Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Rockfish in Exeter - and coming to Sidmouth

A regional fish-restaurant chain is coming to Sidmouth's seafront:
Futures Forum: Plans for Port Royal: Rockfish bid accepted for Drill Hall
Restaurant plan to bring redundant Sidmouth seafront site back to life - Devon Live

They are just opening up in Exeter - and Devon Live reviews the restaurant, the chain and its prospects: 

We take a sneak peek at the new Exeter Rockfish

More than a 1,000 diners tried to get a seat for special preview evenings ahead of the official opening on March 18.

Hannah Finch
17:00, 9 MAR 2019



When Rockfish launched its pre-opening dates for diners at its brand new Exeter restaurant, it took 1,050 reservations in just an hour. The paint is barely dry on the £1.5million 155-seater restaurant on the Quay and already it has generated a wave of interest from Devon seafood lovers.

"That's the measure of it," said Mitch Tonks, the TV chef and author behind the Rockfish brand. ""We are going to have 350 people in over three days for the half-price pre-opening which are designed as a test of the restaurant. Inevitably something leaks, breaks or trips. This is an opportunity for the team to learn the flow of the restaurant but I'm not nervous, I'm really confident that we have a good strong team here."

The restaurant officially opens on March 18 and is the first that has been purpose built for Rockfish, which over the past 10 years has built a portfolio in Dartmouth, Torquay, Plymouth, Brixham, Exmouth.

Inside the new Rockfish in Exeter

Mitch, who founded the Fishworks chain before opening fine dining restaurant The Seahorse in Dartmouth, said that Rockfish is about bridging the gap between the fish and chip market on one hand and the high-end seafood restaurants on the other.

"We wanted to make a really good seafood restaurant that's affordable."

With a board that includes catering heavyweights Henry Dimbleby (ex-Leon & London Union), Steve Leadbetter (ex Findus and 2 Sisters Food Groups) and John Barnes (ex La Tasca and Harry Ramsden), Rockfish has honed its offer over the past decade.

And it is planning to roll out a major expansion with two restaurants in Dorset and another in Sidmouth after securing fresh investment from Gresham House Ventures. It plans to expand its portfolio to 16 over a four year period.

Mitch said: "We do two a year, bearing in mind that this one should have been completed last year, which is plenty. We want our restaurants to be about the destination and eating seafood by the coast or by the water is part of the expereince."

Building a restaurant brand that retains integrity at scale is challenging, said Mitch, and is one of the reasons that mid-market eateries are suffering at the moment. There are fears for Exeter's Giraffe after its owners announced plans to close 27 branches and comes after a rocky 12 months for the likes of Jamie's Italian, Prezzo and Byron Burger.

"I also think that particularly in city centres, they have not set up in good locations for restaurants where people naturally gravitate to but instead are part of a shopping experience, which we now know is rapidly changing."

With a training school in Brixham, he said that teaching staff well and building a good team is vital for customer service. It even uses software to be able to quickly take customer feedback and use it in staff briefings the very next day.

And its vital that restaurants belong to the community, rather than just taking money off them, said Mitch. So far it has raised £10,000 for Pride of Brixham and supports the Torbay Holiday Network funding holidays for families of sick children. Its children's packs encourage beach cleans and expore issues of sustainability and the environment.

Mitch lives in Brixham with his wife Pen and their family in a house overlooking the fish market where Rockfish has a restaurant.

He said: "I never thought I'd have a restaurant in Brixham because I live there but I love the fish market, its so good to see the fish coming in because we buy our own fish and we prepare it all ourselves. Brixham fish market is one of the very best in the world because of the varieties that are landed and brought there though a lot of it goes to export.

"Britain is a nation of cod eaters, it is a cultural thing. Sea bass and turbot is going to cost you £15 a portion and as a nation, we are just not spending that on food. There is an element of fear with preparing fish. A lot of our customers are older, over 55, and as you get older you acquire more cooking skills and your tastes change. But what we are seeing, which is encouraging, is more families coming for the experience of eating seafood by the sea."

And while Exeter Quay is a departure from the usual coastal locations, Mitch said it is still close enough to get daily seafood from Brixham and has a watery feel with huge glass walls that peel back to let in the breeze during the summer months.

Mitch said: "I tend to choose locations on feel and this is a great place to have a fish restaurant, you have the boats and people enjoying the water. There are some really great little businesses and bars around and I like to see this as being part of a vibrant area. Slowly you build a cluster and the whole place tips over into something really great."

He explained how Rockfish has kickstarted regeneration, particularly in Brixham, that together with St Austell Brewery's Markethouse pub had brought fresh life around the harbour area.

"There are some really great independent restaurants, like Beamers, where the owner buys off the fish market and Simply Fish, which is ding really well. We created 50 jobs in Brixham and I'm proud of that. Our seaside towns are in a state of flux and we are seeing city dwellers coming to the coast for a different way of life whereas 20 years ago they would have bypassed these towns. The more people that are there, the more a town can survive, it's a two way thing."

We take a sneak peek at the new Exeter Rockfish - Devon Live

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