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The Cod’s Scallops Owner John Molnar Reflects on Ten Years of the UK’s Best Fish and Chip Shop

4 August 21

Despite being about as far from the sea as you can get in the UK, The Cod’s Scallops was named as the UK’s best fish and chip shop in 2020, capping off an impressive list of accolades for one of Nottingham’s biggest culinary success stories. Opening as a single shop ten years ago, Nottingham is now home to four of the renowned chippies. With a fifth on the way, as well as a 10% discount running throughout August to celebrate their anniversary, we caught up with owner John Molnar to find out the secrets of his success…

The Cod’s Scallops has picked up a string of food awards over the years – most notably being named as the best fish and chip shop in the UK in 2020. What sets you apart from other chippies?
When I set out ten years ago I wanted to create world class fish and chips, and being from a chef background it enabled me to source restaurant quality produce. So I buy similar Dover soles to Rick Stein and the same quality lobster and scallops as a lot of Michelin star restaurants. My ethos has always been to buy as well as I can, sell at a reasonable price and treat it the whole process with respect and care, and that hasn’t changed. Over the years, people have recognised that out of 11,000 fish and chip shops, we’re the best in the UK, so we’re obviously doing something right.

You’ve got over thirty years experience in the food industry – what was your route into it?
I undertook an old school youth training scheme at the age of sixteen where I did five days at work, one day at college and had one day off for £25 a week. I worked at a solid four-star hotel where I learnt classic cookery, then moved on to some Michelin-rated hotels and ended up doing a stint in the Caribbean, working in Bermuda for just over a year. I just honed my skills, working with really good chefs and trying to be as keen and eager as possible to pick up as much as I could.

When I was little, the chippy tea on a Friday night was legendary, and long may that continue

When did the move to Nottingham happen?
I didn’t start working in Nottingham until around 1995 or 1996 when I opened Risley Hall Hotel and picked up a couple of rosettes for the fine dining restaurant. I’ve been in Nottingham ever since.

When it came to setting up your own place, what made you choose fish and chips?
I was the director of The Moleface Pub Company, so I had a group of gastro-pubs around Nottingham, like Larwood & Voce and The Wollaton, which I opened in 2007. I went on holiday to Brixton and found myself sitting in a restaurant thinking, ‘why don’t fish and chip shops offer more than cod and haddock?’ It just stuck in my brain, and even though cod and haddock still makes up around 65% of our sales, I just thought it could be so much better. So I ended up leaving the pub company and focusing on fish and chips. I’ve not looked back since.

Fish and chips is one of the staples of British cuisine, does that add a level of pressure?
Before we opened, I was obsessed with fish and chips. I spent eighteen months travelling up and down the country visiting the most renowned fish and chips shops. From the Magpie Café in Whitby and The Bay in Stonehaven to Rick Stein’s in Cornwall, I went everywhere and analysed the best batter, the best potatoes, the thickness of the cod… just everything. It got to the point where my wife thought I was insane. I would always buy two portions of cod and chips – one to eat, and one to weigh. I’d take the batter off to weigh how much they used, examine how flaky the fish was, look at the ratio of big chips to small chips. I was looking at everything, right down to the packaging!  

Just before we opened in 2011, the best chip shop in the UK was Fish and Chips at 149 in Bridlington. I rang the owners and asked if I could spend the day with them - they thought I was crazy, but let me. I got there at 6am and spent the day watching how they peeled potatoes, prepped fish and made batter, and it was amazing. I know it sounds a lot for fish and chips, but to do it well isn’t as easy as you might think. There’s some real skill to it and, in my eyes, there’s no difference between making good fish and chips and cooking Michelin star food.

And you can really tell the difference between a good chippy and a bad one, right?
It is a world of difference, and one of the big things for us was that we always wanted to cook to order. We don’t pre-cook any fish, like you might see at a normal chippy where they’ll have ten cod sitting in the hot box and you have no idea how long it’s been there. We cook everything fresh, and have got the timing worked out so that we’re dropping your chips at the same time as we cook your fish, so both elements come out of the fryer together and are at their peak in terms of taste and freshness. It takes a lot more staff and a lot more attention to detail, but it’s how I wanted to do it.

Over the past decade you’ve steadily built up a really loyal customer base, which you can see from the amount of positive reviews your shops have online. What was the key to that?
We offer a loyalty card, because people like to get something back – I’m the same with my Tesco club card. If you spend a certain amount of money, you get free fish and chips after eight purchases. But we’ve always evolved – cod and chips will always be our best seller in another ten years time, but we now offer things like baked fish with couscous salad, because people’s eating habits have changed. They see fish and chips as a great treat, and it is, but by offering something like baked salmon and salad, they feel ok eating it twice a week rather than once.  

We switched from beef dripping to vegetable oil around eighteen months ago, and there was some outrage, so we now do beef dripping on a Monday so if people still want it, they can have it. But we offer gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian options now too, because you can’t just think about one person – it’s the whole family that want fish and chips, but maybe one is a vegan or can’t have gluten. I think something like 25% of school children are vegetarian, so I just want to be able to offer options for everyone’s tastes.

Over the years, people have recognised that out of 11,000 fish and chip shops, we’re the best in the UK, so we’re obviously doing something right

The Cod’s Scallops also supports The Fisherman’s Mission charity. Can you tell us a bit about that?
The Fisherman’s Mission is an important charity to our industry because they support fishermen, the wives of fishermen who have been lost at sea, and the whole community, really. Without those guys going out to catch the fish, I haven’t got a business. But we support a lot of local charities, too. Each shop sponsors a local football team, and we’ve raised over £60,000 for Maggie’s Cancer Care over the last three years. We always want to try and feel like we’re part of the community. For about eighteen months we fed homeless people on the last Saturday of the month, we’ve recently fed a lot of asylum seekers who were stuck in the Mercure Hotel opposite our Mansfield Road shop and we did a Christmas meal for fifty kids from less fortunate families where they had fish and chips and a selection box. We actually had local people asking to come and help out washing pots when they found out about the Christmas meal, which just added to that great community feeling. And as a small family business, it’s important to keep that feeling going.

So you’re getting ready to celebrate your tenth birthday – what are the biggest changes you’ve seen over the last decade?
We’ve got a really loyal group of customers who tell people about The Cod’s Scallops, and it’s created a domino effect for us. To think that ten years ago we only had one shop, and now we’ve got four, and are about to start working on number five. None of that could have happened without the loyal following of the customers. We’ve tried to evolve as a company with the range of food we offer, and it’s nice to be able to offer options for everyone from the ages of four or five up. When I was little, the chippy tea on a Friday night was legendary, and long may that continue. That’s the key to another ten years.

In my eyes, there’s no difference between making good fish and chips and cooking Michelin star food

What have been the stand-out moments from the last ten years?
Ultimately winning the best fish and chip shop in the UK in 2020 was our stand out moment. People think you just get chosen for it, but it’s a nine-month process. There are five rounds of judging, two rounds of mystery shoppers visiting to try your food, and it ends with doing a presentation for fifteen judges in London. We believed in how good we were, but to go through that entire process and come out as number one out of 11,000 fish and chip shops was incredible.

Where do you think The Cod’s Scallops will be in another ten years time?
I like to think that we’ll be doing the same thing we’re doing now. I want to have a few more locations if COVID goes away for good and we get some sense of normality back. But I’d like to see it continue to go from strength to strength. Sometimes I’ll be sitting in a service station or a shopping centre thinking ‘a Cod’s Scallops would work here…’ I want to see it continue to grow organically while maintaining the same high levels of quality. Let’s see what the next few years bring.

In celebration of their tenth anniversary, The Cod's Scallops are offering 10% off their entire menu throughout the month of August

codsscallops.com

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