Share a day in the life of a Brixham fish merchant and restaurant owner, Sean Perkes

It’s fair to say that Sean Perkes, of Brixham-based fish merchant Ian Perkes Ltd and restaurant Shoals on the Lido, has well-established roots in the town’s fishing heritage.

“We traced our family back on my mother’s side to the 1500s, and they were involved in fishing in Brixham,” he told Fishing News.

With a pioneering purchase, Sean’s late father John changed the face of fishing in the town.

The idyllically located Shoals on the Lido. Sean’s family links to the town’s fishing industry go back some 500 years – a trend set to continue with son Jake working in the wholesale business, and daughter Molly managing the restaurant. “This is our season now – this is when you’ve got to put in the time and effort,” said Sean. “It’s a long old winter here in Brixham, so this is when you’re going to make hay.”

“At one time my dad had the biggest beamer in the UK, a boat called Jannie Marie, which he bought from Holland. He got that in 1972. Brixham thought a vessel of that size couldn’t be sustained – but he made a fortune with it.”

The Jannie Marie also proved to be pivotal in Sean’s career. “I used to go down to the quay at 3am aged seven or eight and wait for the boat to come in and help Dad land. It’s been a progression since then really.

“I always had visions of being a fisherman, but I first went to sea at 13 and didn’t think much of it. I left school at 15, and went and tried it again – and that underlined that I really didn’t like it!

“So I went to work with my brother Ian, who had started up a UK-wide fish round at the time.”

The success of the fish round saw the business evolve into Ian Perkes Ltd. “Ian started as a fish retailer in 1976, and then I started working with him in about 1981. I carried on doing retail, while he established the wholesale business. We then established an export business – and that’s probably what around 80% of our business is now.”

The challenges of Brexit and Covid-19 have seen the business diversify over recent years. In 2015, Sean and his wife Sarah took that diversification a step further, with the founding of Shoals on the Lido, a restaurant idyllically located above the town’s famous lido, overlooking the Bay of Torbay.

“My wife Sarah was a police officer. She was working 16 to 18 hours a day. The kids were quite young, and it was just becoming too much.

“There was a little place at the lido which was being used for storage. That became available, so we had a pop at that. We’re now in our ninth season.”

Despite Sean and Sarah having no previous experience in the trade, the restaurant has gone from strength to strength. “In the summer we employ up to 22 or 23 people. That’s seven days a week, from May through to October.

“I’m not so much involved now, but even up to six months ago if somebody called in sick, I would go and cover for them – but I try and keep away from that. I’m 57 now, and I don’t really want to be down there cooking until 10pm.”

Sean and his brother Ian, partners in fish merchant Ian Perkes Ltd, are familiar faces on Brixham quayside. “It’s been pretty tough to be a UK-based exporter lately. May and June are a quieter time for us anyway. Things slack off a little, boats are refitting, tides are different, people are on holiday – a combination of factors. The fishing isn’t great this time of the year, so prices are generally quite high – but there’s still a future there. I’m just glad I’m not a young man coming into it any more. It is difficult.”

The reluctance for a late finish is understandable, considering that Sean’s day normally begins at 4.30am.

“I meet my two managers at 4.30am and go round to the market to personally look at the fish. We take photos and send them to our customers, so they’ve got a heads-up as to the quality available.

“That’s where we’re a little bit of a step ahead of other merchants. We’re the only exporters actually based in Brixham now. Our office is right above the auction, so we have easy access to the market. If there’s a problem, or we’re not happy with something, we’re there.”

Once the auction has ended, and the buying is complete, Sean makes the short walk back to the office to begin phoning customers with estimated prices.

“We’ve got two units on the quay. The products that we buy can literally be packed within an hour of us purchasing them – refrigerated and ready to be labelled and put on the lorry.

“That’s where we have a bit of an advantage. There’s no travelling involved with the fish. It moves 100 yards from the auction. We can take the fish instantly from the auction and have it packed as quickly as possible to keep it in the condition in which it was landed.”

Depending on the volume of fish, and the level of preparation needed, the packing process can finish anywhere between 1pm and 5pm. However, Sean’s thoughts will have already turned to the restaurant.

“My chefs will order the fish the night before for what they need the following day. I’ll try and buy that from the market in the morning, and get it processed, filleted and cleaned. When I finish on the quay, I’ll take that up ready for lunch service.”

Sometimes, with his daily tasks complete – including looking after his grandchildren Ernie and Marnie – Sean goes from restaurant owner to diner, affording himself a pause and some time to reflect. “I quite often go down there and sit and have a beer and something to eat in the sunshine.

“There’s no better feeling than when you see people sitting there, eating something that we’re passionate about, enjoying the dishes, and eating local, Brixham fish.”

This story was taken from the latest issue of Fishing News. For more up-to-date and in-depth reports on the UK and Irish commercial fishing sector, subscribe to Fishing News here or buy the latest single issue for just £3.30 here

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