Rock star: how Mitch Tonks created a coastal casual dining empire

By Finn Scott-Delany

- Last updated on GMT

Mitch Tonks on his plans for Rockfish restaurants

Related tags: Casual dining, Seafood, Restaurant, R200

Rockfish, the seafood restaurant group from Mitch Tonks, recently opened its most ambitious site yet in Exeter. And it’ll be spreading its net wider soon.

Of all the myriad challenges facing operators in Brexit Britain, staff recruitment is frequently high up the list. Yet with an impressive 1,400 applications for his latest regional opening in Exeter, it’s not an issue Mitch Tonks is currently experiencing.

It’s a happy problem the chef-owner at seafood restaurant group Rockfish credits to careful brand-building over the past nine years, which has seen it open six sites so far (with a further three in the pipeline) as well as the company’s ongoing work on creating a strong people policy and staff benefits.

“People want to be part of a great group that’s going somewhere,” Tonks explains, during the opening week of Exeter. “We have spent years building our brand, focusing on people and how we treat them, from pay rises and incentives to paddle boarding trips.”

At 90 covers, Exeter is no bigger than any other Rockfish site in the group, but nevertheless Tonks regards it as his most ambitious to date, due to it being away from the seaside, albeit on the city’s quayside. This, he says, makes for a different type of restaurant; it’s a wholly new build, with a less tourist-reliant consumer base – though the ethos of a destination, every day restaurant remains the same.

There were some hold-ups with the opening, with an original plan sent back to the drawing board over sensitivities of building on a grassy space, but Tonks is satisfied with the finished glass-fronted restaurant and says the community is now firmly on side. “Let’s not pretend this is a shack by the sea. It’s a seafood restaurant in a city in a glass building,” he says. “It feels quite Antipodean. In Australia you see a lot of modern fish restaurants not dissimilar to this. The climate down there lends itself to buildings with glass doors.”

Finding the middle ground 

With his higher end restaurant The Seahorse in Dartmouth, Tonks maintains a place alongside top tier chefs such as Nathan Outlaw, Michael Caines and Paul Ainsworth in the region. But again it’s the every day occasion and the middle ground between the high end and the fish and chip shop that was the inspiration, and remains the core focus of Rockfish.

“I want this to be a place where you and I could come and have oysters, dover sole and a bottle of chablis,” he says. “The next table might want some whiting and chips and a beer. The table along might have walked the dog, and have come in for a crab salad. It’s filling the gap and bringing seafood to everyone. We do fun things like bring your own wine on a Wednesday. We make the restaurants feel like part of the community.

“I always feel restaurants should belong to the locals. People have got to feel it’s their restaurant, their place to come. I think Rockfish opens the door for people to be able to do that.” 

The restaurant group looks to become part of small seaside communities, with sites in Brixham, Dartmouth, Exmouth, Plymouth and Torquay. But it also has the backing of A-list London restaurateurs such as Hawksmoor founder Will Beckett, as well as Gresham House private equity, which recently made a £1.5m minority investment in the business. Dave Strauss, formerly of Burger & Lobster, has recently come in as restaurant director to focus in particular on the new territory of Dorset, with restaurants in Weymouth and Poole opening next.

rockfish-plymouth
Rockfish in Plymouth

“You don’t realise until you’re doing it what you can learn from people like Will, who has walked that path with Hawksmoor,” Tonk says. “It helps me in my thinking and how I deal with my teams and put everything together – it’s been transformational.”

Strauss was a friend of Beckett’s and has joined at an opportune time, Tonks adds. “Dave is a real grassroots restaurant man, and knows everything about running them, mainly from the floor. I don’t care that he doesn’t do spreadsheets. He does what restaurants people should do, which is run restaurants.”

It’s not unknown territory for Strauss, who grew up in Bournemouth and Poole and whose grandmother was from Weymouth, and who says he has a lot of ties with the area in which he now works. “We all have ideas about what works in and outside of London – but the idea of seafood on the coast is what Rockfish is and it really makes sense,” says Strauss. “You go to the coast and want to eat local seafood.”

Tonks adds: “We’re not an ordinary regional brand. There’s not many outside the city aiming for the levels we are. It’s hard. Sometimes it’s easier to take a compromise or easy route, but that’s not what we want to do.”

As well as his experienced board, Tonks has his own experience running and founding Fishworks to draw upon. In many ways, he says the fishmongercum- restaurant group, which had 30 sites at its peak, went through the same issues the casual dining market is going through today.

“Being a public company, every decision we made was on year end numbers and profit. Business was being driven for the wrong reasons. The pace of openings was far too quick. There was no time to bed down the restaurants we’d opened or make good decisions about our pipeline. We were opening a restaurant every six weeks. In the first week we were brilliant. By the third week, they were falling apart.” Having seen how things can go wrong, Tonks is now happy to be growing at a more sustainable pace, with the right investment in place.

Dedication to sourcing

While the style of doing business might have changed, Tonks’ devotion to seafood remains steadfast, with the freshness of the source pithily conveyed in the restaurant group’s tagline: ‘tomorrow’s fish is still in the sea’.

Such is the dedication to sourcing quality, Rockfish has its own fish supply business, becoming a primary buyer on the market, giving it better prices, and greater oversight over the supply chain, from preparation to delivery. Rockfish only sells what is available, even though that meant providing a limited selection on launch night in March.

“The boats were all in [the week before],” Tonks says. “It meant we could only serve one or two species in our opening week. We told people that’s the deal. That’s how real it is. We don’t get a load of frozen stuff in.”

rockfish-dish

As well as serving familiar fish – cod, skate, monk fish, dover sole and whiting – Tonks is also trying to promote less eaten species such as cuttlefish. Selling it as ‘Brixham calamari’, 30 tons of cuttlefish are landed in the UK every day, but the majority is shipped to Spain and Italy. “We want to see that kind of stuff being eaten. It’s something we’re really going to champion and get into.”

Everything about the operation is geared to making seafood more approachable. Each restaurant’s daily selection of seafood gets marked up on the tablecloth by the waiter, who explains the cooking method of each one, whether it be chargrilled, roasted or fried. Dishes run from classic seafood options – cockles and malt vinegar; a half pint of prawns; devilled sprats – to the more adventurous – spider crab croquettes; crisp fried prawns with Korean-style chilli sauce; and a fried prawn taco. There are a few non-fish dishes, including a vegan patty ‘cheese vurger’ and a fried curried chicken burger as well as fried halloumi sticks and a beef burger on the children’s menu, but the menu is predominantly fish based.

Tonks also cares deeply about sustainability, and about engaging people when they are young and getting them to think about the oceans. Each children’s meal comes with an Ocean Protector pack (they can be bought separately for £2.95) that teaches its young diners about what threatens the seas and what they can do to help them become an ocean protector. 

Back to the threat of Brexit, and the local fishermen were vocal leave supporters, arguing it would give them greater control over quotas. But Tonks doubts there’s much in it for them.

“People who have quotas aren’t suddenly going to give them up now. What you’re going to find is if it does happen they wouldn’t buy our fish; 90% of south coast fish is exported to Europe,” he says.

“If they didn’t buy our fish – we’ve got all this bass, turbot, lobster – we won’t eat it. People in Britain eat white fish. You won’t find the price dropping.”

This is a web version of an article that first appeared in BigHospitality's sister publication MCA. To subscribe to its daily news feed click here

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