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A French Life: A very British business in France Part I

Mandy Lister bringing great British fare to France

The Good Life France was intrigued to meet Mandy Lister, an expat Brit who lives in Brittany and find out that she runs a very British business in France – Mandy sells fish and chips from her mobile catering van in the Brittany region.

Originally from Harrogate in North Yorkshire, Mandy and her husband Steve moved to France with their son Ben – he was two years old at the time – he’s now 23 and studying at Rennes University; their other two children Joel and Louise were born in Brittany.

We asked Mandy to tell us how she came to be in France and where did the fantastic idea for a mobile fish and chip shop come from?

TGLF: What inspired you to move to France?

We came to Brittany on our honeymoon and fell in love with the place. When we got back home we felt quite dissatisfied with our lives – neither of us was happy in our jobs. We decided to look at self-employed businesses in Yorkshire and further afield, but didn’t seem to find anything that really felt ‘right’.  Steve was working long hours, doing 12 hour shifts in a flour mill at the time and out of the blue one night he phoned me from work and said “ Why don’t we move to France?”. The answer just came straight out of my mouth without thinking. Yes, why not!

TGLF: How did you search for a home in France?

We managed to sell our house in the UK quite quickly and moved in with Steve’s parents for about 6 months until we found what we were looking for in France. We searched through every property magazine we could find and contacted all the agents listed in them (we didn’t have the internet back then).  We were quite open to ‘where’ we would move to in France and started our search up near Calais and worked our way down. We came across an advert for a Bar/Hotel in a village near Dinan in the Cotes D’Armor, Brittany and as soon as we saw it we just felt that this was the right place. We had both done bar work previously and Steve had been a trainee manager for Tetley’s Brewery so we knew we had a chance to make this work. [Ed’s note: Tetley’s brew great British ale!]. In the twenty years since we moved to Brittany so much has happened I could write a book about it. We have moved a couple of times in the area and we now live in an old coach house which we are in the process of renovating – just half an hour away from where we first started. It’s a lovely stone property with a couple of acres of land and in a valley about 2km from the village.

Lovely Dinan in Brittany

TGLF: Did you do fish and chips in the UK? (Can you describe the perfect fish and chips for those who have never experienced it?)

No I didn’t do Fish and Chips in the UK, although as a teenager I did have a Saturday job in a chippy for a couple of years. The fish and chips were cooked then kept warm in heated cabinets – they were then wrapped in white paper, followed by the traditional newspaper. I have memories of black hands from wrapping them up!  On the occasions I took food back home they always seemed rather soggy and stuck to the wrapping paper.

For me Fish & Chips should have perfectly crispy batter and not be ‘soggy’ at all. This is why I cook all my orders from fresh and never keep anything warm.

TGLF: What gave you the idea for this business, and what made you think it would take off in France?

To be honest it wasn’t my intention to start doing Fish & Chips.  A couple of years ago I was offered a catering trailer, we spent a couple of weeks getting the grease off and cleaning up the old fryer, and gave it a coat of fresh white paint inside and out. It had previously been used as a burger van on a local market I think. As the trailer got cleaner, I took quite a liking to it. At the time I wasn’t working and was looking for a job.  One day it just came to me.  Why not?  I could set up and run it myself!

I made enquiries and dealt with all the appropriate bureaucracy, asked the Maire of our village if I could have permission to park up on a lay-by between our village and the nearest local town. I decided to sell burgers, sandwiches, chips and drinks to passing travellers and truck drivers. We have quite a large abattoir and meat processing factory not too far along this road, so I thought it would be ideal for passing trade. Although we have lived here all this time I simply didn’t think about the fact that all these drivers drop off their loads and if it is anywhere close to lunch time they would rather pull up at the local ‘Routier’ and partake of the usual three courses and carafe of Vin Rouge.

I bumped into a friend of a friend one day who asked how things were going. I told her that business was rather slow and I didn’t make much profit but I was determined to carry on.  She suggested that I speak to the owner of one of our village bars. It had been recently taken over by ‘Brits’ and they were looking for ideas to increase business and said “It would be great if you did Fish and Chips on Friday nights”. Let’s face it, it’s one of the things that most of us Brits miss – fish and chip night Friday! My response was “OMG I couldn’t possibly cook Fish and Chips for more than 5 people” but I tried it and… I loved it, the bar owners loved it and more importantly the customers loved it…

Read Part II of Mandy’s story here…

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