What does it take to be named the best fish and chip shop in Britain ahead of 10,000 other competitors? For David Miller, the answer is simple; it all comes down to attention to detail.
The 56-year-old sees the creation of the perfect serving as an art, with the incisive filleting of a piece of haddock or cod so it is the perfect weight and shape, the careful making of fresh batter and even the way in which the fish is gently laid into the fryer all needing to meet his exacting standards. “If we are not proud of it, it doesn’t goes out,” he says.
The Miller family have been involved in the industry for 78 years, ever since David’s grandfather Joe had a fish stall on York market. His father Jim went on to run several fish and chip shops in the York area during the 1960s and 1970s – including the shop in the village of Haxby that David took over in 1987.
The business continues to be very much a family affair – David’s wife Lesley, who used to work for Jim as a teenager, now runs the shop’s restaurant, while their youngest son Nick, 28, has become the fourth generation to be involved with the business. Nick gave up a career as a touring drummer, working with the likes of Toyah Wilcox and country music stars in Nashville, in 2015 to come back to Haxby and help run the business alongside his dad.
The move has proved to be a successful one; following a gruelling seven-month judging process involving ‘mystery shoppers’, judges grilling staff on their knowledge of sustainability practices and giving a detailed presentation in London, Millers Fish and Chips battered the competition to be named in January as the Fish and Chip Shop of the Year 2018 at the National Fish and Chip Awards.
The accolade led to David and Nick appearing on ITV show This Morning and has seen visitors from across the country making the pilgrimage to Haxby to taste the award-winning food for themselves.
Lesley says: “We have had people coming in from Wales, London, Manchester and Darlington because they have read about us. We even had a guy from America whose grandma lives in Haxby. He said he had read about it online and couldn’t wait to come and try it for himself. But the regulars are chuffed we have brought it home for Haxby.”
David runs the shop with the same rigour and work ethic he was used to in his younger years when he worked gruelling hours as a chef in international hotels and on the QE2 cruise liner.
Just like his father before him, Nick left a successful career behind, lured back to Yorkshire to the family business. “I was working in Nashville and remember being in the studio and just thinking about the shop and what is the fish like today? All I could think about was the fish and chip shop.
“Music was a massive part of my life but this place was my dangerous playground when I was growing up! I remember coming in when Dad was working.
“For me, it comes from a passion, it doesn’t matter what you do as a line of work. If you love doing what you are doing, it shines through.”
When Nick returned to the business, the family set themselves the ambitious target of being named the best fish and chip shop in the country within three years. After finishing third in the 2017 awards, they say it was a hugely emotional moment when they took the main honour, partly because of the incredibly high standards demanded throughout the judging process to get through each stage. “It was just unbelievable,” says David. “The whole journey has just reignited my passion.”
David says there is no great secret to their success, beyond hard work, determination and the importance of selecting the right products to serve to customers.
“It all starts with the fish. Our haddock all comes from one vehicle, a Norwegian vessel called Leinebris. It is all line-caught which means they send out 80,000 individual baited hooks. They catch the fish alive so if they are looking for haddock, that is all they keep and throw anything else back, which makes it more sustainable.”
Like Millers, the Leinebris is run by a family firm and both have paid each other visits to see how the other operates. Nick created a video of his trip on board the Norwegian vessel that he has put on the shop’s YouTube channel – all part of the family’s work to both build their brand and educate customers about the sustainable policies. Other recent measures they have taken to become more environmentally friendly have included introducing biodegradeable takeaway boxes.
Their chips come from another family firm, this time from across the Pennines in Bury in the form of PG Chips run by a family called the Grahams. Thought and care goes into every detail, from making mushy peas fresh each day to tinkering with the amount of aniseed in their curry sauce to get it tasting as good as possible for customers.
The family believe they have a formula for a bright future, despite industry concerns about the potential impact of Brexit on businesses. Earlier this month, a report by investment bank Rabobank warned that the price of fish and chips could rocket if Brexit results in tariffs on fish imports.
Ironically for this most British of dishes, shops like Millers are reliant on imports of haddock and cod from companies in Norway and Iceland, two nations that are not in the EU but are members of the European Economic Area in which they pay for access to the single market and its benefits like the free movement of goods.
But David is upbeat about the future, saying he is not worried about Brexit as he believes the current situation is so mutually beneficial for customers and suppliers that a deal will be done.
Hans Frode Kielland Asmyhr, UK envoy to the Norwegian Seafood Council, has also visited at Millers as part of his work building links between Norwegian fishermen and British shops. Asmyhr admits there are Brexit scenarios that would result in the man on the street having to fork out more for fish and chips – but like David, he is hopeful problems can be avoided. “These issues are high on the agenda for Norway at the moment. But Norway and the UK have an historic and strong relationship. The UK is one of the most important markets for our fish. We will do what we can do be a sustainable, long-term supplier.”
He is full of praise for the Miller family. “They are so passionate about what they do and that is the most important thing. They work so hard to get the best product out.”
Whatever happens as a result of Brexit, one certainty is that the Miller family will still be banging the drum for fish and chips. “It is one of the healthiest takeaways and it is one of the cheapest and tastiest takeaways,” David says.
“Everybody loves it. I think fish and chips are on the up again.”
Company involved in charity projects
Millers is involved in a number of charity projects, including providing free meals to people dealing with loneliness and isolation in the York area.
They have been involved in the project with the York City Knights Foundation and York St John University.
Lesley says: “It is about giving something back to the community.”
The shop also helped those who attend a new mosque for York’s Muslim community that was completed in summer 2016 by bringing along fish and chips to worshippers celebrating the end of Ramadan last year.
The family hope to arrange a similar event later this year.
Work is also taking place at Millers on expanding its restaurant.