A trail-blazing Belfast restaurant is casting its net to get schoolchildren hooked on fish.
Multi-award winning Fish City is reeling in a new generation of fish lovers with the industry’s first ‘Kids’ Club’ - where the only catch is to educate kids about the health benefits of eating seafood.
The Ann Street restaurant and takeaway has been encouraging wide-eyed youngsters to learn more about our scaly friends in a unique partnership anchored with local schools.
And it’s not just a savvy initiative to get small bottoms on seats.
By teaching primary school pupils about the health benefits of fish and the importance of protecting our oceans and actively supporting seafood sustainability, they will begin to eat more fish.
Children are taken to the nearby St George’s Market to see the raw seafood and different species and to marvel at the different sizes of fish that’s been brought to shore that day.
They then return to the restaurant to watch a film about sustainability and the importance of protecting our oceans for future generations to come.
Visionary owners, John and Grainne Lavery, who opened the Belfast business in the summer of 2016, hope that the young visitors literally take the bait - and are won over by the long term nutritional benefits of fish.
They also believe it is important that adults themselves make informed decisions on what they eat, not least because of rising concerns over obesity and the general importance of making better food choices for their family.
“Research and first-hand experience shows, children are not eating enough fish”, explains John, who begins his day each morning at 6am creating their artisan fish batter from scratch.
Grainne adds: “We educate the children on all that we do, encouraging them to try the different species of sustainable seafood, and of course to have some fun while doing so.
“We tell them all about the species of fish we cook and provide in restaurant and ask them questions to get them engaged and understand the health and nutritional benefits of eating more seafood.”
Teacher and vice principal, Rhonda Glasgow, took her P7 pupils from Spa Primary School, Ballynahinch, to Fish City earlier this year as part of a food and fishing project she was working on with the Farmington Trust in Oxford.
“We met Grainne at St George’s Market and the children were able to handle the fish and hear from the fishmongers where they had been caught and how to cook them. The fishmongers were really helpful and knowledgeable,” said Rhonda.
“Back at the restaurant classroom Grainne taught them all about sustainable fishing and had more examples of species of fish for them to explore. The children were so excited that the fish had been caught locally, in Ardglass. They soaked it all up and really loved the trip.
“Grainne made it so interesting for them and they ate every bit of their fish and chips! Her enthusiasm, knowledge of her business, and generosity is second to none. Our Fish City day was one of the year’s highlights, and we definitely hope to return.”
In a letter to thank Grainne and her staff, pupils Maia and Brooke wrote that they’d seen “tons and tons of fish at the St George’s Market” and “loved the fish at Fish City”.
Last month, during Seafood Week, the restaurant also encouraged families to try seafood by offering a bespoke free children’s seafood menu with the reward of a free dessert, if the children finished their meal.
The business also supports nationwide Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Marine Conservation Society (MCS) initiatives to get children and schools interested in seafood and protecting the environment. Fish City is the first restaurant to achieve corporate membership of the MSC in thee Province.
As well as the massively popular cod and chips, Fish City offer authentic smoked haddock chowder, cod tacos (already a big hit with kids), salt and chilli squid, smoked salmon blinis and even a retro-style prawn cocktail prepared with the finest fishtail prawns.
There’s also low-calorie options like Fisherman’s Curry and paprika grilled hake and as members of Gluten Free Ireland, they serve up gluten free fish and chips on the last Wednesday of every month and gluten free options every day.
John and Grainne’s own favourite is their cod supper, sourced from sustainable shoals, coated in a light batter from a secret recipe handed down from Grainne’s parents, with mushy peas and tartar sauce.
“We’ve witnessed in recent years that children’s palates have changed and we wanted our menu to reflect that,” says Grainne. “The nutritional value of fish is obvious and it’s a sustainable source of food, plus it supports recommendations of intake from obesity and diabetes groups.”
So where exactly does Northern Ireland stand globally in terms of seafood consumption?
It might surprise some to learn that it’s not an Asian country that consume the most fish, but a European one, Portugal, followed by Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Brunei.
John and Grainne hope that they can nudge Northern Ireland up that list, by inspiring children and being passionate advocates of seafood as a lifestyle choice, because it simply makes sense.
Fish is among the healthiest foods on the planet - it’s packed full of important nutrients, such as protein and vitamin D and is the best source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are incredibly important for our bodies and brains.
It may also lower the risk of heart attacks or strokes. In one study of more than 40,000 male health professionals in the US, those who regularly ate one or more servings of fish per week had a 15% lower risk of heart disease.
Eating fish is linked to reduced decline in brain function in old age too. People who eat fish regularly also have more grey matter in the brain centers that control memory and emotion.
“When we change our menu, we take great care and attention to ensure the seafood we chose in our dishes are MSC certified and MCS ethically sourced,” says John.
“We need to have an absolute guarantee that stock from any designated area is sustainable before we decide to use it.
“We can source details including where it was caught right down to what ship it came in on! It is all about full traceability and provenance. We also research on the MSC Good Fish Guide to confirm if there have been any changes to the recommendations and ratings of the seafood we use.
“We strongly believe it is important to ensure that oceans and fish stocks are secure for future generations. Supporting sustainability and looking after the environment is ultimately good for everyone, including our customers.”
Depending on recommendations on what is sustainable and available through MSC and MCS, Fish City serve up to a dozen types of seafood: cod, haddock, smoked haddock, red fish, plaice, prawns, hake, squid, lobster, smoked colie and mussels, plus other specials.
John and Grainne have a cast-iron commitment to sourcing seafood from industry-recognised fisheries and farms that are responsibly managed.
“We recognise that it is our responsibility to reduce any negative impact we may produce upon the environment and raise the awareness to our staff, guests and communities so that they can help us achieve our goals for sustainability,” explains John.
The business also supports the RNLI - a charity close to John’s heart.
It’s this responsible and eco-centred approach that has earned Fish City a clutch of awards.
It has been recognised as one of the UK’s most sustainable fish and chip businesses as part of the 30th anniversary National Fish & Chip Awards, organised by Seafish.
Shortlisted as a finalist for the ‘Good Catch – The Sustainable Seafood Award’ - one of 15 categories in the 2018 National Fish & Chip Awards – it will now compete against two other shops, Penaluna’s Famous Fish & Chips, Hirwaun, Rhondda Cynon Taf and Harbourside Fish & Chips, Barbican, Plymouth for the top title.
To reach this stage of the competition, the three businesses were assessed against a wide variety of judging criteria, focusing strongly on the policies and procedures they have in place regarding the responsible sourcing of fish and shellfish.
Entrants were also judged on their efforts in informing customers about the sustainable credentials of the seafood that they serve including details of the journey that their fish takes; from net to plate.
Over the coming weeks, judges will make further in-depth visits to review both the front and back of house operational aspects of shops, including assessing the level of customer service and quality of the fish and chips on offer. This final stage of competition judging will determine the overall national winner.
Praising the finalists, Marcus Coleman, Chief Executive at Seafish, said: “Customers are making more of an effort to learn about where and how their seafood is sourced, while also becoming increasingly aware of the journey it takes to get to their plates.
“It’s therefore crucial that the UK’s fish and chip shops are sourcing responsibly and sustainably – both to meet customer demand and to ensure the future of our nation’s favourite takeaway.”
Other plaudits for Fish City include being named ‘Best Seafood Establishment’ at The Food Awards Northern Ireland in the summer and a Top 3 UK Healthy Eating award.
It was also the first retailer in Ireland to gain Marine Stewardship Certification (MSC) accreditation for using species of fish from sustainable waters and the first fish and chip shop in the UK to be invited to become a corporate member of the Marine Conservation Society.
Remarking on their stunning successes so far, Grainne says: “Our team drive to showcase fish and chips at a different level and we have a strong belief in sustainable seafood which is ethically sourced and environmentally friendly. It just shows what can be achieved with thought and consideration.”
Kid’s stuff, really...