The Famous Fish journey began in 1958 when owner Steve Costi’s father opened a fresh seafood shop in the western suburbs of Sydney. Since then, the Costi family have become significant players in the seafood industry, morphing their small-time business into a much loved Australian Icon. “Steve recognised that in order to scale his current retail model and take it to the masses, certain elements of the model needed to evolve in order to make it franchise ready” says General Manager Sal El-Houli. “From there, he partnered with a couple of likeminded, successful entrepreneurs – Jon Sully and Vaughn McGuiness. We have since rebuilt the entire retail model from the ground up by essentially evolving to a new look & feel, menu, systems and processes in order to make the retail model franchise ready. We’ve substantially changed entire aesthetic makeup of the business. We’ve kept all the working parts from Steve’s existing retail model, tweaked others, created new ones, and eliminated redundant ones to get us to where we are right now, which is a model that is really scalable.”
The key planks of the overall strategy have been built around our two most important stakeholders – the consumer and the franchisee. From a consumer perspective, we wanted to ensure that the overall offer is both an appealing and a compelling one across all touch points. That includes our in store environment, our menu, the quality of our food, and of course our people. We know that getting these things right will lend itself to far greater perceived value for our customers, which is why they are the key elements of our day to day operations. From a franchisee’s perspective, we needed to ensure that we have a robust set of systems, processes, training, and support, all underpinned by a strong financial model that gives the franchisee every opportunity to succeed, and in doing so allowing them to look at partnering with us as a genuine long term wealth creation strategy through becoming multi-site business owners. We understand that the customer and our franchisees need to be at the heart of everything we do in order afford us the opportunity to expand on a national basis.
Operating within a largely untapped market in the world of franchising, according to El-Houli, Costi and his corporate team thoroughly analysed key aspects of other successful food retail franchise businesses, and existing successful independent fish & chip businesses with the view of looking to fill any voids across all aspects of their offer, and by extension their model. The result was a modern spin on a classic seafood tradition. “What we wanted to make sure we did was to absolutely remain true to is good, old-fashioned fish and chips,” says El-Houli. “For most people, on a Friday night, fish and chips is their takeaway food. So, we wanted to make sure that – everything about a fish and chip shop, and the food that people have come to know and love – remains at the core of everything we do. We’ve got all of the products that you would typically get at your local fish and chip shop, but we’ve also tried to expand a little bit on that.
We’re always looking to evolve in order to remain relevant to the changing generational landscape. More and more, want to feel like they have an influence to over how their meals are made up or what they’re actually going to eat. Consumers are becoming a lot more sophisticated and educated about what they can consume, how they consume it, and what options are available to them. For example, we’ve got mixed seafood grills, a seafood chowder, gourmet burgers – all exclusive to us, which have been very successfully launched and well received by our customers. We aim to always remain slightly unpredictable and interesting, yet making sure that our menu continues to have a strong appeal to a very broad audience.
At Famous Fish, everything from the kids’ menu to the burgers, salads, and fish options are all chosen with the customer in mind. The seafood products are restaurant grade and do not contain bones, and even the our famous, special chip seasoning is made from all-natural ingredients, with no artificial flavours, colours or MSG. Sustainability is a core value for El-Houli and his colleagues, and negotiations with leading industry suppliers ensure that all seafood products are responsibly caught, in order to respect and preserve ocean life – as the motto reads, ‘We catch what we need for today so that there is some left for tomorrow.’
“We will never knowingly source any of our seafood from an unsustainable or non-responsibly caught avenue,” he says. “If it’s not a product that is sourced responsibly in a controlled environment that promotes and fosters a short, medium and long term sustainable social and environmental outcome, we simply won’t buy it, we won’t hold it, and we won’t promote it proudly communicate and promote that across all key customer touch points. We are confident that our customers will appreciate that, which in turn helps us build a lot of brand equity, whilst in turn helping us build lot of credibility with our customers. We’re openly saying that it’s not okay to endanger our ocean life and ecosystem at large; that, for us, is non-negotiable. We’ve partnered with suppliers and distributors that also subscribe to this ethos, who also conduct their business in the same way. We conduct random quality control checks via periodic audits that we do on our suppliers to make sure that everything’s followed through and being adhered to, and we’re really proud of that”
While he prefers the salmon or the barramundi, El-Houli also gives the rest of the menu a positive review – much like the company’s many satisfied customers. “We set very high standards in terms of the fish that we source and sell,” he says. “Our salmon and barramundi just fly out the door; with a salad and rice, they sell like hot cakes. Those two are the more popular ones, and probably the healthiest in terms of the healthy Omega 3 oils – which a lot of people are really educated about. We’ve got an exclusive, unique seafood chowder that we’ve created, and we’ve also got our mixed grill, which I would say is probably our signature dish. We sell a lot of it, and we know we’re doing it extremely well because our customers are telling us, and so are our sales. Between those two, they’re probably the most unique products that are ours. We’ve also got our Famous Feast Burger – this thing is big. It’s not necessarily one for those who are calorie counting, but we sell a lot of them and it’s extremely popular and very tasty.”
With their active social media presence through Facebook and Instagram, Famous Fish also provides customers with the chance to connect with them online – a portal with added perks to ensure customer satisfaction and loyalty. In the past, they have promoted a “no strings attached” free fish and chip day, and also currently have an active campaign running that gives one lucky winner the opportunity to receive a year’s worth of fish and chips, simply by liking their Facebook page. Renowned food bloggers have been known to frequent Famous Fish, encouraging their followers to stop in and catch a bite as well. Positive responses from customers have always been warmly welcomed, and the company’s current model has allowed this feedback to continue – through both local and neighbouring communities.
“We always try and secure a franchisee that’s been well-entrenched within their local community over a period of time,” says El-Houli. “They know the community, they know the ebbs and flows of what makes the community tick – what’s important to the community. We always want to maintain the spirit of a locally owned fish and chip shop. We believe there’s an element of romance and certainly a level of loyalty that comes with that. You’re going into your local fish and chip shop and you know the owner by name, or the owner knows its customers by name. By the same token, we want our franchisees to have a strong appetite to want to get involved in giving back to their local community. So, they’re the things we look for in a franchisee. As an example of the type of things we do to really connect and give back to our local communities is n initiative we call our “Famous Fundraiser Night”.
We will actively look to compile a list of all the local community groups – it could be the local football club, or the local nursing home, and we’ll actually go to them and say, ‘We want work with you. We want to partner with you and help you raise some much-needed funds for your cause.’ So, we’ll give them a whole Monday night between 5pm and 10pm. We say to them, ‘We’re going to give you all the tools and resources to help promote this night to all of your community, and we want you to invite as many people as you can to come in and dine with us on that night, and in doing so will be supporting your cause. We will then give you 25 percent of all the proceeds from that night back to your cause – no strings attached, no questions asked.’ We’ve done that quite successfully, it’s been incredibly well-received, and we’ve built a lot of goodwill on the back of that. Wherever we get a chance, we never say no to an opportunity to genuinely partner and give back to our local communities. We always want to get involved in some way, shape or form, and we have been and will continue to do that.”
Strong connections with staff, franchisees and suppliers are integral to guaranteeing that all parties are satisfied and key to building a long term successful business. In fact, some key suppliers have been working with Steve Costi for more than 30 years in order to ensure that the level of quality is consistently achieved through co-operation. “From our perspective, if you look at the foundations of a really strong business, one of the strongest pillars is certainly your own people – whether that’s internal stakeholders – which are your staff members, or external stakeholders – which are your customers. For us, the culture we’ve created is genuinely and truly like we’re part of a family. You don’t feel like you’re coming into a 9-5 job – there’s a genuine sense of belonging. There’s a sense of pride in putting the Famous Fish badge on your chest. Steve’s got many employees that have been with him for an in excess of 15 years that remain loyal, and continue to work within the organisation. They just want to stick around. So, in terms of retention of staff, it’s extremely strong, and likewise with our suppliers, which is something we’re really proud of.
If we don’t get the supplier side of things right, then we know we’re going to be in for a really tough ride, especially in the seafood caper. But, we’ve done the hard yards in terms of working really closely with them to make sure that we’re aligned, everything’s really transparent, and we’ve got a really solid relationship. We’d like to think that we know that we’ve got an extremely sound relationship with each and every one of our suppliers. At my capacity as a General Manager, I personally know the head of each business that we deal with, and we have dialogue regularly to make sure that those ties are strengthened. If there’s any issues, they’re easier to iron out quickly, and we’ve got a healthy working relationship.”
Famous Fish aims to become “the most loved and respected seafood diner and fish and chips provider in the country,” according to El-Houli. Their mission to create a comfortable, seaside escape for their customers is a quality that they hope will continue to promote a positive response and, therefore, help them grow as a business. “We’ve got pretty ambitious plans of potentially getting 300 to 400 stores in Australia, and we’ve already been fielding some inquiries from potential international licensees who want to take the brand overseas but, we feel it’s a little bit too early, with our sole focus being on establishing and growing the business domestically in the short to medium term. Right now, our mission every single day is to give each and every guest of ours an amazing experience, and through that process, continue to foster loyalty.
It sounds really simple and very cliché, but our mission each and every day is for every single plate of food or takeaway package that leaves our kitchen goes out with food in it that we are giving an outstanding quality product and creating a memorable experience for our customers; that’s all we focus on. We know that if we can do that, the scoreboard will take care of itself. Famous Fish is about providing exceptional quality seafood and fish and chips at an affordable price, but in an environment that really allows our customers or our clientele to feel like they’re escaping – and that escape for us that we’ve created in our stores, is drawing our inspiration from the seaside or the beachside. The feedback we’re getting, overwhelmingly, is that when our customers come into our shop, our customers get a genuine feel of summery happiness.”
Unfortunately, El-Houli believes that the lack of integrity that has been previously seen in the seafood industry may affect its perception for potential customers – especially those who have been disappointed in the past. In order to overcome any possible scepticism, he believes that education is key, and Famous Fish will strive to provide their customers with greater product knowledge, including detailed briefs for each species and proper quality certification. “There seems to have been a certain level of dishonesty in terms of the integrity about the product they’re serving, what they’re actually giving to the customer and what the customer’s asked for can sometimes be two very different things. At the moment, the general population – by and large – isn’t as educated about seafood as they are about their cup of coffee or their piece of steak – yet. Sometimes, unfortunately, operators the industry will do that because they can get the product or item at a much cheaper wholesale purchase price which therefore means that there’s more margin in it for them. So, there is the temptation and tendency to to take shortcuts. By being transparent and educating our customers about all of our products, we believe that we will be able to correct those perceptions and instil much more confidence in dining with us.
Steve and his family have worked too hard for too long to risk being embroiled in a public relations nightmare revolving around the integrity of its products and its overall offer. We not only have a responsibility to our customers and our own business, but that of our franchisees and the seafood industry at large. Obviously, the most notable one is unsustainable fishing or irresponsible fishing practices, jeopardising the suppliers of seafood in the country, and impacting the pricing that we can sell seafood for and provide it to the customer – squeezing margins and, potentially, franchisees going out of business as a result. No one wins if those sort of things aren’t policed or managed really well; that’s something you can’t really control, but it’s certainly a risk in the industry. We’re trying to do everything we can to be as transparent as possible to act with integrity and really try and future-proof the industry as best as we can to our practices.”
When El-Houli joined Famous Fish, the company was operating under the traditional family run business model; however, with the decision to franchise, there was a need to develop stronger strategies and methods in order to fully support the goal to grow to more than 100 stores. Since then, he has been able to see the business progress to where it is today, with confidence for a bright future with Famous Fish. “It was very hard to put systems and processes around a lot of things that were happening, and that was predominately because of the fact that Steve was also selling fresh seafood in his shop,” he says. “We sat around and we put together a strategy and a business plan – and that’s where we started. One of the things I feel proudest about is that we genuinely started with a very open mind, and with that, a blank canvas. We had to conceptualise a completely brand, a look and feel for our stores, a customer and operationally superior store design, develop all of the operational systems and processes, work out what’s working and what’s not, and then fill the gaps in between, test a lot of things out, and tweak those as we went, and then ensure we have a strong marketing calendar in place that supported the businesses immediate and ongoing sales growth strategies.
So, in terms of where we are now, We’re really pleased that we have been able to put all of those foundations in place, including all of the systems and processes a pretty robust training program we offer our franchisees, we’ve got a dedicated marketing manager for our franchisees that works full-time to help do their marketing with and for them. We’ve got a really cool brand that we’re super proud of, and we are now starting to get some real momentum by way of positive feedback. We have a solid core menu that we know is working and our customers really enjoy, and we’ve also got some pretty cool products that we’ve created and brought to the marketplace as well, which will only continue to grow and evolve. Wrapping all that up, we’ve put together a solid franchise marketing plan that we have just recently launched, and so far, the interest in the brand and being part of it has been extremely encouraging. We will head into 2017 with some real momentum with our forecast being to hit double digit store openings”.
El-Houli and his colleagues ensure that they are always mindful of the opportunity they have been given to grow a franchise brand within the relatively untapped seafood industry, whilst continuing to carry their business with respect and confidence. Going forward, the hope is to find more like-minded franchisees – especially those looking for a “sea change” – to spread the philosophies of Famous Fish so that it can become a larger namesake throughout Australia and, eventually, across the globe. “We’re looking to partner with smart people who are prepared to work hard, lock arms with us, come on this journey, and grow with us as well,” he says. “There’s no better time – there’s opportunities aplenty in terms of locations. We’re certainly keen and eager to find the right parties and move forward within an industry we know represents significant opportunity and growth. We know it’s the number one takeaway food sold in the country by independent food operators, so science tells us there’s a significant market to be capitalised on. We know we’re going to have a lot of successful franchisees on our books in the months and years to come, and we’re on that journey. We’re just at the start of it.”