Mitch Tonks’ Rockfish Group shaking up UK seafood market

“Changing the way that people in the U.K. buy seafood,” is the bold ambition from acclaimed restaurateur, chef, and author Mitch Tonks.

“Changing the way that people in the U.K. buy seafood,” is the bold ambition from acclaimed restaurateur, chef, and author Mitch Tonks.

Tonks, CEO of the Rockfish Group, which operates a chain of seafood restaurants and fish shops in the south of England, kicked off 2022 with the launch of “Rockfish Seafood at Home.” The venture, which will be a “fishmonger for the 21st century,” is the result of a COVID-19 lockdown project.

“With the restaurants closed, I had a lot of time to think, research and plan. We had already invested in a fishing boat and successfully sold fish direct from the quayside during the lockdowns, and I realized that this could be scaled up to reach everyone in the country,” he told SeafoodSource. “The closure of several supermarket fresh fish counters also spurred me on to tackle the U.K.’s clunky supply chain to reduce waste and create something truly disruptive.”

The number of online fish businesses has increased over the past two years, encouraged by government funding to sell direct from fishing boats. There have been casualties, mainly due to supply and logistical issues, but in general, more consumers are comfortable with ordering and receiving their fish and shellfish by post, Tonks said.

“I visited several upmarket fishmongers, which left me less than impressed, and made online purchases from some of the new direct sellers, but found the same old issues; the fish came in plastic and polystyrene packaging which needed to be disposed of, the packaging invariably smelled of fish, I was not sure how fresh it was, and didn’t know how to cook it, especially if it was whole,” Tonks said. “I quickly realized that I could tackle all these challenges and create something new and unique.”

Tonks said he found a solution in Brixham, England, where a large variety of fish is landed daily to the market from the company’s own boat and others, but it took almost two years to make his plans operational.

“I figured that if we had separate adjacent processing and packing units within the market perimeter, we could remove the smell of fish and make the packs fridge- and freezer-friendly,” he said. “We bought an existing fish wholesaler and set about transforming the premises. Fitting a demonstration kitchen was a priority, as this will enable us to do live cooking sessions to inspire and educate people.”

Rockfish buyers are on the market each weekday morning at 6 a.m., and the fresh fish is immediately made available via the company’s website. The product is packed into consumer-friendly portions within hours, and sent via refrigerated van to the company’s distribution center, where shelf-stable items such as cans of fish – prepared especially for Rockfish – and jars of chef-made butters sauces and accompaniments are added. Some fish is available frozen for consumers who prefer this format. All packs carry a QR code that links to recipe ideas.

“Orders can currently be made up to noon for next-day delivery, but we hope to extend that timeframe as we become more efficient,” Tonks said.

The website is also a gateway for top-quality craftsmen-produced items such as Morecambe Bay shrimp, Craster kippers, Arbroath smokies, and Grimsby smoked haddock, which Tonks said he is proud to champion.

Innovation extends to the packaging and insulation, which is all made from recycled plastic, and Tonks said the next iteration will be made from reclaimed ocean plastic.

“Our new box is recycled and is recyclable. It is pre-scored and can be easily folded down to fit into a recycling bin. It also weighs next to nothing and can be sent back to us in the post for free, reuse, or recycling,” he said.

Tonks and his team were “overwhelmed” by the response to the online seafood market in the first week and also by the positive messages of support from customers.

“This is just the start. We will work at this, iron out any teething issues, then make fish selling bigger and better,” he said. “I want to try out a mussel vending machine to make fresh mussels more readily available, and have a vision of people browsing a Rockfish screen in the supermarket in place of a fish counter, with their choice delivered fresh to the door the next day,” he said. “Fish-selling still has a long way to go, but we have made a bold start towards making seafood more accessible."

Photo courtesy of Mitch Tonks/Rockfish Group


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