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

Minute on the clock: Mike Pili, Seafish National Fish & Chip Awards judge

Mike Pili, Seafish Award

Mike Pili, Seafish Award

The Seafish National Fish & Chip Awards 2016 have just announced Simpsons in Cheltnam as the best fish and chip shop in the UK. The awards’ longest-serving judge and former National Federation of Fish Friers chairman Mike Pili talks to Hannah Thompson about food trends, great service and how to judge the perfect chippy

You are the longest-serving judge on the panel. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in 20 years?

The underpinning knowledge of how to prepare the dish has greatly improved, as has the attitude of the fish friers. They’ve become increasingly professional and business-savvy like never before.

Why is it important to hold the awards?

They are the “Oscars” of the fish frying world. They provide an excellent opportunity for individuals and businesses to put their skills to the test. They also play a role in raising quality standards and providing a benchmark for businesses to aspire to and help us to reinforce the UK’s reputation for the world’s best fish and chips.

What do the awards bring to the businesses who take part?

A platform for recognition. The benefits of entering are substantial and many of the past finalists and winners have gained international fame, increased shop footfall and turnover, and even launched their own products.

What’s the most important thing to consider when judging a shop?

It has to have that “wow” factor; there has to be something that appeals to me and makes me want to explore further. I’ll always ask myself “Would I be happy to visit this shop again as a customer?”

What should independent shops know about this award?

Anyone and everyone should be entering – you’ve nothing to lose. The competition is open to a whole host of fish and chip operators; there is an award category for everyone.

What makes the perfect fish and chips for you?

It’s about look, smell and taste. They should be appealing to the eye, with a fresh aroma. When you take your first bite, they have to taste delicious and live up to your expectations.

What is the one thing that can ruin a good dish?

The batter. If that’s wrong then the dish is well and truly spoiled.

You are a former frier – how does this help you with judging?

It allows me to assess how all the different elements of the shop are marrying together; the frying process, the customerservice and the staff’s skill base. If they are cutting any corners, I will find out!

Your parents also ran fish and chip shops. What did they teach you?

They taught me what a fish and chip business needs to be successful: quality and service. You have to have a good-quality product but you need even better customer service skills to be able to sell it.

Do some places have a higher number of great fish and chip shops than others?

Shops will cluster around the coast, but great fish and chips can be found in all parts of the UK. Many of the best shops are in residential areas, where they cannot rely on passing trade. Distance from the sea is no barrier.

How do ‘traditional’ fish and chips stay relevant today?

The dish consistently remains the nation’s favourite takeaway, and for good reason. I think the heritage behind fish and chips will always help; they’re a symbol of British identity. Many operators also keep the dish relevant by offering a wide variety of fish and alternative cooking methods, such as pan-frying and grilling.

Do you think newcomers will always be at a disadvantage in the awards?

I think they are actually at an advantage; they have an amazing opportunity to learn from established shops. They can also offer something different as theyhaven’t had the chance to get stuck in a rut. The only disadvantage is their lack of experience.

Can city centre restaurants ever compete with seaside shops?

Restaurants are now catering to the ‘posh nosh-talgia’ trend and using this effectively as a major selling point. Location does play an important role, but if your business has a good product and service, you’ll succeed.

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