The owners of an award-winning Birmingham fish and chip shop have revealed how their company crashed with debts of more than £200,000 after they became unwittingly entangled in an international share fraud.
Conrad Brunton and Andy Insley finally pulled the plug on the Great British Eatery, named England’s best chippy in 2010, in the face of spiralling unpaid bills.
The duo disclosed how they were arrested by police fraud investigators before being exonerated.
They admitted they had shown poor commercial judgment in opening in Francis Road at Broadway Plaza, which they said lacked on-street parking and sufficient passing trade.
However, the fledgling business, which opened in July 2008, was also hit by the fall-out from a £1.8 million scam for which one of the Great British Eatery’s original partners and a rogue backer were jailed.
Unknown to Brunton and Insley, the conmen, who were their childhood friends, duped 180 victims, predominantly elderly men, across the UK.
The Great British Eatery (GBE), closed its doors last Friday. Brunton and Insley intend to petition for bankruptcy.
It is a far cry from the day Brunton and Insley were presented with an award by celebrity chef Aldo Zilli after coming third in the UK’s Fish and Chip Shop of the Year, effectively taking the title of the best in England.
Reflecting on their predicament, Insley said: “We are the Ninja generation – no income, no assets, no job. We are of no interest to the receivers. We have not got anything.”
The partners said they owed landlord Aviva £45,000 in unpaid rent but that figure could top £100,000 if the terms of the contract are enforced. There is unpaid VAT of £30,000 and a fish supplier is owed £10,000.
Brunton’s father George Brunton, who helped to prop up the ailing company, has lost an estimated £100,000.
Brunton and Insley, both aged 30, insisted they had not made a penny and did not want people to think they had run the business into the ground while living the high life.
Brunton said his father, a 67-year-old stockbroker, was unable to retire because of the losses run up by GBE. Other family members acted as guarantors for the business and had lost additional sums of £15,000 each.
Insley, a former estate manager, and Brunton, a club manager, launched the business in July 2008 with friends Russell Kilshaw and Matthew Whittlestone.
Whittlestone’s brother Greg subsequently invested in the company, using the fish and chip shop to channel cash from a share fraud in which he was the ringleader.
All of the five men had been close friends at Haybridge Sixth Form in Hagley, Worcestershire.
Brunton and Insley said they did not question where Greg Whittlestone’s money came from and it never crossed their minds he was involved in a criminal conspiracy.
Investigators think Whittlestone pumped £45,000 through GBE as he sought to launder “dirty” money.
Insley said: “Greg had been in serious money for four or five years at this point. He had a Porsche. He lived in Barcelona. We took it as the norm.”
Brunton added: “It didn’t seem like he was running with east European mobsters. It turns out he was a running a boiler room fraud.”
These frauds involve bogus stockbrokers cold-calling victims and conning them into buy genuine shares at vastly inflated prices, or worthless or phantom shares.
Greg Whittlestone, described as “articulate and charismatic,” was a leading player in a fraud that involved offering vastly overpriced shares in a legitimate company.
Whittlestone was arrested the day before he was due to act as an usher at Insley’s wedding in Birmingham and went on the run in Mexico after being bailed by police.
He was finally extradited to the UK after trying to gain entry to Texas and jailed for five years and three months at Birmingham Crown Court in July this year
Whittlestone (30), of Brunswick Gate, Stourbridge, admitted charges of conspiracy to commit fraud and money laundering. Kilshaw (30), of Wheatsheaf Road, Edgbaston, was jailed for two-and-a-half years after admitting three charges of money laundering.
Brunton said alarm bells had started ringing as soon as Whittlestone was arrested in 2008. Insley was detained by police when he arrived for work at GBE in October. Kilshaw was arrested the same day.
Insley recalled: “They arrested me for money laundering and fraud. I was in and out of the cells for eight hours.”
Brunton was arrested the following month in a 6am raid on his flat in Ladywood. He said he was shocked when police disclosed details of their investigation into Whittlestone.
He said: “Greg had 20 bank accounts all across the world. He had pseudonyms. It was like opening a Pandora’s Box. You think you know someone and then ... goodness me.”
One of the tangible repercussions of the police inquiry was the decision of the company leasing the GBE’s fish and chip fryer to terminate the hire agreement.
The firm insisted on full payment for the equipment or it would confiscate it. Without the fryer, there was no business so Brunton and Insley bought it for £62,000.
They have just sold the same piece of equipment back to the hire company for £3,000. The money will be used to pay for their bankruptcy petition.
Brunton and Insley admitted they had shown poor judgment in their choice of business partners and had been wrong to set up shop at Broadway Plaza.
Brunton said: “We were naive. We thought everyone would come to us. We thought the location wasn’t so important if we had a great product.”