6 Queen Street, Dublin 1 (MAP)
'How two school teachers opened one of the best new restaurants in Dublin'
By John Mahon | 15.01.17
Fish Shop is the sort of independent business we love. It was set up by a young couple who’s only qualification is a love of food.
Former secondary school teachers, they took the leap that many don’t, from talking about it to doing it, opening a tiny market stall in London to get their idea in front of people.
Fast forward 2 years later and they have a thriving fish restaurant in Dublin’s north city centre.
We met Fish Shop’s Peter Hogan to ask him how it went from hobby stall to fully fledged business.
We met whilst training to be secondary school teachers in East London
So, who is behind Fish Shop?
We are Peter Hogan 31, from Tramore Co. Waterford & Jumoke Akintola 29 from Hackney, London. We met whilst training to be secondary school teachers in East London in 2008.
We set up a market food stall as a hobby that we could do on weekends and school holidays. We loved it and realised this could be more than a hobby so we decided to give it a proper go, quit our jobs and moved back to Dublin.
Setting up in Dublin instead of London made sense for lots of reasons. Firstly, having family in Dublin meant we had somewhere to stay when we weren’t making any money. Secondly, we thought the Dublin food scene was at an interesting stage and we believed we could make an impact.
With a strong concept we thought we could create a "hidden gem"
Why not burgers or pizzas? What was it about fish that appealed to you?
Our market stall in London taught us to keep our offering simple and something like fish & chips, done really well, could be both easier to get off the ground and buzzy enough to draw attention.
With a strong concept we thought we could create a "hidden gem" type of place off the beaten track, but only if the product was good enough.
We were doing everything ourselves, hand peeling every single potato, not knowing if we’d have one customer or fifty.
So, what was the first thing you did in Dublin?
We took a space at The Blackrock Market. Everybody thinks it was a shed but it was actually an unused concrete building that was so ugly we clad it in pallet wood to camouflage it. It ended up looking like a beach shack which suited us. We fitted it with a basic kitchen and opened in October 2013.
The first six months were tough. We were doing everything ourselves, hand peeling every single potato, making the trek in and out from Swords in North Dublin every day, not knowing if we’d have one customer or fifty.
The product itself was inconsistent, often because we just couldnt get the quality of fish day in day out but we stuck with it, refining our recipes and eventually we started noticing we were getting repeat business with some customers telling us it was the 'the best fish and chips they had ever had'. We started to believe in ourselves. Everyday we were getting a clearer picture of where we wanted to take the business.
When we look back on it now it's with a mixture of pride (that we stuck it out) and relief (that it all worked out in the end!).
Things exploded for us pretty much overnight
So what came next?
Moving from a stall to somewhere ‘bricks and mortar' was always the plan but we knew that we needed to get our product right and our brand established before we went down that road.
We always kept this idea of a proper place in town firmly part of our plans though and no matter how quiet the stall was we never did things like leafleting, voucher sites etc. because we knew (hoped) that one day we'd have a proper place with Fish Shop written above the door and we wanted to protect our brand for when that day came.
Early in 2014, when we realised we had a really good product we started itching to get somewhere more prominent to sell it. Then in April Niall Harbison did a piece on us in Lovin Dublin and things exploded for us pretty much overnight. This was followed by a review from Tom Doorley which was amazing for us given the nature of the location.
The weather started to pick up, people were bringing beers and wine and treating it like a proper little restaurant. We had an amazing summer in Blackock and we're really glad we had stayed but we knew that we needed to strike while the iron was hot in terms of our brand and also make the move before the winter.
It was a complete wreck, we were 100% sure it was the right location for us.
How did you chose the location for your first ‘proper' shop?
Anybody who has ever looked for a commercial premises for food in Dublin would know you have to be pretty flexible. You can't really limit yourself to a particular area, especially when you are on a super tight budget. We also liked the idea of opening up a cosy neighbourhood joint in somewhere like Portobello, Stoneybatter and Smithfield. We thought our backstory and the fact that you could see Jumoke and I working hard in the kitchen was a real asset, one that is more suited to a neighbourhood place on the edge of the city.
That said, if you'd offered us a unit with a few tables outside on South William Street we probably would have taken your hand off at the time!
We'd been keeping an eye on DAFT.ie and found the unit at 6 Queen Street in Smithfield in July 2014. There was no photos but we were happy to see it was right beside The Dice Bar. It was a complete wreck but it had loads of charm and we were 100% sure it was the right location for us.
It took until November to sign the lease and we started the work in January 2015.
What was your concept for Smithfield?
The initial concept changed quite a lot actually. We had a planned a Fish & Chip restaurant and takeaway but after building the requirements needed for the fire cert, disability access cert etc we were left with a space much smaller than we originally imagined.
We decided to just get the place open and see how people were using it and let that guide for our business model. People treated us like a restaurant right from the start and we've spent the last nine months adapting to that and making the menu and place as good as it can be.
We are at the mercy of the Irish Winter
What’s it like running a fish restaurant, what challenges do you face?
Seafood needs to be two things: fresh and simply prepared, which is actually not very easy to do consistently. How good our restaurant is on a given day is totally dependent on the quality of the seafood that comes through the door that morning. This mean we have to trust our suppliers 100% and we're really happy with the our two main suppliers; Molloys and Kish Fish. It also means that we write a new menu each and every day based around what's available. Thats alot of fun for us and make customer experience interesting as well.
We decided early on to use only wild Irish fish. It's not that we're that stubborn but any imported or frozen stuff we've tried is just so obviously not up to the standard we get locally.
However, this means we are at the mercy of the Irish Winter. When the weather is really bad the boats can't go out and when the bad weather continues for more than a few days - like the series of storms Frank, Desmond" etc. recently there was literally no fish available. We couldn't re-open the restaurant after Christmas until our suppliers told us they had stock!
From day one we decided not to advertise
Fish Shop seems to thrive on word of mouth. What sort of promotion and marketing do you guys do?
From day one we decided not to advertise (except one cheeky animation panel in le cool to announce the opening date April last!).
We've been really lucky with lots of lovely things in the papers and online and lots of support form people within the food game.
When we made the move from the market to a proper premises we knew a strong identity would be important for our brand and Noelle, Colin and the team at Unthink up the road did a really brilliant job with this.
Other than that we just try make sure we give people value for money and that everyone is treated nicely when they come to the restaurant. Our customers are really great and do most of the important promotion for us by recommending us to friends. We've got a really cool mix of people, all ages and backgrounds which is great.
Are you happy with where Fish Shop is now? What are your plans for the future?
We still have the same menu staples that we had when we first opened like the fish and chips, mussels and fried oysters however we just built a new wood oven in our new garden and we are now doing whole turbot, barbecued mackerel, wood roasted squid and we're really excited by the possibilities with that.
We also have a great small crew working with us now. It's just Michelle, Finn and Ollie on the floor, Fernando and Yuri in the Kitchen with Jumoke and myself. It took a while for it all to gel but we’re working really well together.
Our plans for the future are basically to make Fish Shop the best version of what it is now!