WHEN corporate names fall into decline, they resemble an actor who leaves the stage to the echo of their footsteps.
Few mark or mourn their passing. For more than a decade, I had the painful, if involuntary, duty of witnessing the sad downfall of one of the biggest names in business.
From my home in Menston, I was within walking distance of the most famous fish and chip shop in the world, Harry Ramsden’s, which, in its heyday attracted queues that seemed to snake all the way to Leeds.
Ramsden was an entrepreneur and a showman who understood his customers’ needs and aspirations. They, in turn loved him and flocked by the charabanc-load to eat his fish and chips.
Ramsden established his business in a hut in Guiseley in 1928. Three years later he took a big risk by turning the hut into a restaurant, but the concept of dining surrounded by carpets, and white tablecloths seduced consumers who were tired of the drudgery of Depression era Britain. The first restaurant was built where trams from Leeds and Bradford reached their journey’s end on the fringe of the moors.
This was no ordinary restaurant. Mr Ramsden greeted his customers dressed in a wing collar, starched apron and straw boater. A trip to Harry Ramsden’s was an “experience”, something to boast about to your workmates in the mill or factory after a coach trip to the Dales.
Harry Ramsden was a marketing genius. His decision in 1952, for example, to sell fish and chips at 1912 prices had customers flocking to his door. Over the decades, millions of people had fond memories of their trip to Harry Ramsden’s; with its handsome interior and staff who were trained in the fine arts of customer service.
As a politician keen to display her populist credentials, there was only one place for Margaret Thatcher to visit during a trip to West Yorkshire in the late 1980s. She joined the long list of celebrities who wanted to be associated with Harry Ramsden’s .
When I moved to Menston in 1999, I was intrigued by Harry Ramsden and his legacy. Did his spirit still guide the chip shop that carried his name?
A trip to Harry Ramsden’s at the turn of the century was a colossal disappointment. After just one visit, I vowed to only return when all other gastronomic possibilities had been exhausted.
The magic had gone. The interior was dowdy. The restaurant was almost empty. It was just a dreary fish and chip restaurant close to a big roundabout. I could have been eating my fish and chips in any charmless conurbation in Britain.
The owners had taken their eyes off the ball as they plotted national and global expansion. Harry Ramsden’s had become a brand that was there to be exploited.
But in their eagerness to secure growth, Harry’s successors had neglected the original restaurant. It was a bit like asking the Royal Family to welcome heads of state while living in a dingy bed and breakfast. Harry must have been turning in his grave while uttering some choice Yorkshire phrases. Nobody was surprised or dismayed when Harry Ramsden’s closed its Guiseley restaurant seven years ago.
A visit to the same site today is a very different experience. Under its new owners, the Wetherby Whaler fish and chip group, the old restaurant has re-discovered its sparkle. The last time we visited, the service was superb and the tables were packed with diners.
But what of the business Harry founded all those years ago?
Now a “chain” Harry Ramsden’s has been snapped up by a rival from the Boparan Restaurant Group. Fish and chip competitor Deep Blue Restaurants will take over Harry Ramsden’s 34 sites, as well as its brand, in a debt free deal. Harry Ramsden’s has struggled recently, after falling to a £5 million loss in its most recently filed accounts and closing a number of restaurant sites.
In years to come, students will study the decline of Harry Ramsden’s as a textbook example of how NOT to capitalise on the goodwill generated by a globally respected brand. Harry, with his straw boater and cheery manner, knew that the customer always comes first.