The Sands Fish and Chip Shop opposite Nelson’s Tahunanui Beach is an institution, having served up tasty meals for over 75 years.
But there would be few more dedicated than its current owners.
Roy Gray and Bruce Maxfield are partners in business and in life, living together in the apartment building above the shop. They open every day of the year, for as long as there are customers, and on Christmas Day they have a party for the public, complete with “free” beer.
They have a wide range of beers, which are served free with meals on the day as long as a suitable donation is made to a designated charity such as Coastguard or Westpac Rescue Helicopter.
“We love it,” says Gray. “We’ve got a lifestyle and I love the camaraderie. No matter what business you’re in, if you can get your customer to laugh or a smile you’ve got the battle won.”
Having great products helps too.
Unusually, orange roughy is a staple house fish, a relative bargain at $4.50, and blue cod and snapper are usually on the menu too.
The fish is sourced largely from Nelson-based Solander, with blue cod from the Chathams.
Portions are generous, so much so they attracted the attention of TVNZ’s Seven Sharp.
The average portion of chips is around 325grams. At Sands it is double that.
The fillets are big too – around 170 grams. Homemade salt and pepper calamari and chicken nuggets along with Bluff oysters are big sellers too.
The shop’s fame has spread far and wide.
It was recently made an international Travellers’ Choice winner, placing it in the top 10 percent of restaurants worldwide, based on reviews, ratings and saves.
Trip Advisor has awarded it a certificate of excellence four years in a row and a fifth citation will elevate it to the influential site’s hall of fame.
Last year two American couples ate at the shop’s outdoor tables before walking the Abel Tasman track.
They were so impressed they returned after the walk and ordered more fish and chips before returning to Colorado that day.
Gray, ever mindful of international endorsement, asked if they had heard of Trip Advisor.
Indeed, they had. One of the men pulled out a card, introducing himself as Trip Advisor’s founder and chief executive.
Maxfield had another serendipitous experience while on holiday in Copenhagen, queuing for a train ticket.
In a sea of Scandinavians, he became conscious of two women speaking English in front of him.
One said to the other “when you go to Nelson you must have fish and chips from the Sands”.
When Maxfield introduced himself, he was not sure who was more amazed. “My chippie boys,” she called them. And a woman named Patsy phoned through a long-distance order – from Australia.
Driving in Maryborough in Queensland she asked Google for connection to best fish and chips and placed an order. It was only when calling back for directions that it was realised she was in another country.
Gray, 60, and Maxfield, 74, met in Auckland where both were working – as a bar manager in a gay hotel and as an in-home curtain consultant respectively – and decided to buy a fish and chip business together.
That was in 2012. The Sands was for sale, they checked it out and bought it the next day.
Gray, a dinky-di Aussie from Tamworth in country NSW, likes to have sport with customers.
On the day of a Bledisloe test he decked the shop in green and gold, with a single chair in one corner reserved for All Black fans.
Neighbouring shop owners are never charged for meals, so the coffees and haircuts are free.
Gray has a patchwork pattern in his close-cropped hair, while Maxfield is stylishly shaved at the side leading to what looks suspiciously like a mullet.
When an attractive young woman hairdresser calls in for hot chips, Gray says she is “a sex symbol for the blind society”. She makes a throat cutting gesture in return. Political correctness is not on the menu.
They have an online site, Eats365, for click ‘n’ collect orders and did a roaring trade when Covid lockdown restrictions were eased.
The Nelson Mail, noting a queue at nearby KFC while nobody was waiting at Sands, urged readers to support local businesses.
“They meant well,” Gray says, “but the funny thing was The Sands was doing four times its normal business by phone.”
The lockdown also provided an opportunity to gut and clean the shop, which looks spotless.
Gray’s only outside interest is tenpin bowling, which he is good at, coming second of 160 bowlers in a Christchurch tournament.
“I’m too old,” Maxfield laughs.
Besides, what could be better than serving up fish ‘n’ chips to a grateful clientele?