The chips are down. Blackpool may be bastion of the great British chippy but the trade is taking a battering right now thanks to high spud prices.
What’s more, the monsoon like growing season has out paid to premier league potatoes.
The humble spud has soared in price accordingly. As The Gazette has already revealed, conscientious chippy owners are having to buy in from Poland, France and Spain for quality potatoes to make the great British favourite – the chippy tea.
At Blackpool’s (allegedly) oldest chippy, Stevonia, on Central Drive, Neil Stevenson-Taylor, fifth generation of his family to run the business, says he’s never known it so bad.
Spuds we like, chips we love – but the potato crop’s hit rock bottom and chip shop owners are digging deep into their pockets and profits to keep price hikes from our door.
Neil owns up to being a chip off one of the oldest blocks in Blackpool but adds: “I haven’t a chip on my shoulder. You learn to just grin and bear it.
“Potatoes are not just pricy, some of them are awful.
“There’s not been a time like it since the slump of the 1970s.
“There was a drought in the 1990s which hit us hard but this time the high prices and the low quality have been forced by all the rain we’ve had.
“I’m 30 and have worked here since I was 11 or 12. This is the toughest time I’ve known.”
The Stevonia’s got some history. A6 killer James Hanratty found there was no hiding “plaice” here - after sharp eyed bobbies spotted Britain’s most wanted man in the cafe window.
Hanratty was hanged almost 50 years ago – the much disputed DNA evidence confirming what local bobby Bert Stillings knew all along.
“We had him banged to rights.”
Neil says some still make a macabre pilgrimage to Hanratty’s last stand.
“A lot know the connection.”
Hanratty went to the gallows in 1964 for killing scientist Michael Gregson and raping and shooting Mr Gregson’s mistress Valerie Storie (who survived) in 1961. He protested his innocence to the end and his family maintain to this day that the DNA evidence was flawed.
Bert and fellow officer Jim Williams spotted Hanratty as they passed the Stevonia on the way back to South King Street. Hanratty had arrived in Blackpool an hour earlier, checked into his boarding house on Central Drive and nipped out for a spot of supper.
He’d had his chips by the time Bert and Jim nailed him outside – after first popping in for a cuppa and a closer look. They passed the time chatting to one of the prostitutes – a trade still said to plague the Central Drive area.
Bert recalls: “The area was rife with girls of the night back then so we spoke to one as a cover for hanging around.”
Hanratty was arrested the moment he stepped outside – safely away from other customers.
Neil says the Stevonia’s name comes from his great-grandparents’ surname. Founders Teresa and Joe Stevenson fancied a new start after running a butchers in Burnley.
That was in 1919 – about the same time the Germans were paying off the reparations set by the Treaty of Versailles for the bloody cost of the First World War which left nearly 10 million dead.
Blackpool became a place to forget the ravages of war.
As continuously operated family chippies go, Stevonia is one of the oldest in Britain – although one, in Mossley, traces its history back to 1863.
Neil adds: “When Teresa bought the business it was a boarding house with cafe downstairs and basement.
“They sold up and came here to live the dream.
“After Teresa died it passed to my great-auntie Mabel – and the surname Stevenson-Taylor was born.
“Blackpool got busier so they got rid of the boarding house knowing that fish and chips were their bread and butter trade – they were ahead of the times.
“My grandma Yvonne remembers just how hard they work.
“They only opened in summer but stayed open all day and night from Easter to the end of the Lights.”
Neil started helping out after his father Lloyd took it over. “My brother Scott and I have run it for the last six years. We’ve never worked anywhere else.”
Fish and chips may be the original fast food and still the Brits’ favourite takeout dish but buying habits have changed. Boarding house guests no longer turn up with bowls – or leave with meals wrapped in newspapers.
“There’s a real sense of history here,” adds Neil. “We’ve become a pilgrimage place for those who may have come here with their parents, and their parents before. It doesn’t really change.”
Stevonia now opens from midday to midnight weekdays, 4am at weekends, and only closes on Christmas Day.
“We get the family business, local trade, stags and hens and visitors on their first stop from the car or coach park,” adds Neil.
“We take a holiday in winter when my dad comes in to help out.”
The highlight of the chippy calendar is Pigeon Fanciers weekend, presented by British Homing World in January.
“For us it’s like a Lights weekend from the good old days,” says Neil.
“Traditionally the season starts for us on May Bank Holiday.”
But Neil says the first big break comes with a May Day warning. “I’ve never known a time so tough for prices and quality potatoes. They were £12 a sack in the drought in 2004 but good quality. Now they’re around £11, roughly double what we paid, and atrocious quality.
“By the time I’ve finished eyeing them and taking the black bits there’s hardly anything left. We have a potato rumbler-chipper but I spend half the time throwing what’s left away.
“Back in the day my dad had a hand chipper and when it started they would have done the peeling and chipping themselves.
“The prices have more or less doubled but I can’t double the price of chips otherwise I’d end up charging £3 a bag. People wouldn’t stand for it.
“So you take it on the chin, watch your profits drop, and hope for the best.
“Even the potato merchants are buying in from abroad.
“Fortunately the whole fish trade isn’t so bad. We buy mainly haddock although the Scots love cod. We could buy cheaper, the big blocks of pollock, but regulars know we don’t cut corners or serve rubbish.”
Neil says the location is one of the best for passing trade. “But the glory days of the Lights switch on opposite have gone since it went to the Tower Festival Headland. I don’t think ticketing or gating it off helps. It’s nice when everyone can watch.
“When it was opposite our doorstep we did a roaring trade. But the Illuminations are still chaos. We have three cafes here, basement, behind the takeaway and on the first floor and on a good day or night we serve 160 people fish and chips.”
As for his own favourite takeaway? “I don’t have one. It’s anything cooked by my girlfriend at home!”