When Gordon Brown and John Prescott had lunch together on a trip to Scotland in May, rumours abounded that they were hatching a secret plot to undermine Tony Blair.
While the story was officially derided as 'utter rubbish', the real winner was the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, the restaurant where Prescott bought his kippers.
'It certainly didn't do us any harm,' says Mark Derry, co-founder and managing director of Loch Fyne Restaurants, as he tucks into tuna and noodles at the Twickenham branch. Later, he admits the company got straight on the phone to the media to make the most of the PR opportunity.
While it took the Labour Party's least likely pairing to establish Loch Fyne on the map, the business has been building a solid gastronomic reputation for six years. Its use of high-quality seafood from a private Scottish estate, distinctive dining rooms and environmentally friendly philosophy are a hit with customers prepared to pay up to £25 a head.
With 24 restaurants and two small hotels, the company serves 1m customers each year. In 2003, The Sunday Times named it as the fastest-growing restaurant chain and the 10th fastest-growing business in the UK.
At the Twickenham restaurant, the reasons are clear: a counter piled high with fresh crabs, oysters and prawns, cosy wood panelling and stunning photography of Loch Fyne.
As a chain, Loch Fyne tries to avoid homogeneity by acquiring older buildings and retaining their original character. It chooses relatively affluent areas such as Cambridge, Bath and Henley, and stays away from major high streets.
The Loch Fyne Oyster Bar was set up in Argyll in the 70s; the chain was born in 1998. Derry - a former TGI Friday's marketing director - and business partner Ian Glyn had just sold Country Style Inns, a business they had turned around, and were after a new challenge.
Derry was inspired by a meal in a seafood restaurant. 'It was at the time of BSE, so serving fish was a stroke of genius,' he says.
They were approached by seafood supplier Loch Fyne Oysters, which was looking to expand into restaurants. Derry was convinced the partnership would work.
'The hard part of running a seafood restaurant is controlling your supply, and that side was sorted,' he says. 'Also, a lot of people are a bit reticent about seafood. We thought we could build on an image of squeaky-clean, healthy produce from a source you can trust.'
The seafood served by the chain's restaurants is collected from the loch and served the next day. Loch Fyne also plays on its sustainable fishing policies: its salmon comes from low-intensive farms. 'There is an element of tree-hugging about us,' says Derry, who looks as unlike a hippy as one could be, sporting a black polo neck and driving a BMW 4x4. 'We are not going to save the world, but people feel they can come for a good meal and contribute to something.'
Head office is located in an outbuilding of the Twickenham restaurant. The modern-looking space was originally a beer store for the pub that became the restaurant. A minor setback occurred in the early days when a harassed mother driving a 4x4 backed into the building, knocking it off its foundations.
The restaurant allows parents picking up kids from the nearby school to use its car park. 'A lot of our customers are regulars who live locally, so it's important to be part of the community,' says Derry.
Last year Loch Fyne bought Le Petit Blanc, the chain founded by chef Raymond Blanc, which it is developing as an upmarket brasserie. With this sister brand, Derry hopes to double the company's size in the next few years.
As he chats to the staff about tonight's tables (the restaurant is fully booked), he explains that Loch Fyne prides itself on service and staff training. Last month all 1200 employees, from Derry down, sat a 100-question paper on the company's philosophy and products.
'Don't ask what my score was,' says Derry. 'The business has come a long way and we all have a lot to learn.'
1978: Johnny Noble, owner of the Ardingklas Estate in Scotland, teams up with biologist Andy Lane to sell oysters to restaurants. They eventually open a restaurant in Argyll in a former cowshed, as well as two small outlets in England.
1997: Loch Fyne Oysters approaches Mark Derry and Ian Glyn, a pair of entrepreneurs looking to start a seafood restaurant business. They agree to let them use the Loch Fyne name under licence, provided they use the company's produce.
1998: Loch Fyne Restaurants is registered as a company. Funding is sourced from individual investors.
1999: First three restaurants open in Cambridge, Twickenham and Barnet.
2000: Further funding is raised through the government's Enterprise Investment Scheme. A second tranche is raised in 2002.
2003: Loch Fyne Restaurants acquires Le Petit Blanc, a chain founded by chef Raymond Blanc, rescuing it from administration. Turnover at year's end is £21.8m, and profit is £760,000.
2004: John Prescott and Gordon Brown put Loch Fyne on the map.
This article was first published on Marketing