John Hills, of A&J Seafoods, in Elmswell, talks about coming ‘home’ and supplying the likes of Pea Porridge in Bury St Edmunds
Our look at Suffolk food producers and suppliers with interesting stories this time round has reporter Kevin Hurst talking to John Hills, of A&J Seafoods.
When John closed the doors for the final time at his M&J Seafoods branch in Elmswell in July 2020, he never thought he would see the site again.
Having worked his way up from joining the business in 2008 – working nights, then as a fish filleter, fish buyer and finally branch manager – he was gutted to walk away from the firm that had become one of the many business casualties of the pandemic.
“It was heartbreaking, as I knew the business had been there since 1985 when I was born, so to be the one closing the doors was sad and scary as I did not know what it was going to be like not being there any more.
“The people made that place, I always said that, and in some way I felt I had let them down.”
Fast forward to January 2023, and after being general manager and part owner at Sam Cole Food Group in Lowestoft, John and his wife Amy wanted something they could call their own and, as luck would have it, a familiar place on Station Road Industrial Estate was waiting for them.
He said: “Amy and I decided that we wanted to have somewhere close to our Norton home, so after two or three days of discussing it, I left Sam Coles and the idea for A&J Seafoods started.
“It was just pure luck that we found out the old unit was available – originally we were looking for a smaller place, but when I heard about it I said to Amy that I wanted it and us to be there, even without looking at it.”
A&J Seafoods started in March, with just John, a van and 35 customers. Within four months it had grown to three vehicles and 65 customers and now sits at 85 customers and three more members of staff who know the site well.
John said: “Wayne Phillips, James Ellinor and Dean Jones are all guys who worked with me here before – they all have a passion for this and that is what I wanted to bring back to this place.”
With Amy also now fully part of the business, the team are supplying some of the best places around, including the likes of the highly-acclaimed Benedict’s in Norwich and Suffolk’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, Pea Porridge in Bury St Edmunds.
John said: “It feels amazing to be back on this site delivering to some amazing places, doing this with Amy and the rest of the guys – It feels like it was meant to be.
“One of the best thing as well is due to Elmswell being quite central in East Anglia, we can supply our incredible customer base with our maximum service all the time, every time.”
On top of that, John is sourcing some of the best produce from the area – rod and line caught bass from Shotley, skate and whiting from Lowestoft, lobsters from a man in Holt, smoked fish from Chapel and Swan in Newmarket, Cromer crabs, Colchester oysters and Mussels from Branchester.
“These quality local products are the key foundation for what we want to do here. It is not only about the quality but it also about sustainable responsible fishing and wanting to support local businesses,” he said.
“When you have rod and line caught bass, you know they have only gone out that day to fish it and it is at its best. That great product then goes out to our chefs who finish it off and do the amazing bits they do with it – it is just a buzz to know that.”
Looking back from where he has come from, which included him selling his family car which they only had for seven months and his beloved collection of expensive fishing rods to get through the pandemic after being made redundant and pursuing the pair’s dream, he said he would not change a thing.
John said: “After all what happened here before and then finding another path to go down, it is nice to be able to do my passion with Amy, who also now gets the same buzz out of it as I do, and balancing our home life with our daughters as well.
“If it was not for all of that and the support from friends, family and our great customers who are like our extended family then we would not be where we are now – having come full circle and finally being back home.
”No words can explain how much appreciation we have for everyone that supports us and we just hope they continue to do that so we can continue to do what we do best.”
To find out more on A&J Seafoods, go to the ajseafoodsltd Instagram page.
If you know, or are, a Suffolk food producer or supplier with an interesting story like John we would love to hear from you – please email firstname.lastname@example.org