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June 23, 2020, 6:33 a.m. EDT

Fish-and-chip shops have been battered by the coronavirus — but this chain pivoted to online orders and sales soared

‘We made quick-fire decisions to preserve not only the business but the mortgages of 600 people,’ says the owner of one of the biggest chains selling the traditional British staple

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By Lina Saigol

Supplied by the company
When the chips are down, what do you do?

James Lipscombe was holed up in his house in Bishop’s Stortford, nursing a wife sick with the coronavirus disease, looking after two small children and running his business remotely, when the government announced the country was going into lockdown.

The managing director and owner of Chesterford Group — one of Britain’s biggest fish-and-chip chains, with 40 shops across the south, southeast and southwest of England — was forced to close all of his shops to walk-in customers, leaving Lipscombe in the biggest crisis of his career.

The company, which serves around 50,000 people a week, was burning through £150,000 in cash and, without quick action, would run out of funds in three months and go bust in less than six if it didn’t receive more government support.

That is when Lipscombe, came up with “Project Phoenix” — a three-pronged plan that would allow him to overhaul the business and reopen just two weeks later to operate in a sector that had been upended by the pandemic. “We blew up our business model and made quick-fire decisions to preserve not only the business but the mortgages of 600 people,” Lipscombe says.

The 39-year-old immediately put 550 of his staff on furlough using the government scheme, and secured a £2 million loan from HSBC /zigman2/quotes/203901799/delayed UK:HSBA +0.17%  to keep the business ticking over while he planned the reopening of his venues. The group operates under three brands: Churchill’s Fish & Chips, fishnchicken and Bankers Fish & Chips.

He then contacted the U.K.’s Environmental Health Office to look at creating new, safer ways of working to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Read: Plastic screens and makeshift grocery stores: How one restaurant chain is surviving the coronavirus crisis

This included sanitizing all surfaces in the restaurants every 30 minutes and checking on all employees every day before they came to work. Lipscombe created “bubble teams” so that workers only interacted with employees within their assigned groups.

Next: a complete digital makeover.

Before shutting down, just 17% of Chesterford’s sales came through digital channels, while 4% were via click and collect, and 13% were delivery order. The remainder came from walk-ins.

With additional investment, Lipscombe scaled up the group’s existing technology, which was already in use in around 60% of the restaurants, so that all 40 venues could offer delivery and click-and-collect options, as well as walk-in services.

Since May 5 — just five weeks after reopening all stores — delivery sales have grown by 440%, and click-and-collect orders have soared by 900%.

‘Within two weeks of reopening these two shops, we were back to taking £25,000 a week in earnings — the same money we were taking pre-COVID-19.’

James Lipscombe, Chesterford Group

Establishing a social-media strategy formed the third plank of “Project Phoenix,” as Lipscombe set about using Twitter /zigman2/quotes/202106864/delayed XE:TWR -3.21% and other platforms to communicate the new business model to customers and to educate locals about how to use the company’s new mobile app.

Chesterford’s flagship restaurant in Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire, was the first to reopen, followed by its shop in Pitsea in south Essex.

“Within two weeks of reopening these two shops, we were back to taking £25,000 a week in earnings — the same money we were taking pre-COVID-19,” Lipscombe says.

UK : U.K.: London
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