Pili on patrol

Mike Pili, training manager at MSITA, is the longest serving judge for the National Fish & Chip Awards, having started in 1991. Here he gives an insight into what he expects during an inspection

Throughout his time as a judge for the Independent Takeaway Fish and Chip Shop of the Year Award, Mike Pili has inspected hundreds of shops covering the length and breadth of the country, from Plymouth in the south west of England to the Shetland Islands in the far north of Scotland where the current champions Frankie’s Fish & Chips are based.

It’s a stringent judging process that takes place over a number of months every year and which tests participants’ knowledge and skills in order to encourage high standards. But it’s the mystery shopping stage of the competition where Mike says the fun really begins.

“Here, we as judges, get a unique opportunity to see the everyday running of a business and if competing shops really do maintain a high level of standard from day-to-day. Usually taking place across a four to five week period and with the judging visits being of an unannounced nature, shops can never tell when we’re just around the corner, ready to make an appearance!

“I am at times at a slight disadvantage now after all my years of judging as many people in the industry instantly recognise me. However, if a shop isn’t ready for a judging inspection by the time I have entered the premises to purchase some sample products, then it never will be.”

Following the purchase and sampling of fish and chips in the guise of a mystery shopper, Mike returns shortly afterwards to undertake further inspection of the respective shop.

“Although my face may be known to many shop owners, from the moment I step in the shop door, my judging hat is on and all personal feelings are put to the side. It’s so important that a judge conducts a truthful, honest assessment of a competing shop and treats all competitors equally — after all, true quality will always shine through.”

When doing a mystery judging assessment, Mike likes to start at the back of the shop as this is where he says the most mistakes are often made. “I’ll inspect every single piece of equipment from fridges and freezers to storage boxes and cooking utensils, while reviewing the range of frying equipment used and assessing whether or not it complies with required legal standards. The shops have to really showcase attention to detail — being a stickler for attention to detail, I’ll pick up on the smallest splash marks around the frying range and can usually also tell how long they have been there for! 

“In terms of front of house, it’s great to see a happy team — nothing beats service with a smile and this is something we take a lot of pride in as friers. I’ll always ask myself ‘would I be happy to visit this shop again if I was a customer?’ and if the answer is ‘yes’, then I know I’m usually onto a winner.

“The mystery shopping visits are a challenging round of judging as part of the competition. With a tough regime, as a shop owner you need to be prepared, but it’s important to remember that full marks are not impossible to achieve.

“Overall, I’d say if you have a clean shop that complies with the proper accepted industry standards and a good variety of sustainable products on offer — all prepared with passion, skill and expertise and served with a smile — then you’re well on your way to doing well in the competition.

“However, the most important thing to me is that you’re passionate about our industry as a whole and are willing to work towards improving standards to make sure our nation’s favourite takeaway is being served for generations to come.”

The ten finalists in the 2016 Independent Takeaway Fish & Chip Shop of the Year Award are:

Scotland - Cromars in St Andrews, Fife

Wales - Hikary’s Fish Bar, Neath, Port Talbot

Northern Ireland - The Dolphin Takeaway, Dungannon, County Tyrone

North East England - Mister C’s, Selby, North Yorkshire

North West England - Hodgson’s Chippy, Lancaster, Lancashire

Midlands - Simpsons Fish & Chips, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Eastern England - The Cod’s Scallops,  Nottingham, Nottinghamshire

London & South East England - Papa’s Barn, Ditton, Kent

Central & Southern England - Cox’s of Letchworth, Letchworth, Hertfordshire

South & West England - Kingfisher Fish & Chips, Plympton, Plymouth