UK fish and chip shops face a bleak future due to war in Ukraine

Fish is fried at Godwin's Fish and Chips, for a long time
The fish is fried at Godwin’s Fish and Chips, a long-standing “chippy” store in Preston, England. (James Forde for the Washington Post)
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CHORLEY, England – These are perilous times for fish and chips, the golden fried food for the masses celebrated as Britain’s ‘favorite meal’ and ‘the national dish’.

It turns out that much of this fish comes from Russian trawlers and sunflower oil from Ukrainian fields.

With the Russian war raging in Ukraine, that means skyrocketing prices for starving Brits. The ingredients for an order of fish and chips – by design cheap and calorie-dense – now cost more than twice as much as they did at the start of the year.

And so we are left with Andrew Crook, president of the National Federation of Fish Fryers, standing outside a shuttered ‘chippy’ in this small town about 20 miles north-west of Manchester. His organization estimates that a third of the UK’s 10,500 fish and chip shops will close in the coming year.

“We have survived two world wars, a depression, multiple recessions. We’ve never seen anything like it,” said Crook, a nearby store owner, Captains of Euxtonwhere he is about to raise prices in hopes of staying afloat.

Your average chip shop has always operated on tight margins. But the owners say they never imagined they would be victims of a 21st century globalized commodity economy upended by World War II-style artillery engagements in Europe, then crippled by a naval blockade in the Black Sea. .

It’s hard to overstate the centrality of the chippy to British life – the traditional mom-and-pop joint, aromatic with grease, shiny with stainless steel fryers, where orders are dosed in salt and vinegar (or sauce or curry), before being carefully wrapped in a piece of paper. Even though many owners these days are recent immigrants, the shops remain one of Britain’s most trusted institutions.

Fish and chips was “originally the worker’s lunch, and it was the meal a family ate together on a Friday night that would fill you up, fill all your kids, no matter how many kids you had. , and low cost and high calories was always part of that deal,” Crook said.

Nick Andronicou and his wife have run Charlie’s Chips in Chorley for eight years. Both are from Greece and wanted their daughters to receive an education in English.

“It’s a good business, very reliable. Same customers — they come once a week, or three times a week. It’s good for retirees, good for people on a budget,” said Andronicou, whose shop sells a small order of fish with chips, peas, bread and butter and tea for around £5. $50.

He has just ordered new menus because he is about to increase the prices. But the future looks bleak, he said. He assumes he will even lose a few regulars. “A lot of chip shops are going to close,” he said.

In some pubs, where fish and chips are also a staple, chefs say the dish is now more expensive to prepare than a fillet of steak. Companies that manufacture fish sticks and fish pies on an industrial scale are also feeling the pressure. Schoolchildren will soon see a favorite lunch option disappear.

Sad news, but restaurants and schools can change the protein content of their menus. The fish and chips shop cannot easily change the fish it serves. The chippy client is very resistant to experimentation; they want the same bland white fish the shops have been serving for around 160 years – that is cod or haddock, few of which are found in UK waters.

The chippies tried to peddle tilapia, ray and hake. They haven’t won any fans.

Originally a Victorian era food phenomenon, fish and chips is as basic as it gets.

Cod. Potatoes. Oil. Heat.

But the supply chain is very complex.

Ukraine is the world’s largest supplier of sunflower oil, producing 50% of the world’s supply. But with its ports now in a war zone, blocked by Russia, the price of its sunflower oil has tripled. Overland shipping – by rail and truck – further increases costs.

Many chippies have turned to palm oil from Asia, only to see prices rise in the same way. Fearing an oil shortage as global demand soared this spring, Indonesia briefly blocked palm oil exports. This decision sent further shock waves through the commodity market.

There is another problem. While fish and chips is traditionally considered a quintessential ‘British’ meal, that’s not really true. Most of the whitefish currently on the market come from the fishing fleets of Norway, Iceland and especially Russia.

Cod and haddock are cold water fish – and with climate change they have migrated north, about seven miles a year, to higher latitudes.

“Our local waters have never produced much cod and haddock,” the traditional staple of fish and chips, noted Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organizations.

Russian trawlers supply half of the whitefish consumed in Britain and between 30 and 60% of the fish for chip shops, depending on the year and the price, according to Aoife Martin, director of operations at the government monitoring agency Seafish.

To punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government announced it would impose a 35% tariff on Russian whitefish. The action was due to take effect in March but was delayed. Skeptics assume the government is afraid of a price hike and what it might do to the chippies. Government officials promise that the tariff is “imminent”.

British fleets are still catching a decent amount of cod these days, despite being squeezed by soaring fuel prices. Diesel doubled, partly due to the war in Ukraine and energy sanctions against Russia.

Deas says the UK fishing industry has reached an economic tipping point, with many vessels idling in port. He pointed to recent reports from his organisations: A vessel in the South West of England landed fish worth $13,396 but fuel costs engulfed $12,630. In another case, a landing of $53,560 and a fuel bill of $35,240 plus other expenses left each of the eight crew members with $2,290.

“It’s hard work,” said Deas, who said British captains were struggling to find crews willing to risk their lives to go to sea for next to nothing.

Alex Bracewell runs Godwin’s Fish and Chips in the nearby town of Preston. The company has been in the family for four generations. It’s a popular place, with good parking.

“We’ll get there, I think,” Bracewell said Tuesday. “But the stores are just hanging on?”

He shrugged, then rushed over to face the lunchtime rush.


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