Box clever

Box clever

More than 1,000 customers have already signed up to Fishbox, the fish and seafood subscription service. Peter Ranscombe catches up with Magnus and Fiona Houston, the couple behind the brand, as they prepare to scale-up their business.

Life-changing moments can happen in the blink of an eye. For Magnus Houston, managing director of Coast & Glen, the wholesaler behind the fast-growing Fishbox brand, two of those life-changing events came within just a couple of years of each other.

The first moment was at the Snetterton motor racing track near Norwich, when a bad accident ended his dream of becoming a motorbike champion. Magnus spent seven years racing bikes, including the final two riding professionally for Suzuki in the GSX-R Cup, a support racing series for the Superbike World Championship. Having finished second at Silverstone, he was about to go to Italy to test for another team, but his accident put pay to his plans.

The second moment was in Bikes of Inverness, where Magnus was working as he continued to recover from his accident and work out what to do next with his life. A Volvo C70 convertible pulled up outside, casually parked on the double-yellow lines in front of the shop, and in walked a tall blonde woman asking for a bike. And so Fiona Hogg entered Magnus’s life.

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Fiona was working as the club physiotherapist for Inverness Caledonian Thistle – the team with the longest name in British football – but was at a loose end because her side had just been relegated from the premiership and so she was left facing a longer-than-usual summer holiday. A friend recommended taking up cycling and recommended visiting the shop in Merkinch area of the city.

That chance encounter created a partnership in both life and business. The pair – who married in November 2015 – soon started dating and took a trip around the North of Scotland in a friend’s converted Mercedes campervan.

That’s when fish began to enter their lives. One of their friend’s husbands had a lobster boat at Kylesku in Sutherland and, after Magnus went out fishing with him a few times, he became hooked. He bought his own boat – a 19-foot Orkney creel hauler, with 25 creels – and started fishing from Cromarty harbour on the Black Isle. Magnus had taken up skydiving after his accident to try to recapture the thrill of motorbike racing and he sold his parachute for £500 to buy more creels for the boat.

Magnus was working long hours and became frustrated that his catches were being loaded onto lorries and shipped out of the Highlands, often to markets in Europe. Having tasted the lobster Magnus was catching and the produce being landed by his fellow Highland fishermen, the pair knew that there would be greater local demand for fish and seafood if only people could try it.

“One night we did a taste test between some fish from the boat and some supermarket fish,” explains Fiona. “There was no comparison – the fish from the boat was far fresher and tastier.”

“Supermarket fish could spend a week on a boat before it’s landed, then another week being processed, and a week on the supermarket shelf,” adds Magnus. “By the time it gets to the reduce-to-clear section, it could have been sitting about for three weeks. At the most, the fish off the boats has been caught 48 hours earlier.”

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Instead of having his lobsters shipped off to Europe, Magnus and Fiona began to look for local customers. Their first, Norman MacDonald’s Café 1 in Inverness, taught them about the size of the lobsters that a restaurant would need and when it would need them delivered. The second, Albert Roux’s Chez Roux restaurant at Inverness’s Rocpool Reserve Hotel, taught them about the importance of provenance and quality. “Get me the best,” Roux told them. The Kingsmills Hotel in Inverness soon signed up too and, from those first three customers, Magnus and Fiona began to build Coast & Glen, their fish and seafood wholesale business. Having been impressed with the quality of their produce, customers began asking for mussels, smoked salmon and other seafood.

Stories from the early days of the business still bring a smile to their faces. “When we started the business, we didn’t have premises and so we were running it from our house in Hilton in Inverness – whenever you went to open the fridge, there would be all of these crabs and lobsters in there and you’d hear them talking to each other with all their clicks and whistles,” Fiona laughs.

“We’d heard about the seafood show in Brussels and we knew that was an important place to go to find new customers,” Magnus adds. “The show is spread out over nine aircraft hangers – it’s massive. I was humming and hawing over whether to go, but eventually Fiona convinced me that I should just go for it. But I didn’t have anything I could wear to it – so I ended up going down to Tesco and buying my first suit for £15.”

Magnus started Coast & Glen in 2011 and he took on Andy, his first member of staff, as a van driver the following March. Fiona started working in the business over the following summer, initially doing the accounts. “I was the worst accountant ever,” she laughs. “So that only lasted about eight months. Our friend, Anna, from Ernst & Young, who had given us advice when we were starting the business, took over doing the accounts and I switched to helping to build the infrastructure instead.”

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From their flat in Hilton, the business moved into premises on the Longman industrial estate rented from Gary Williamson, who runs wholesaler Williamson Foodservice and the Corner on the Square delicatessen and coffee shop chain with his wife, Jacqui. Magnus had originally wanted to supply Williamson, but instead Gary saw the potential for the business to grow and rented Coast & Glen a space in his warehouse that had previously been kitted out to handle cheese.

From selling fish and seafood to hotels and restaurants, the Fishbox brand was born out of demand from customers. “We had people contacting us after trying our fish in restaurants,” Fiona explains. “They’d ask if we had a shop where they could buy our fish.

“We would always have a wee bit of fish and seafood spare after making our deliveries and so we started to explore whether we could sell that produce to members of the public. We’d ask people what they wanted and they would say ‘We don’t care – just give us whatever’s good and whatever’s fresh. You’re the experts – you tell us.’

“We already had our vans out making deliveries to the restaurants and so we could start delivering fish boxes too. And that’s where the name came from – customers would tell us that they were looking forward to getting their ‘fish box’, just like their ‘veg box’ and so that’s how Fishbox was born.”

“The first fish in those first boxes was vacuum packed, but the packets didn’t even have any labels on them,” adds Magnus. “We had people phoning us up asking what the fish was and what they could do with it. So we started writing on the names of the fish in marker pen.”
Today, Fishbox is a much more sophisticated operation. Subscribers can pick small, medium or large boxes and can choose to receive them weekly, fortnightly or monthly. The boxes are sent out via couriers on Mondays through to Thursdays, with free delivery throughout the UK. Each polystyrene box contains a dry ice pack to keep the vacuum-packed fish cool for up to 48 hours, avoiding leaks and smells. The fish is filleted and cut into portions that are ready to be cooked, chilled or frozen.

“We had this concept of people in the City of London being able to have their Fishbox delivered to their office and then carry it home with them on the Tube,” explains Magnus. “So each box comes packed in a bag with a handle so you can carry it home from the office.”

Fishbox 03The fish is sourced from five markets – the large ones at Peterhead and Fraserburgh and then smaller operations at Scrabster, Kinlochbervie and Shetland – and go from boat to customer in 48 hours. Working with a large selection of Scottish fishermen allows Fishbox to offer its customers more than 80 species, from familiar favourites like cod, haddock, salmon and trout all the way through to lesser-known delicacies such as fork-beard, ling, tusk and rock turbot, also known as wolf-fish due to the fangs it uses to crush shellfish.

Listing unusual species isn’t just for show though – by buying what fish is available from the market instead of just relying on mainstream cod and haddock means that Fishbox is giving fishermen an outlet for all of the produce they land. With the introduction of the landing obligations – which mean fishermen must land all the fish they catch instead of discarding some species overboard – creating outlets for all species is becoming even more important.

When they sign-up to the service, subscribers answer a series of questions about their preferences, which allows Fiona and Magnus to provide them not only with the fish they know they like but also with some “surprises” – species that have similar flavours and textures to their customer’s existing favourites but which are less familiar, easing the pressure on fishing stocks and providing a market for other unloved species. Recipes cards in the boxes give clients an idea of what to do with their new-found fishy friends.

Fishbox’s concept certainly appears to have struck a chord with consumers. More than 1,200 people have subscribed to the service, pushing Coast & Glen’s revenues up to £1.1m last year from £690,000 during the previous year, with HSBC providing a £29,000 overdraft to help fuel expansion. Restaurants and hotels – including Gordon Ramsay and the Wright brothers – still account for about 60% of the wholesaler’s turnover, but Fishbox is quickly catching up.

“The tipping point for us came when I told Fiona that I was having to buy extra fish for her boxes, instead of just using what was spare from Coast & Glen,” Magnus remembers. “That’s when we realised we were onto something.”

Fiona joined Coast & Glen full-time as marketing director in 2013 and continues to run Physio Inverness, a clinic that she launched in 2011 during her evenings away from her day job at Caley. “The challenge now is to turn Fishbox into a national brand,” she explains. “We already have customers throughout the UK and there’s a real community feeling to it – people use the Facebook page to tell each other what they got in their boxes.”

Magnus and Fiona are now on the cusp of scaling-up the business. They are continuing to work with the University of Stirling to refine the algorithm that underpins Fishbox. The software – known as ‘Adrian’ or the ‘Aquatic Distribution Robot In A Nutshell’ – is designed to look at what customers have ordered, what preferences those customers have expressed and what fish and seafood is available in the markets. It will then produce a shopping list for the fish buyers in the market, which will be updated in real-time, and will also produce the packing instructions for staff at Fishbox head office so they know which portions to put in which packages.

“It’s turning into a technology business instead of a food business,” adds Fiona. “We are now working with a chief technical officer and a user experience designer.”

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The next step is for Fishbox to be spun-out from Coast & Glen into its own company and to move to larger premises. Magnus and Fiona have their eyes on the former Young’s Seafood factory at Grantown-on-Spey, which is owned by Highlands & Islands Enterprise. To develop his own business skills, Magnus also undertook the ‘disciplined entrepreneurship’ course at  the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US.

Seeking investment is also on the to-do list. “On a conservative estimate, the total addressable market is 1.1 million customers,” explains Magnus. “We’d be looking for an investor who has experience of rolling out a similar internet-based business. It’s not just about money; it’s about experience.

“The algorithm could have applications in other areas too,” he adds. “We’ve been working with Seafish, the trade body, to develop it for use in the wider industry. It could also be used to plan menus for a company supplying ready-made meals to customers. Or maybe supermarkets could use it for working out grocery deliveries.”