eating public still preferred to take its dinner home wrapped in the Sunday Sport and doused in malt vinegar, thank you very much: 40% of AGB's respondents owned up to having eaten fish and chips in the previous 30 days, while only 15% had eaten pizza. Schroders, rising to the bait, funded the buyout of Merryweathers, an existing chain of takeaways in the South-east. Three years later, and with a management team that now included Richard Taylor (ex-money man for Watney Combe Reid and Truman), Barnes persuaded backers to stump up an undisclosed sum for Leeds' culinary valhalla.
If Barnes's initial vision was of a shoal of Harry Ramsden's, spawning in every British high street, then reality has proved to be rather different. Careful market research showed that the concept of the fish and chip restaurant - as opposed to shop - has limited and specific mileage. Moreover, the point of Harry Ramsden's is its eccentricity: a formula repeated a thousand times can hardly remain eccentric. In marketing man's argot, Barnes suggests that such a repetition "would have degraded the concept". Had the team lent the talismanic Ramsden name to takeaways, this dilution would have been even more severe. It would also, says Schroders' Charles Sherwood, have collapsed under its own weight.
What Barnes's team has done instead is to expand on a recipe which Barnes is emphatic is Harry Ramsden's own. Demerging from Merryweathers, the Leeds chippie was floated - to the immeasurable pleasure of sub-editors nationwide ("Sizzling start", "Battering the opposition", "The right plaice", etc.) - in November 1989. Subs were not the only enthusiasts. The £4 million flotation of Harry Ramsden's plc was oversubscribed by a factor of three, large helpings going to such corporate behemoths as Barclaytrust and Scottish Amicable.
This appetite for shares was clearly due, at least in part, to the new firm's bespoke franchise scheme, engineered by Barnes and described by him as "having your chips and eating them". Having "learned all about the strains of conventional franchising through Kentucky (Fried Chicken)", Barnes's system neatly sidesteps them by requiring two thirds of equity investment in any new Ramsden enterprise to come from carefully vetted local entrepreneurs, the remaining third being provided by the parent company in return for a pre-agreed royalty.
Dubbed "joint-venture franchising", Barnes claims that his system gives Harry Ramsden's plc "not just a franchiser's control agreement but a shareholder's control agreement", while leaving the company with a healthy capital bank balance.