Unconventional fast food business Fishbowl is turning the fish-and-chip shop experience on its head. Co-founders Nathan Dalah and Nic Pestalozzi discuss their passion for health and wellness and the business’ sustainability efforts. Inside Retail: Tell me the story behind how Fishbowl began. Nathan Dalah: I was studying a combination of business and law at uni. It was a year-and-a-half into my studies, and I just wasn’t into it. In fact, I spent most of my time looking for other bu
other businesses on Gumtree that I could buy and do something with. I was basically just looking for any excuse not to be at uni. I was also travelling to the States quite a bit and that’s where I was first exposed to the food startup scene. One of the first places I came across was Sweetgreen. This was eight years ago, before they blew up. I saw it as a value-based food startup, centred around good, healthy food. When I came back to Sydney, I realised there was no way to get really tasty, healthy food that’s fun and accessible. I grew up loving Japanese food. Sushi was my favourite cuisine and Tokyo was my favourite city. Health was also a big part of my life, so when I looked at the flavours and the market, I thought, “Is there a way we can take these flavours that people know and love and combine them into a healthy salad?” I had a lot of passions and interests in things like design and music and fashion and I really wanted to incorporate all the things into a business and food was going to be my vehicle for that. We started to try to create a perfectly executed, beautiful, Japanese-inspired salad and we wanted to fortify it with design, passion, personality and good music. We wanted to change the way people thought about food that was accessible and fast. It’s why we say that if you change fast food, you can change culture, one thing leads to the next. IR: What I think is interesting is if you look at many other places offering healthy food, they’re trying to sell themselves by pushing the health aspect of it, but when you walk into a Fishbowl, no-one is shouting at you about clean eating. ND: No, not at all. Healthy food doesn’t have to be bland and we don’t have to virtue signal the fact that we’re giving you raw broccoli with a hemp dressing. Simple food can be beautiful and tasty. We produce everything from scratch at Fishbowl. There are no refined sugars in our dressings and we don’t use MSG in any of our products. Across the Asian food spectrum, MSG is very common, and there’s nothing wrong with it. I just think there’s so much natural flavour that exists in base ingredients like soy sauce, sesame oil or mirin. These things are pure. We just want to make sure that we give people something that is minimal in terms of ingredients, and the level of intervention required to produce something tasty. IR: Fishbowl has been called one of Australia’s fastest-growing quick service restaurants. What do you think is behind that growth? ND: I think we’re definitely the most dynamic food group in the country. We see ourselves as painting our own path, and doing it the way that is true to how we started – and it’s still the same, you know? Myself, Nick and Cass, we’re still in the stores every day. We opened a store yesterday and I was making bowls during a lunch service. We do that so we can stay close to the product and the customer. We can understand how the customer feels about Fishbowl, we’re seeing their expressions when they walk into a store and when they take the first bite. That’s exactly the kind of information that you only get by having that intimate relationship with the product and the people you’re trying to serve. I think that has been the key to our success. We’ve never taken our customers for granted. We’ve never looked at Fishbowl and gone “Great, the stores are busy, people are happy, let’s just kick back, it’ll stay this way forever.” I always say at Fishbowl we’re comfortable being uncomfortable. We’re always looking to get better, we’re always looking to improve. We never take the growth or the success for granted. Fishbowl requires constant refinement and an intense dedication to the craft. That’s something that we try to imbue in all of our crew. IR: Not a lot of CEOs have time to continue serving customers in-store. ND: It’s just the key ingredient for us is really understanding our customers and how they feel when they walk into a Fishbowl. We actually have store shifts built into our weekly calendars. It [allows us to maintain an] understanding of the different demographics that exist in the different suburbs where we operate. It also keeps that connection between management and our crew in-store. They see us doing what they’re doing. They know that we understand the product and that we’re not just trying to treat this like it’s one big engine. We want to maintain that relationship with our own crew but, just as importantly, maintain that connection to customers. IR: Have you guys got an investor or is that something you’re working on at the moment? ND: We don’t, we operate independently. We’ve funded our store growth from the first store right up until the 30th. We’ve never been under a mandate from investors. We’ve had every private equity and food group in the country approach us. We’ve said, ‘No, wait, we’ve built a model that can basically control its own rate of growth, and it’s happening with the rate that we’re really comfortable with.’ We’re doing it the way we want to do it. We’ve proudly self-funded our growth to this point. IR: I know that sustainability is a big focus for the business right now. How would you describe the way the seafood industry is dealing with sustainability? What are some of the challenges there? Nic Pestalozzi: Naturally, the industry is shifting as a result of changing consumer values. There’s never been more emphasis on where something has come from, and how it got there; minimal impact on the surrounding environment has become a core value. This shift in the way we think about our food is largely driven by responsible businesses leading the charge and making an effort to educate consumers on why and how they can make more conscious choices about the food they eat. This puts pressure on all aspects of the supply chain to be better and do better. Some of the challenges obviously lie in affordability, often the more sustainable products are more expensive, but if consumers become more educated and informed about what they’re eating, they begin to expect a higher level of quality (in every sense of the word) and this allows businesses to sell more sustainable products, irrespective of price. Also, once more sustainable products become the norm, the price can drop from B2B and, in turn, B2C. A good example would be compostable packaging. As demand shifts, the price of compostable packaging and compostable bags will also come down, resulting in a better outcome for everyone. IR: Can you tell me about what Fishbowl is doing in terms of sustainability? NP: We recently made one of our biggest menu supply changes to date, switching from Tasmanian Atlantic Salmon to New Zealand King Salmon, sourced from a small ocean-farm called Big Glory Bay. The King Salmon is, in my opinion, the most sustainable and ethically sourced salmon in the world. The ocean-farm is on Stewart Island, which is the southernmost inhabited island in New Zealand. It’s so remote you can only access Big Glory Bay by boat. Also, 85 per cent of the island is dedicated to Rakiura National Park, so it’s thriving with native flora and fauna, and Big Glory Bay is a speck on the natural landscape. Furthermore, Big Glory Bay King Salmon is BAP (Best Aquaculture Practices) certified and NZ has the most rigorous approval process in the world for establishing coastal aquaculture farms. Waste management and composting is the other channel we’re tackling at the moment. All of our packaging is now compostable, from forks to chopsticks to the lids and bowls. Rather than throwing it into landfill, we can now push the majority of Fishbowl waste into the compost bins to be diverted to organic waste. It goes back into nourishing the farms that are growing our produce. This has to be the future of waste management so we want to do our part here to be as green as possible. More importantly, we’re rolling out customer-facing compost bins to ensure all of our customers have the chance either to bring back or drop off their organic waste at their local Fishbowl. We’re always finding ways to improve things. Menu items will be influenced by what causes less impact on the surrounding environment, as will materials in store, and where we make uniforms. It’s all an exciting work in progress but we hope to lead by example and inspire the rest of the industry to do the same. IR: You guys are just entering Queensland. Can you tell me about how your store network expansion is going at the moment? ND: We’re well established in Sydney and Melbourne. Queensland is that third big market that we were really dying to get our product into. Obviously, with Covid-19, we had to step back in terms of travel and developing a pipeline at the rate we would have liked. We’re currently under construction on three locations in Queensland – two in Brisbane, one in Burleigh Heads. It’s an amazing market. We’ve probably had more requests in the Queensland and Brisbane market since we opened than any other part of Australia. So we’re pumped to be able to share our product with the people there. IR: Quite a few of your stores are in CBD areas, although there have been some mixed feelings in the industry about whether or not it will return to how it was pre-Covid. What do you think about that? ND: Obviously during lockdown when people weren’t in the city, that was a really bad time. But since we’ve opened the stores back up, in the last few weeks, we’ve got stores doing record weeks in the city, in the CBD, with barely 30 to 40 per cent of the workforce back. It tells me that people in the city are looking for quality, healthy options. We spent a lot of time and resources over the two years of lockdown really trying to refine what we were doing, focusing on the product and branding, to further establish that sense of trust and connection with our customer. We opened a store recently in Pitt Street Mall in Sydney and from the jump, it was pumping. As long as there are some people around, they will always be looking for food that is accessible and that they can trust tastes good. IR: Fishbowl is actually one of four food concepts. Tell me about the others. ND: Sideroom is another health food concept centred around Mediterranean and Middle Eastern favourite salads, bowls, and smoothies. We’ve just opened two, in Circular Quay and in Manly. It’s a complementary offering to Fishbowl. It operates from 7am so we get that breakfast service out of it. It’s another alternative for healthy food. We’ve also got Fish Shop, which is a casual, seafood-centric restaurant based in Bondi, and we’ve got Fish Market, which is a reimagination of a new-age fish-and-chip shop. We looked at the wet fish [markets] and the fish-and-chip industry and we thought, ‘It’s broken.’ It’s a lot of frozen, imported fish stacked on top of each other on ice, and no real focus on quality or provenance, or sustainability or health. We really just thought it was a section of the food industry that was ripe for a shake up. That was the thought behind Fish Market and Fish Shop. We opened them last year in Bondi and from the start, it just popped off, to the point where I get calls from agents and developers nearly every other day requesting Fish Shops and Fish Markets in their tenancies or developments. It’s definitely another avenue we would like to explore and scale.