A NEWCOMER to the Swindon fish and chip trade is blazing a trail with special gluten-free and vegan nights.

Diners suffering a gluten intolerance, and the growing band of people eating only plant-based foods, need no longer feel they must sacrifice the pleasure of a traditional fish-and-chip dinner, as Fish and Chips on Thames Avenue has introduced vegan nights every Sunday, and a gluten-free night every Monday.

The move was inspired by customers themselves, after a few people asked if gluten-free options were available.

Once training was completed, the first gluten-free night took place on September 18. Proprietors Dean and Emma Boni were astonished to see eager customers queuing up out of the door.

“We had only one pan prepared for the gluten-free meals,” Emma said. “When we asked the people in the queue who had come for gluten-free, all these hands went up!”

The Bonis belong to a fish and chip dynasty. Dean’s parents, Tony and Patricia Boni, ran a fish and chip shop in Barnstaple for nearly 30 years.

“Boni is an Italian name,” Dean explained. “There’s a great tradition of Italian fish and chip shops in Britain.”

Dean and Emma both come from Devon. Dean, 41, grew up in Exeter and Barnstaple but admitted his early plans did not involve working in the family business.

“When I was in my teens, I did not want to go into fish and chips – I wanted to be a rock star,” he smiled. Dean played lead guitar, had a rock band and dreamed of being Slash from Guns ‘n’ Roses. He also went to college to study music.

Dean was still in his teens when he started going out with Emma, who started working in his parents’ fish and chip shop as a Saturday girl.

“She fell in love with the aspiring rock star,” he said. Despite Dean’s move from budding rock star to fish and chip shop entrepreneur, the couple have now been together for 25 years.

Sadly Dean’s father passed away when Dean was just 22, and he decided to help run the Silver Cod in Barnstaple, with one of his three brothers. Eventually, Dean and Emma decided they wanted to set up on their own and began to look for a new business.

“The first time we came to Swindon was when we came to view the shop,” he explained.

“There was one available on the Isle of Wight, one in Salisbury and one in Brixham. But Swindon is very well connected, and we decided to come here.”

The Boni family took over the shop at the end of January 2015. The business used to be a Chinese takeaway and fish and chip shop called the Mandarin, and the new owners worked hard to maintain a good relationship with previous customers.

“It was a really popular shop, with a great reputation. The owners had the place for 28 years and the community loved them,” Dean said.

The Mandarin had a more limited fish and chip menu, which Dean and Emma developed and extended. They invested in new frying equipment and redecorated the shop, to keep the traditional fish and chip shop aesthetic, with a clean, modern style.

“One of my brothers was head chef at the Cat and Fiddle, near Exeter, and he went to work with another brother in a fish and chip shop. He was a qualified chef – and he came here to train Emma in gluten free cooking – how to manage the pans. It has to be kept very, very separate.”

While chips are fine for people following a gluten-free diet, the Bonis had to source special curry sauce, batter for the fish and even vinegar.

“We went through all of our stuff to make sure it was gluten-free – but that was relatively easy compared to the vegan options,” Dean said. “The vegan night was quite tough. Gluten-free is quite straightforward – don’t use products with gluten.”

He thought vegan limits were more varied, as some vegans might not eat yeast while others did.

The idea for a vegan night came from a potential customer, Sharon O’Connell, who messaged the shop before Christmas, asking if the shop might run one.

“She was prepared to help, which meant we could do it,” Dean said. With Sharon’s help, they started preparing and testing vegan options, tracking down vegan sausages which coped well with being dipped in batter and deep-fried. The vegan menu also includes a curry sauce, onion rings, veggie burgers, mushy peas and pineapple fritters.

They advertised the launch of their vegan night, and the first one took place on January 28.

“We were ready for it – and made sure we had an extra member of staff! It went really well, and the second one was even busier. The feedback has been brilliant – and the amount of people who have thanks us for the fact that we are doing it!” Dean said. “We have around 40 customers for vegan take-aways. Even if you have only one member of the family who is vegan, this means you can all sit down and enjoy a fish-and-chip take-away together.”

He said people had been travelling from outside of Swindon to partake of vegan food from the chippie.

“We had one customer who said they hadn’t eaten chips from a fish and chip shop for 20 years – so they were well happy,” Dean said.

The couple have also updated their normal menu with some modern interpretations of traditional fish and chip favourites, such as piri piri cod and lemon pepper cod. One of the most popular innovations is panko breaded cod. Panko is a Japanese style of breadcrumbs, which is lighter, flaky and not so absorbent.

“It changes the flavour of the fish,” Emma said. “It’s very popular, and there’s growing demand.”

The vegan nights have garnered plenty of positive feedback, with one local reviewer writing: “Vegan options were great. Food was lovely. Definitely be coming back.”

While the business is flourishing, and the couple’s two children have settled in well to life in Swindon, Dean admitted they all missed living close to the sea.

“We go back to Devon often,” he said.

For more information, visit the Facebook page FISH & CHIPS on Thames Avenue.