Testing times bring ideas and rewards for hospitality

Mitch Tonks

Seafood champion Mitch Tonks says the hospitality sector can learn from the pandemic - Credit: Mitch Tonks

We’ve gone through quite a rough time during Covid, as so many businesses have, but actually it’s been an opportunity for the industry to really look at itself and work out how to be better.

Hospitality is an amazing industry. You get incredible rewards. Our job is to make people happy and when you see somebody smile as a result of something you’ve done that really is the drive that we all get addicted to.

One of the things that has kept Rockfish going is the very strong culture we have in our teams.

First and foremost we like to think of ourselves as a tribe of people really. Our job is to change the way people experience seafood and we do that in many ways, by serving super fresh fish, by being involved in all aspects of the sourcing, buying and preparing of seafood and also being extremely knowledgeable about what we do.

We are seafood experts with years of experience. Rockfish is more than a restaurant company, we are in fact a seafood company; we talk about it, we train on it, there is a lot of specialism and experience in our business.

Hospitality has really been tested during this period of time. There have been some amazing things that have happened as a result.

We’ve had chefs go into isolation and then other chefs from our sites moving from one area to another temporarily to cover another site, quite far away quite often! And that’s happened in several sites and been really brilliant.

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People have felt supported. We’ve had managers helping each other on the floor. My son Ben and I have been up at 4am going in to help cut fish when we’ve needed to when we had some isolation cases in our seafood premises.

It’s a real show of what good culture can be like and I think it's why people really like to work for Rockfish because its an organisation that has purpose beyond making money.

We think an awful lot about how we can make things much better for our people because the cost of not having people is huge, right? There’s no denying that it’s been hard. The demand from customers has been high, many have been hugely understanding of the challenges, but of course they have their own and we are the place they come to relax and get away from problems. Our teams have been amazing in wanting to give that great service. 

During the pandemic we looked towards other people too, to see how we could learn from them and share stories. Two of our directors, Laura Cowan and John Barnes, got together and they were listening to these stories and talking to lots of other businesses, social organisations and individuals.

They were so inspired by the stories they brought them together into a book which will be published next month – Altering Course – The Covid Chronicles.  It’s been a time when we’ve all been faced with what looks like the impossible and then you realise just what is possible – it’s a phenomenal thing. When the pandemic struck none of us were geared up for that sort of thing. Then we all got on with it.

We also had the effects of Brexit, the challenges of buying fish, of getting fish, of the impact on our local fishermen exporting.

We decided that we were going to start something new, to try and get British seafood to people in a way they had never had it before. What if, as a customer, you could look at a live auction as fish was landed and buy that fish prepared 24 hours a day as the market was running and have it sent to your home in proper eco-packaging?

We’re launching something in November to do just that; people will know what boat their fish came from, it’s British fish, it’s from well-managed fisheries, it’s from the Brixham quayside, the market that lands the biggest, in terms of highest value, catch in England.

The industry has still got to reinvent itself a bit, pay needs to be fairer, hours need to be reduced. We have to optimise and improve what we do all the time, get slicker at what we do and at the same time make enough money to pay and cover the costs of the company.  

I also think if you can pay those costs and keep and develop brilliant people then customers have a better time. It’s a virtuous circle!

When furlough ends and the VAT cut comes to an end, for us in seasonal businesses, as business levels drop then we will be faced with new and different challenges again.

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