Bo'ness chip shop: Family firm celebrates 125 years of frying
When a 19th century Italian couple moved from New York to Bo’ness for health reasons they could not have imagined the business they began in 1896 would still be going strong in 2021.
To give Corvi’s 125 years in business some context, when it first opened in Seaview Place, Bo’ness, Guglielmo Marconi had just invented a system of wireless communication using radio waves.
Those radio waves have since given way to digital communication even Italian inventor Marconi could not have foreseen.
While the world has changed beyond recognition in the last 125 years, Corvi’s has stayed remarkably true to its roots.
"That’s a big part of the shop,” said Mari-Ellena Corvi Buchanan, the fifth generation of the Corvi family to run the business. “It’s traditional – we don’t have food lying around, everything is made fresh and we still cook it in beef dripping like we have done for over 100 years.
"The way we make the batter is unique to the Corvi family – we don’t actually have it written down, it’s in our heads and has been passed down through the years.”
The Corvi’s history can be traced back all the way to Antonio and Clementina Ferarri, who came to Scotland from Italy and opened an ice cream and confectionery shop in 1896.
Mari-Ellena said: “They were my great, great grandparents. They left Italy for New York and then had to leave New York because my great, great grandmother had asthma and the city air was no good for it.
"They initially opened an ice cream shop, but Bo’ness was a big port town back then and the dock workers were hungry so then it became a fish and chip shop to feed the dockers.”
The Corvi name came along in the 20th Century – around 1910 – when Bertie Corvi, Mari-Ellena’s great grandfather, came over from Italy to take over the running of the shop.
He married Rosie Ferrari, Mari-Ellena’s great grandmother, and the couple ran the shop before and after World War II.
“A lot of people still call the shop Rosie Corvi’s,” said Mari-Ellena. “She was still popping into the shop for years and was in her 90s when she died in 1989, She was a real character.”
In the 1950s Bertie and Rosie’s son Tony – Mari-Ellena’s grandad – took over the shop, after serving his country in World War II in Africa and Italy, and ran things with wife Eveline.
Tony’s son Bert – Mari-Ellena’s dad – then took over the shop in the late 1970s and ran things with wife Marie.
Mari-Ellena said: "My mum and dad were married in 1977 and took over round about then, with my gran and granddad still popping in to see them.”
Like her dad and granddad before her, Mari-Ellena worked in the shop when she was a teenager.
"My dad left school and worked in the shop until he was 67. I worked at the shop when I was in my teens and then left for St Andrews University to study Spanish and business management.
"I worked abroad for a while, but then I came back to the shop. I never felt any pressure to do it, I think it's more like I actually wanted to do it. When you’ve done something for so long it just becomes part of you.
"My dad never wanted me to feel pressured into carrying the business on. I worked with him for a couple of years and then he retired and my husband Donnie and I took over a couple of years ago.
"You don’t want to change things too much – that’s what makes us different. We try to keep things as traditional as possible.”
And a regular customer drops in to make sure things are not straying too far from the Corvi tradition.
Mari-Ellena said: “Dad still comes in to check up on me. He says he’s coming in for a wee espresso, but I think he comes in to see everything is going okay. It’s like he’s retired, but not really retired – it’s like you never leave it.”
Like multitudes of other businesses, COVID-19 forced Corvi’s to temporarily close its doors for a few months – from March to summer last year and January to April this year.
Mari-Ellena said: “It was a really stressful time, but it looks like things are getting back to normal now. We operated as a takeaway only for a while but now we’ve had our seating area open again from last month.
"We are now open Tuesday to Saturday again and off Sunday and Monday. It’s either me or my husband who are running the shop doing all the cooking and that’s the way we can have time off together.
"It’s something Donnie and I realised during the pandemic – you’ve got to prioritise things like that which are important.”
Mari-Ellena and Donnie are discussing ways they can mark Corvi’s major milestone next month.
"We have a few different ideas,” she said. “It just doesn’t feel like 125 years to me, because my great gran – who was born on the year the shop first opened – was still around in 1989.
"We try to make everyone feel at home when they come in. We have a lot of regulars in Bo’ness – it’s a close community. When Donnie and I were married at Bo’ness Town Hall, we had customers from the shop come and see us.
"We just want to say a big thank you to everyone who has supported us. That’s what is really nice about opening up the seating area again, you have people we have not seen for ages coming in and we now have the time to talk to them and ask how they are getting on.
"People who came in as children with their grandparents are now coming into the shop with grandchildren of their own.”