An artisan fish supplier goes mainstream

Published on
August 31, 2015

Through its position as operator of the fresh fish concession in the food hall of one of the world’s most iconic luxury retailers, a leading seafood supplier to the London restaurant trade has found significant success sourcing beyond the mass-produced norm, instead offering the capital’s shoppers unfamiliar, low-volume brands produced through artisanal methods.  

Little over a year ago, Southbank Fresh Fish was appointed the seafood supplier within Selfridges & Co.’s Oxford Street store. While this was a fairly big departure from Southbank’s core business – a client base comprising some of London’s leading restaurant groups – it’s quickly proved a good match, bringing swift rewards.

In recent years, Selfridges has demonstrated a strong commitment to ethical seafood sourcing, including launching Project Ocean, a multi-level awareness program designed to give its 30,000 daily customers a better understanding of the rudiments of marine sustainability. Southbank, meanwhile, with decades of experience supplying professional kitchens with seafood, launched the Southbank Sustainability Initiative (SSI) three years ago to further chefs’ understanding of sustainable sourcing and to trace all products back through every stage of the supply chain to ensure the fishery is sustainably managed.

“We have made a good start in Selfridges. We are thoroughly enjoying it, and we’re trading up year-on-year,” said Matthew Couchman, sales manager with Southbank.

While it took two to three months for Southbank to initially bed all its products in at Selfridges, ensuring they were all fully compliant with Project Ocean and that they adhered to the program’s own strict traceability criteria, it’s now a fairly quick process to introduce something new to the fresh fish counter. For example, Southbank recently launched Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)-certified cockles and mussels, with the whole process completed and the products appearing in store within a week and half.

Couchman said he values the opportunity that the Selfridges contract gives Southbank to expand its range and to develop new products. A good example of this success, he said, is the MSC-certified Tristan Lobster. Southbank first launched these rock lobster tails into Selfridges and now sells them wholesale to an increasing number of restaurants.

“One feeds off the other. It allows us to source some different stock, knowing that if it doesn’t sell through wholesale, it will do through Selfridges,” said Couchman. “We have a number of products like that – Spencer Gulf Prawns, New Zealand abalone and MSC Chilean seabass – higher-value products that aren’t normally associated with restaurant prices. In fact, the abalone has been a hugely successful product through Selfridges but it’s notoriously difficult to sell through wholesale.”

During the past year, Southbank has overhauled the counter, giving it “certified credibility” by attaining MSC Chain of Custody (CoC) accreditation, and by “building it up and making it more interesting for customers” by providing more variety. For example, it has increased its oyster offering from one variety to four or five.

“The volume of customers tells us the decisions have worked – without a shadow of doubt,” said Couchman.

But what he has been especially pleased with is the introduction of the specialty lines, in particular the product offerings from small artisan smokehouses, including smoked salmon from Uig Lodge and Macneil’s Smokehouse, Gigha smoked halibut and Loch Etive salmon and trout.

“We try to find the businesses that are creating these really high quality, small-volume products, rather than source big brand items. Nobody disputes the large, well-known smokehouses, but you can buy those products almost anywhere. We are very happy with how it has gone; we have found some wonderful products that we believe in, and customers keep coming back and buying them,” he said.

But, stressed Couchman, there’s absolutely no way that Southbank could have gone to this level through its restaurant trade.

“We could never sell whisky infused cold-smoked trout or Macneil’s applewood smoked salmon – you wouldn’t be able to get a wholesale price point on such items. But you can in retail.”

To help champion these products, Southbank and Selfridges organize in-store “Meet the Makers” events, the next series of which – 2 to 5 September – will see representatives from Macneil’s, Uig Lodge, The Real Cornish Crab Company and the company that is supplying the Chilean seabass and the Tristan rock lobsters each spending a day in the food hall, promoting their products, face-to-face with shoppers.

“We are really proud of the products that we have been able to introduce and the offer on our counter. I’m sure Selfridges will agree that it’s now at a level that it has never been before,” said Couchman.

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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