HARTLEBOL, England – When it opened in 2020, business was booming at Chunks, a shop serving dozens of portions a day of Britain’s most famous fast food: scrambled and fried cod with french fries, or potato chips as it’s known here.
But even before the war in Ukraine increased store bills for energy, fish and cooking oil, inflation forced the two owners, Siward and Michael Lewis, to raise their prices twice.
Now, with another price hike driving customers away, Chunks is on the verge of collapse.
“We may not be able to make it to the end of the month,” said Ms Lewis, sitting in the back of the store in Hartlepool, the seaside town in northeastern England where her husband Michael grew up.
Ms Lewis added that the fighting in Ukraine was “the straw that broke the camel’s back” – and not just for Shanks, but possibly thousands of other fish and chips across the country.
The war, which devastated cities in Ukraine and killed thousands, increased pressure in Britain on a sector already suffering from epidemic-related inflation. Gas and electricity costs have risen. The price of cod soared after countries announced plans to ban or punish imports of Russian fish, making North Sea supplies scarcer and more expensive.
Ukraine and Russia are large producers of sunflower oil, which many fish and chip shops use, and this is running out. Even potatoes are destined to become more expensive, as higher gas prices raise the cost of fertilizer.
“Fish, oil, flour (for dough) and chips,” said Andrew Crook, president of the National Junior Fish Association, referring to fish, oil, flour (for dough) and chips.
As a result, Britain is likely to lose up to 3,000 of its roughly 10,000 fish and chips stores, according to Mr Crook, who describes the situation as the industry’s biggest crisis since these stores first opened in the 1860s.
More than 150 years later, at least one shop – or “chippy” – is found in most towns of any size, producing an inexpensive fast food meal that inspired the British idiom “as cheap as potato chips”.
To add to the gloom and price hikes, the government recently ended a reduced rate of sales tax on prepared foods that it had implemented as an epidemic measure.
When the Louises opened the Chunks, they assumed doing fish and chips was a safe bet. After all, it was a product so important to morale that it was never legalized during World War II—a culinary blend that Winston Churchill referred to as “the good comrades.”
But with inflation lowering their incomes, some of their customers reacted to higher prices with anger or even abuse, while others turned away. And the costs of preparing soft peas, a sticky green side dish, have skyrocketed. After the recent price hike, sales at Chunks plummeted by 1,000 pounds, or about $1,300, in a week.
said Lewis, who is back at his old job as an electrical inspector to keep the money flowing.
A short drive away, things were even worse for Peter Wigram, who had recently closed his shop after a quarter-century and laid off two workers.
Mr Wigram said he felt ill when he closed his shop, The Chippy, concluding he could no longer make a living. He still hopes fish prices will drop enough to reopen.
“I’m climbing walls now – I’ve never been unemployed in my life,” he said in his empty shop.
Within two weeks the cost of boxes of cod he bought had risen to £185 from £141, while his gas and electric bill had nearly doubled, meaning he had to raise his prices for a single meal to around £9 from £5.60 just for us to share. fairly.
“People here weren’t going to pay for it,” he said, adding that fish and chips “was a cheap meal, and now it will end up being a luxury.”
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A few miles south, in the seaside town of Redcar, Nicola Atkinson is determined to keep her shop, Seabreeze, but she’s also feeling cramped.
“I’ve been doing this for 25 years – I’ve never seen anything like this before,” she said, explaining how she raised prices for the fourth time since the start of last year.
“How do you keep explaining that to clients?” She asked. “People don’t have disposable income, so what will they do? Will they come in less? We can’t afford not to raise prices because we will lose, and then we will not be here for tomorrow. But there is a limit to what people can afford.”
Some customers in the North East of England still think the fish and chips are worth the higher price.
“It’s a British staple,” said El Jepson, a nail technician who frequents Chunks. Who doesn’t eat fish and chips?
But at Redcar, David Bell was less optimistic. “Two pounds and fifty for a bag of potato chips? You can buy a bag of potatoes for that.”
Cheap fish and chips stores have been expected to be a staple of working-class life throughout their long history, but they must rival chains whose usually basic offerings – burgers, fried chicken, pizza – are less expensive than fish.
“Prices are already at a record high, they are going up 5-10 percent every week,” said Mr. Croke, of the Junior Fish Association. Britain buys relatively few fish from Russia – and has threatened to add big tariffs to those – but Mr Crook said the US ban on Russian fish imports has increased competition for supplies from Iceland and Norway, on which fish and chips stores depend. employment.
Mr Kroc runs a snack in Euxton in Lancashire where his last supply of Ukrainian sunflower oil is piled up front. When that runs out, he might opt for palm oil, but other food producers are also scrambling for supplies, driving up prices.
While Mr. Kroc is confident he can survive financially, he is sure that many other shop owners won’t. He said Britain would lose out on more takeaway if thousands of living chips were to disappear.
“There is a bit of theater in a fish and chip shop, a bit like being behind a pub,” said Mr. Crook. “I have clients who just come over to joke, and for some seniors, we might be the only people they talk to all day.”
“It’s something special, it’s part of the nation’s culture,” he added.