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History of Charles Saunders Ltd | by brizzle born and bred
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History of Charles Saunders Ltd

The original shop in Baldwin Street, dressed for Christmas 1960.


Do you remember when everyone ate fish on Fridays because it was the religious thing not to eat red meat once a week? Almost every town in Britain then had a high street branch of the Scottish company Macfisheries to supply the need. So great was our appetite for fresh fish, the cheapest meat of all thanks to the one time great sea fishing industry, that fishmongers were as common as butchers.


Each fish shop was open to the street so that customers could see, and smell, the artistically displayed array of fish, and game too, which glistened on sloping marble slabs. Modern health officials would blanch at the thought of such an unhygienic practice and yet we thrived on it, unlike the illness prone folk reared in a more protected environment.


Times change and still some will recall the Bristol fishmongers Bigwoods, of Baldwin Street hard by St Nicholas Fish Market, who were bought up by Macfisheries in their era of expansion. Those were the days when the Macfisheries annual diaries provided customers with a different fish or game recipe for every day of the year.


The Bigwoods branches were renamed Charles Saunders and it was in these that Chris Scott, the present Managing Director, learned his trade. Anyone who has gutted and dressed fish will recognise the skills, once practiced by legendary fish-wives, that make light work of a task many prefer to leave to others.


It was in the all important buying, storing and handling of goods which can be so easily damaged and become poisonous when past their sell by date that Chris Scott excelled. His abilities were recognised in a market where reputation is all important and rewarded by promotion until he became the Regional Manager for the company which was by then known as Macfish.


Fresh fish stored in refrigerators and displayed on layers of crushed ice was rapidly becoming replaced by convenient packs of frozen fish. These suit the modern style of living and indeed of catering, both in institutions and hotels, where boneless, skinless cuts of fish can be cooked with the minimum of time consuming preparation and no waste.


In 1983 Chris Scott bought the Charles Saunders fresh fish wholesale and retail enterprise from Macfisheries. As an independent trader with an eye to the future he put into practice a modernisation scheme which concentrated on the frozen fish side of the business.


He moved to purpose built premises in St Philips equipped with the latest cold storage facilities. The frozen fish share of the market has grown from 60% of total fish sales to around 80%, which explains why there are fewer fresh fishmongers to be found on the high streets of Britain. Those who enjoy preparing and cooking glistening pearly skinned fresh fish no longer have to catch their own, however, as it is becoming easier to obtain a range of fish to suit all palates and pockets from retailers like Charles Saunders.


Charles Saunders are proud of their ability to obtain an extensive range of top quality fresh fish and sea food to offer to their discerning customers.


There is no doubt that foreign travel and the fascinating TV cookery programmes have tickled the British palate to explore beyond old favourites such as cod and haddock. To cater for the exploding national interest in the joys of cooking and eating the firm stocks an astonishing variety of over 2,000 lines of speciality frozen foods.


Try counting the ones you know and see what untried treats lie in store for the adventurous cook. It was once considered dangerous to eat shellfish in a month without an R in it. Thanks to freezing these delicacies can be enjoyed at any time while frozen crab sticks may replace the once popular pint of cockles, after all what happens if the eater has lost their pin?


The once ubiquitous Prawn Cocktail, served at every dinner dance, was only possible in mass catering thanks to the fish freezing industry, before that it was either an expensive luxury or a treat restricted to the appropriate seaside areas.


Country dwellers in the not so distant past could only eat sea fish with any degree of safety if it had been salted to preserve it. This was replaced by packing fish in ice but even so any delays in delivery or cooking could lead to unhappy rural tummies. Frozen fish has changed all this so that village housewives can find, and safely stock, the more popular lines from their local shops.


It is hard to recall that many villagers relied on oil lamps and bottled gas operated cookers, and the rarer gas refrigerators, until electricity was brought to them in the years following World War II.


The Charles Saunders catchment area covers a radius of sixty miles around Bristol so that those living in the towns and villages in the counties of Avon, Devon, Gloucestershire and Somerset can rely on the best of frozen foods. These are delivered by state of the art refrigerated vehicles from processing plants around the coast so that the sea food products are kept frozen from factory to kitchen table.


Such high standards are maintained by the firm’s own quality inspectors under the overall eye of various public health officials. A far cry from the days when stinking fish was sold off cheaply as the unrefrigerated shops of the gas light era put up their shutters for the night.


As so many people eat out today, what with youngsters browsing on the latest style of school meals and ‘take away’ cooked food shops replacing other retailers in smaller shopping centres, the catering element of Charles Saunders has grown to meet demand. Contracts for fully prepared frozen foods for schools and hospitals, works canteens and cafes, pubs and restaurants are vital to the trade of a large wholesaler.


The value added element of preparation is tremendously important to cost conscious catering concerns paying high rents and rates for premises. Limited space can be devoted to tables and chairs for customers instead of preparation and segregated fresh food storage facilities in the kitchen area.


The skilled staff can spend all their time on cooking instead of coming in hours earlier to prepare rawfoods.Today the skilled practitioners of food preparation work in the kitchens of the food processors to provide professional caterer and housewife alike with well prepared dishes from around the world. All that the busy part-time housewife, with a full time career beyond the home, needs to do is select a package or two of conveniently prepared frozen food, pop it into a microwave, and ‘hey presto’ the meal is ready.


The happy band of ‘food freaks’, ranging from husbands helping out or showing off as weekend chefs to people with a genuine love of the culinary arts, find frozen foods a valuable addition to their armoury of talent, store cupboard and fresh produce.


There is no doubt that the forward thinking firm established with such success by Chris Scott is alive to the potential of every corner of the cookery field. There are now thirteen refrigerated vehicles maintaining supplies to every user of their healthy, tasty range of products. It has been widely accepted that freezing is the best way of preserving the taste, and the all important nutritional value, of a wide range of foods ever since Antarctic explorers first tucked into cans of food left behind by their predecessors.


The National Health Service relies on Charles Saunders to maintain the quality and variety required by patients throughout the region.


In 1995 Charles Saunders was invited to participate in the development of the quality award scheme run by the Sea Fish Industry Authority and was the first company to win the ISO 9002. The firm is also a member of the British Frozen Food Federation and one of the largest of the twenty members of the Fairways Frozen Foods buying consortium. This group distributes frozen foods produced by brand leaders, such as Charles Saunders, under the Fairway label, itself a guarantee of top quality frozen food.


Charles Saunders plans to build extensive cold storage facilities to cope with an increase in market share in the new millennium. The company provides a first class service giving local customers the backing of an organisation with national purchasing power.

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Taken on December 22, 2007