From a chippy in Bangor, Northern Ireland, to the battle grounds of Afghanistan, a fish and chip shop staple is proving a popular addition to the menu.
There’s no messing around at The Gellie – traditional fish and chips from a traditional family-run fish and chip shop is the name of the game. In fact, owner Janice McClurg is very honest in admitting that they probably do everything much the same here as in many of the other fish and chip shops in the area.
The fish is skinless, frozen at sea cod and haddock, the potatoes are English maris pipers chipped and peeled daily and everything is cooked in beef dripping on a high efficiency range. It’s pretty much the recipe for this part of Ireland – and much of the UK too if we’re honest.
“We did sell whiting when we first opened, but it became so expensive and everyone wanted cod or haddock anyway,” explains Janice. “And we did try Irish potatoes but they just don’t make good chips as there’s too much water in them.”
Where The Gellie excels itself is in serving a simple menu of top quality products complemented with that all important Irish hospitality, and Janice ensures that from the minute customers walk in to the minute they leave with their freshly cooked fish and chips, every person matters. “There are three fish and chip shops and a McDonald’s within a three mile radius of here so we do our upmost to be friendly,” says Janice.
“The shop sits on the edge of a housing estate, which provides most of the business, and having been here for seven years now we know everybody by name and I can tell what people want before they walk through the door and even whether they want salt or vinegar.”
Coming from a small fishing village in County Down called Portvogie, buying a fish and chip shop was very much a natural progression for Janice and her fisherman husband. “Simon was a fisherman since he was 16 and had spent a lot of time at sea, but he wanted to get out of it. Our two children were away at university and this was a way to run a business that could have both me and my husband working in it.”
But it wasn’t just Simon who had a string of skills that would prove useful in a fish and chip shop - Janice could also fillet a fish or two. “Coming from a small fishing village you went to work with fish. There aren’t a lot of shops here – in fact there’s only one so work was very limited. But there was always plenty of fish processing going on and that’s where you went.”
A quick refurbishment including a new shopfront, tiling inside, the addition of some seating at the front and plastic panelling to the rear and the shop has become a thriving part of the community.
While the pair’s sons may not have followed them into the family business, one is certainly sharing their passion for fish and chips.
“Robert’s a corporal in the 1st Battalion, the Royal Irish Regiment, and he’s just returned from his second tour of Afghanistan,” explains Janice. “While he was out there we would send him parcels – things to spice up his ration pack, wee bits and pieces that didn’t weight too much. One of the things I used to send him was Dinaclass Irish Curry Sauce.”
Whilst outside of the camp in their outposts, Robert would cook fish and chips for his comrades using what he had around him. “When they are in their outposts they are pretty much on their own,” continues Janice. “Robert would make fishcakes out of tins of tuna and once he made his own lifter for the chips out of some wire – a coat hanger maybe, I’m not sure. But fish and chips served as a reminder of home and I think it provided a real boost to morale. He even got me to send him an apron and a hat – he’s quite a character, a bit of an entertainer and he likes to keep everyone’s spirits up.”
Displayed proudly on the walls of the chippy are a number of photos of Robert and his homemade fish and chip suppers. But the photo mum Janice is most proud of is the one taken three years ago when Robert received the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross, ranked just below the Victoria Cross, from the Queen at Buckingham Palace.“I think he was being an idiot, but no, he was very, very brave. During an attack in Helmand province, his commander got injured and Robert took over the battle. I was so proud seeing him get his medal from the Queen.”
Back in Bangor
Back at the shop in Bangor life may be quieter than in Afghanistan but the Irish Curry Sauce remains just as popular.
“The taste is great and it’s so easy to prepare,” explains Janice. “It’s such a popular choice either on chips or a lot of people seem to choose it with the lunchtime special. It’s very profitable to have on the menu but at the same time it’s a good item to include in the meal deals as a little goes a long way.”
As with many fish and chip shops, recently The Gellie has begun to feel the effects of the recession and, just as her son proved inventive in his approach in the desert, Janice has had to learn to be resourceful in the takeaway.
For one she’s reassessed the shop’s opening hours after trade became progressively slow
in the mornings. “We used to get a lot of passing trade, for example builders coming in in the morning for tea and sodas - bacon and egg on a special Irish bread – but that’s really died down now, so we open at 11.30am instead. It’s hard to see, but we have to get on with it. We stay open until 8pm instead and that’s definitely our busiest period now.”
There’s also a new lunch time special on the menuboard to lure in those that work close by. Including a fish supper, battered sausage supper or a pasty supper, with curry, gravy, peas or beans for £3.00, it’s proving a real winner with customers watching the pennies. “There’s a lot of competition around us now compared to when we first opened. So we’re always looking at our prices and trying to keep them cheaper than the others while keeping the quality up.” Wanting to stay loyal to her regular customers, Janice has also found ways to compensate for increasing overheads as opposed to putting up prices. “Everything is going up – the gas, electricity, our beef dripping has gone up a couple of pounds a box. I know we could put our prices up but I don’t want to, so we try to absorb some of that cost by saving as much as we can elsewhere.
“We try and keep the electricity and gas bills down by turning the lights off if there is nobody in the potato room, or in the afternoon we turn one side of the hot plate off, and the range has a feature which puts the pans on standby, so it all helps.”