Alongside our Seafood Kitchen & Bar and Old Fishmarket, The Fishmongers make up the wholesale and retail side of our fishy business in west Kent. With two shops in Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge completing the Sankey’s quartet, we have all the bases covered for our trade and public customers.
Overseeing the flagship Tunbridge Wells store is co-owner Graeme, who came on board in 2009. Tonbridge, meanwhile, is managed by Chris, whose experience at both our Mount Ephraim pub and Pantiles seafood and Champagne bar led to an opportunity for a career change, with the opening of our second Tonbridge interest in December 2017.
“My product knowledge was good, and I had a very heavy sales background from earlier in my career, so working and dealing with people has always been very natural for me,” says Chris. “I trained with Graeme in Tunbridge Wells before coming to Tonbridge, and continued to learn and build my knowledge when we opened.”
Since then, the pair of outlets have complemented one another perfectly. While Graeme handles the supplier side for an extensive range of leading regional restaurants, Chris ensures that his public-facing shopfront does an equally roaring trade.
“The main difference between the two is that my shop is shinier and newer!” Chris continues. “It’s also a bigger premises, so I can set my fish out differently in a larger display. I always try and keep it as full and pretty as I can, so that people walking past can come in see what we have on offer.”
Which isn’t to say that Graeme’s Tunbridge Wells operation only deals with chefs and restauranteurs, as he too attends to walk-in shoppers, offering knowledge and expertise to send anyone and everyone home with the best possible catch of the day.
“A lot of people come in and ask for recommendations,” he reveals. “They’ll ask for suggestions, and we can always point them in the right direction – not necessarily to the most expensive, but by talking them through a variety of options, so that they get what they want and what’s ideal for them. We’d much rather that than trying to flog them something more expensive that they didn’t really want in the first place!”
At both businesses, cooking is a key concern for patrons, who’ll often enquire about how best to impress dinner guests with their freshly bought fillets. This is where the crossover between hospitality and high street comes into its own: With two brigades of talented chefs in our kitchens, as well as close ties with cooks like Anna’s Family Kitchen, we’re able to advise accordingly.
“I’ve got a basic knowledge of cooking, but will ask someone like Anna if people are looking for cooking tips,” explains Chris. “I’m a big advocate of telling people about the restaurants. If I’ve got a question from a customer about cooking, it’s not unheard of for me to phone them up and ask. It’s nice to have the chefs there to go to for advice.”
Of course, none of Graeme’s trade clients require any hints for making the most of their purchases. Today, we supply a wide array of pubs, restaurants and hotels throughout the South East, including local gems such as The Kentish Hare, The Poet at Matfield, Thackeray’s and The Small Holding. But be it professional chefs or amateur cooks, the bottom line comes down to quality and sustainability.
“Our fish comes from all over the likes of Cornwall, Scotland, Grimsby, and the South Coast,” Graeme declares. “We sell local as much as possible, and will always tell people when the mackerel is Scottish, the monkfish is Cornish, or the skate is from the South Coast, for instance. A lot of people ask for something special, and as long as they give us 24 hours’ notice, we’ll generally try our best to get it for them.”
It’s not all about poisson price points and profit margins, however, as Chris and Graeme have made it their business not only to sell, but to educate and inspire their clientele. From safely opening an oyster to deftly peeling a prawn, the pair are always happy to show people the basics with a quick and easy lesson, in addition to getting the next generation interested in seafood.
“It’s a life skill,” insists Chris. “If you can learn how to work with certain basic fish, that’ll cover you for quite a lot of different varieties. We sell items like oyster knives, so as long as I’m not too busy, I’ll show people the basics, and demonstrate the best and safest way of doing things.”
Adds Graeme: “We get a lot of youngsters coming in, and mums and dads with their kids, who we like to interact with, because they’re the future of fish. When they come in, we try and talk to them, let them find out and learn more about the fish, and get them actually talking about it.”
Ranging from kippers and honey roast salmon, to our seafood delis’ jellied eels, cockles, whelks and crab and prawn mayonnaise mix, the bestsellers cover all manner of tastes and preferences. And with visitors coming from Sevenoaks, Hadlow, Wrotham, Maidstone and further afield to shop, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have our family name attached.
“The association with the restaurants, and the fact that Sankey’s have been in Tunbridge Wells for so long, means that it’s a known brand,” Chris confirms. “People eat in the restaurants and taste how good the seafood is, and know that it’s coming from us. It shows the proof in the product, because we use it ourselves, and that connection helps us a lot – I’m forever being asked if I’m a Sankey!”
Going forward, Chris and Graeme are keen to explore new opportunities of getting involved in local events and food festivals, bringing their craft out of the shops and into the communities. Having already contributed to charity projects like Tree of Hope’s Cook Book, there’s plenty of scope to teach, cook and demonstrate on a wider scale – the trick is to just to keep things simple.
“I’m a reasonable cook, but not up there with the most elaborate dishes!” concludes Chris. “But I think that’s for the best, as you don’t want to overcomplicate fish, or add lots of ingredients or overpowering flavours – you want to keep it nice and simple, and let the fish do the talking for you.”