UK: Wild about Harry's. (2 of 2)

UK: Wild about Harry's. (2 of 2) - The proof of Barnes's scheme is in the pudding, of which more later. In early October the first new/old Harry Ramsden's was opened, across the Pennines (what would Harry have said?) in Blackpool, and, suitably enough, b

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The proof of Barnes's scheme is in the pudding, of which more later. In early October the first new/old Harry Ramsden's was opened, across the Pennines (what would Harry have said?) in Blackpool, and, suitably enough, by Neil Kinnock - wine-bar socialism endorsing newly entrepreneurial working class catering. (Truth to tell, the Blackpool consortium's first choice had been that well known aficionado of northern cuisine, Edwina Currie; but the ex-minister proved uncharacteristically coy.)

This gift for self-publicity is solidly in the Ramsden tradition, Barnes points out, instancing the late Harry's hogging of headlines on his 40th anniversary by selling 10,000 customers fish and chips at 1-1/2d each. Harry Ramsden's (Blackpool) continues its founding father's philosophy in other ways as well, most notably by choosing as its venue an end-of-the-line destination, and thus a captive audience. The 100-seat chip-off-the-old-chip has managed to turn over as much as its thrice-larger Guiseley parent, cramming an astonishing 6,000 customers in on one Saturday during the Illuminations - quite a feat, considering the "Harry Special" (a whale-sized slice of haddock, pot of tea, chips, mushy peas, plate of Mother's Pride: £5.50) takes some eating.

Barnes is also pleased to note that Harry's very first chippie was, coincidentally, in Blackpool, opened by one Mr Corbett, uncle of Harry S and thus great-uncle, improbably, of Sooty. Buoyed by success, Harry Ramsden's plc is now awaiting completion of a similar operation in Glasgow and has its eyes fixed firmly on Scarborough and Skegness.

This traditionalising is all very well, but it does bring its own problems. Each new Harry Ramsden's is intended to be a precise simulacrum of the original Guiseley shrine, from the sauce bottles on the table to the chandeliers above them ("Who needs Fitch?" chortles Barnes). One trouble with this is that it leaves room for only just so many Harry Ramsden's outlets: Barnes is acutely aware of the dangers of one outlet cannibalising its neighbour's custom.

The new boys have worked wonders with the balance sheet at Guiseley, ironing out seasonal blips by courting corporate diners during the winter, and filleting their haddock bill (real Yorkshiremen don't eat cod) through judicious portion control and exclusive deals with trawlers. A typical piece of legerdemain was the introduction onto the menu of bread-and-butter pudding, a virtuous answer to unavoidable Mother's Pride wastage. Nonetheless, the ingredients of Harry's recipe can be varied only so much.

A large majority of the group's 4,688 shareholders also dine regularly under the watchful gaze of its putti - handy for profitability but inhibiting on change. "We constantly have to ask ourselves 'Would Harry have done that?'," Barnes confesses.

Extant or future Ramsden's outlets may be expanded - Guiseley has itself been recently hiked up to 300 seats - but there can only be a finite number of them, and they can only offer an extremely finite menu. The answer has been to look abroad, which Barnes, one-time ambassador to the court of Colonel Sanders, has been assiduously doing.

The firm's first sortie, helped by Richard Taylor's fluent Cantonese, was, ironically, to Hong Kong, a curt reversal of the takeaway tide. For two weeks last summer Harry Ramsden's had its own stall in Kai Tak airport (a nicely Ramsdenesque piece of showmanship, which - funded as it was by Cathay Pacific - would have pleased the Yorkshire founder, says Barnes, by "having cost nowt"), and was overwhelmed by demand. "The Chinese community's response was very positive," recalls Barnes, "although it must be said that they seemed keener on the batter than on the fish. They don't seem to know what to make of mushy peas."

The firm is now in negotiation with a "large Hong Kong trading company". At the same time, soundings are also being taken in Singapore, Australia and New Zealand, all of which have the clear advantage of large, recently expatriated British communities, nostalgic for beef dripping and chip butties. Given its faint themepark air, Harry Ramsden's might also be expected to go down well in the United States, although both Taylor and Barnes profess themselves wary of moving across the Atlantic too rapidly. Another projected expansion - to the Gulf - has been put on ice, for obvious reasons (not the least being the Kuwait Food Company's 13.6% holding in Harry Ramsden's plc).

In the meantime Barnes's main concern is to get his company's shares out of the Third Market and onto something a little more malleable. ("You just can't trade at that level," he says. "Everything you hear about market makers and small businesses is true.") With considerable mileage still left even in domestic demand, the heirs of Harry Ramsden have time on their side, and they intend to use it. That, after all, is what Harry would have done.

(Charles Darwent is a freelance journalist.)

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