2018 South West Wales Award Winner-Best Seafood Takeaway!
In 1973, when Willie Phillips solemnly vowed at his wedding to forsake all others, his bride realized that he didn’t mean a word of it. She knew that for better or worse, it would always be a ménage à trois: Willie, Jan … and his boat.
For last 37 years The Vital Spark, a 9 metre fishing smack that was as unmistakable a feature of the Solva seascape as Black Rock or the Grybyn. Difficult to imagine when you see The Vital Spark moored serenely in the harbour that she’s as much at home in the treacherous waters of Ramsey Sound. It’s here that Willie – like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather – have fished for lobster.
“Funny to think that in the early days of our marriage we ate lobster most nights,” says Jan. “That would have been a big treat for most couples, but we were doing it because money was tight and it didn’t cost us anything”.
For the rest of us, our best chance of tasting one of Willie’s lobsters would be to find one of those chic bistros in Paris’ 4th arrondissement. Because then, as now, 90% lobster caught on the Pembrokeshire coast is loaded into vivier transporter trucks and shipped to the EU.
The French don’t have the same appetite for crab – and as many crabs find their way into pots as do the lobsters. “Because there wasn’t a market for them abroad, we’d sell them in the village,” says Jan. “But many of the locals don’t fancy having to cook and clean them. So I did it for them, selling ready prepared crab from my kitchen.”
It wasn’t long before tourists got wise and a visit to Will the Fish was one of those must-do things for anyone coming to Solva. Even some of the lobsters didn’t get as far as Paris. Instead they ended up in Jan’s kitchen and so she was able to provide customers with lobsters well as a mouth-watering selection of brown crab, spider crab and mixed seafood platters. Will The Fish quickly grew into a successful cottage industry with Jan and Will barely able to keep up with demand. “It became so hectic I had to give up my teaching career to concentrate on the business.”
Over the decades, the business went from strength to strength – and the couple worked harder and harder. “We could have made life a bit easier and made the business a lot bigger by employing people and finding other sales outlets. But we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to keep it just us.”
And when Willie became too ill to manage The Vital Spark on his own, Jan swapped her apron and chef’s hat for galoshes and sou’wester and joined him onboard sharing the back-breaking work. But Willie’s condition worsened and he sadly passed away in January 2018. A new owner was found for The Vital Spark and she chugged out of Solva harbour for the last time.
“It was a terrible time,” Jan says. “I had been working seven days a week for all my married life. And suddenly I had nothing to do. What made it worse, is that the visitors didn’t know about Willie, and still turned up. It was really horrible having to disappoint them. I knew he wouldn’t have wanted me to mope around feeling sorry for myself so I knew the only thing I could do was carry on like I’ve always done. The business could never be Will the Fish, but I wanted to run a business that as much like the old days as I could make it.”
So in April 2018, MRS Will The Fish opened for business.
Another local fisherman – an old friend of the family – provided the lobster and crab. Jan got her a new logo, new signage, new flyers but didn’t stop there. She also got Mrs Will the Fish talked about on social media. “Willie would be amazed that that the little business that we started in our kitchen, is now getting “Likes” and retweets from all over the world.”
Better still, five-star reviews on TripAdvisor are having a seismic impact on sales. “People read the reviews and come from far – sometimes hundreds of miles away – to see what the fuss is about”.
Messaging also makes it easier to pre-order – and that, in turn, makes it easier for Jan to calculate how much seafood she’ll need and arrange her frenetic cooking schedule.
“Yesterday I had a customer organizing a swanky dinner party for twenty people who wanted individual seafood platters for his guests. And a few hints on what I’d done because he was going to pretend that the prep was all his own work”.
Other customers just appreciate having such a different kind of takeaway. If you’re holidaying, especially with kids, visiting a restaurant is scarily expensive. A quick visit to Jan’s can transform a makeshift supper into a very special experience. Jan’s seafood is as good or better than anything a restaurant could provide – and at a fraction of the price. All it takes to make a complete meal is a chunk of bread, some mayo and a simple salad. Or serve it the way Willie liked, with a pile of chips fresh from the pan.
A dressed crab – which Jan sells neatly arranged in its shell – is the ultimate fast food. Barely more expensive than a posh sandwich, it’s perfect for a beach picnic. Some customers don’t even get as far as the beach. They buy their crab, scrounge a fork off Jan and picnic on the lawn.
“My favourite customer this year was a man whose wife was really ill and it was their fortieth wedding anniversary. She was too ill to go to a restaurant to celebrate or even to eat much but just a taste of lobster was enough to make the day special”.
Although Jan prides herself on always selling fresh produce (usually landed that very day), many visitors prefer frozen. For them, Mrs Will the Fish, is the last port of call before leaving Solva. They pack cool bags with crab and lobster for their freezers. It’s their way of ensuring that in the long winter months they can have an authentic taste of summer – and a reminder of why they need to book another holiday in Pembrokeshire.
Photo credits Ieuan Morris – Ianto Môr Photography (not platter)
Words – Arnold Evans