The Chippy: How a small Abu Dhabi restaurant managed to expand during the pandemic

The restaurant opened its doors in January 2020 on Reem Island, and is now looking to launch its first Dubai branch

It’s common knowledge that the food and beverage industry was one of the hardest hit in 2020.

With big players shutting shop, and restaurants with years of experiences being forced to rebrand or introduce new services (fine dining delivery being a good example), it feels like a breath of fresh air to hear of a new restaurant that managed to not only survive one of the most difficult years for the industry, but also expand.

Even more surprising, it’s an establishment that was started by two Abu Dhabi residents who had no prior experience in the industry.

The story of The Chippy

When Alan O’Donnell and Robert Bradley launched The Chippy on Reem Island in January 2020, it was because they realised it “filled a huge gap in the market”.

“Being from the UK, we noticed there was one thing missing in Abu Dhabi: a traditional fish 'n' chips shop. A few individuals had tried it before but failed because they didn’t have the right knowledge or product,” says Bradley.

The two did a feasibility study and discovered there was potential for such a restaurant in the capital, especially as it catered to families. “In the UK or Ireland, fish and chips is a classic family dinner on a Friday evening. It’s just a tradition that symbolises the end of a work week.”

This is why the first branch of The Chippy on Reem Island was pegged as a family restaurant. However, by March 2020, like all other restaurants in the UAE, it had to stop dine-in services in response to the pandemic.

Disaster struck

“While it was disappointing we couldn’t have families in anymore, at that time we were very fortunate because of our location,” says Bradley. “When we were initially scouting for a location, a lot of people suggested opening in a mall but we rejected that idea because a traditional fish and chips shop will never be in a mall – it’s a community service. Our location on Reem Island allowed us to make deliveries to a wide range of neighbourhoods.”

They instead focused on creating a mass delivery system. “We had specific drop-off points for each neighbourhood, and a timetable that allowed us to maximise our orders. It was tedious, and laborious and sustained by WhatsApp groups, but it helped us build our operations and put our name out there in the community during a vital time.”

Another challenge was the product itself. Bradley acknowledges that fish and chips are meant to be eaten on the spot – and thus don’t travel well.

“It was a bit difficult to manage expectations when it’s a location that’s 30 minutes away,” he says. “What we could do is package in a certain way – a cardboard box with a special grease-proof paper – to ensure it maintains that heat and quality.”

Expansion amid a pandemic

Meanwhile, plans were already in place for the second branch of The Chippy, which opened in a picturesque Al Seef location in July. Bradley candidly admits that, had they known about the pandemic early on, they would have probably put those plans on hold.

“We are now a year into the business. We have made a lot of mistakes but learnt to reduce our costs. We have a good reputation and good people, and even with minimal tourism, the business has been very profitable,” says Bradley.

“The Abu Dhabi market is good – you just need to do your homework before you delve into it.”

The brand is now looking to expand into Dubai, with the first branch planned for the third or fourth quarter of the year. They’ve also not ruled out expanding to other Middle Eastern countries in the near future.

How to survive and thrive

Bradley advises those getting into the industry to make sure the product they’re selling is unique. “Don’t go setting up a burger joint right next to a McDonald’s. We’ve always said, we’re not here to compete with high-end establishments. We want our own identity.”

Then, it’s all about keeping costs low, managing the team well and ensuring that there’s always a steady supply of fresh ingredients.

“At the end of the day, you need to make sure you don’t compromise on the quality of the product, no matter the challenges. That’s a very slippery slope.”