At 27 years old, Cem Oktem runs two takeaways in Lancashire, Packet Bridge in Bolton-Le-Sands, which he opened nine years ago with his dad and brother, and Westgate Fish & Chips in Morecambe, which came to fruition less than a year ago.
Clocking up 13 years experience already as well as a 12-strong team, we talk to Cem about running two shops, his new Kiremko frying range and plans for expansion.
Do you think starting so young in fish and chips benefited you?
Yes, I think so because you get to see things from a different perspective, you can see what others have done and identify the good habits as well as the bad ones! It also means you’ve got loads to learn and I think people are a bit more open to advising younger people than they are to someone with a bit more experience.
I definitely picked up a lot from the old owner that we bought the shop from and I learned over time what the best practice methods were and adjusted to them.
Being involved in the Drywite Young Fish Frier of the Year competition, where I was a finalist in 2013 and 2014, really helped with that. So too did going on the KFE School of Frying Excellence course because what they teach you isn’t about completely changing your way of working, it’s more about tweaking things that can make a massive difference to your business.
How did you go from frying in one shop to managing and running two?
It’s all about finding the right people. We have a really good team at Packet Bridge. Jamie has been there for six years, so he moved down to the Westgate shop to help me run that and I’ve got two young fish friers, Steve and Jordan, who have stepped in to run Packet Bridge, so we’ve built our squad from the core. Steve and Jordan have been with us for six years now so it’s not like I’ve had to bring in new people that I don’t know. They know the business and the industry inside out, so it’s in a good pair of hands.
Is investing in your business something that’s important to you?
Yes, I think investing in your business is the most important thing you can do, it’s one of the reasons we went with a Kiremko range at our Westgate shop.
Why put something in that’s cheap that you are going to have to change and have problems with constantly? For peace of mind we enrolled in the 10-year platinum plus service contract. I’ve seen people moaning about the price of changing a pan but with a service package you don’t need to worry about that kind of thing.
You went for a different look with your new range, didn’t you?
Yes, we had ours powder coated white. When you walk into Westgate it doesn’t look like you’re walking into a big commercial kitchen, it looks more like someone’s house. I think we’re going to see a lot more shops go for the powder coating because it can be in keeping with your branding. You don’t have to have a big commercial unit that looks like the old image of a greasy fish and chip shop. We’re moving away from that concept, we want to get a better brand of fish and chips across to people now.
What direction can you see yourself taking the shops in?
Times are changing massively now with everything that’s happened around coronavirus pushing click and collect and delivery. I think we’ll end up seeing a lot of ghost kitchens but at the same time I think, for fish and chip shops, people will still walk in and queue, there’s still a future there for that.
Having said that, we’ve completely isolated the shop from customers now by putting a push through drawer into our front door. All our orders are done online or over the phone, so it’s completely safe. We are considering a delivery service from the Westgate shop because of its location, being so central to Morecambe. I’m honestly not sure when we’ll open our doors again to walk-in customers because it’s working well for customers and staff so we’re in no rush to open our doors just yet.
Have you got any plans to evolve the menu?
Yes, we’re going to look at doing baked fish, we want plenty of healthy options and some different species of fish too. I’ve been thinking about maybe adding some salmon or sea bass to the menu. Just different ideas really as we’ve got a lot of competition down at Westgate so I think just offering fish and chips isn’t enough now, we’ve got to offer alternatives. It’s about changing people’s perception of fish and chips as well and showing them there’s more to it.
Are there more shops in the pipeline for you?
Yes I think so, we’re going to look at how we could progress and get sizeable. I like what Fishnchickn do. I’m not saying we’d ever get to that size but it’s not a bad thing to aspire to them. They’ve been a huge success story, how they’ve expanded so quickly, how well structured they are, and how they move with the times as well. I’ve just seen how they’ve gone from having two bikes for delivery to 70 cars since lockdown. I just think it’s so impressive they have 39 businesses, although I’m not sure about finding staff for 39 shops!
Want to hear from more of our customers? Click here to read our interview with Richard Long of Harlees, a fish and chip brand spread across the south coast of England.