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Hot times for curry houses

May 16, 2008 11:00 IST

When Enam Ali and his family go on holiday to Spain, his wife brings back gifts for their friends and family but he scouts out knick-knacks for his Surrey restaurant, Le Raj. He freely admits that his business preoccupies him. "Without this restaurant I'd be miserable. I've known my customers for 30 years. I'm like a host every day."

However, Mr Ali worries for the future of family-run Balti houses and curry restaurants like his. While the more upmarket Indian restaurants such as Rasoi Vineet Bhatia in Chelsea might be thriving, the rising popularity of restaurant chains such as La Strada, which serves pizzas and pasta, or the Gourmet Burger Kitchen is a threat to similarly priced Indian restaurants - even more so as customers start to tighten their belts thanks to the economy's woes. More importantly, staff shortages and rising commodity prices could force many curry houses to close.

So far, most restaurants are re­sisting passing on the rising price of rice, lentils and energy to customers. Mr Ali, who is chairman of the Bangladesh Caterers Association, which has more than 12,000 members, suggests there are 27,500 job vacancies and says this could mean 12 per cent of restaurants could close.

These fears are shared by the throngs of restaurateurs who last month demonstrated in London's Trafalgar Square to call on the government to relax new visa restrictions for workers from outside the European Union. But it may be that it is the model of family-run businesses that is ripe for change anyway.

Tiffinbites, which runs four restaurants in London as well as a wholesale food business catering to more than 300 companies across the UK, is hoping to take on national chains such as Pizza Express as well as challenging the model of family-run curry houses.

Its solution for staff shortages is to streamline and centralise the cooking operation for all its restaurants and recruit staff locally. Skilled Indian chefs prepare the food in its kitchen in north London before sending it out fast-chilled to the restaurants, while chefs of all nationalities have been trained at the central kitchen's culinary school to make salads, tandoori and naan breads onsite in Tiffinbites' restaurants. Waiting staff are not exclusively Asian.

In the past month, it has launched a nationwide expansion through its franchising program­me, hoping to become the first national curry chain. If all goes to plan, 50 new restaurants will be set up across the country by the end of 2009.

Tiffinbites' turnover is pound 14m, generating profits of pound 2m. Unusually for the sector it has private equity investment, from Napier Brown Holdings.

Jamal Hirani, chief executive of Tiffinbites 9pictured above), says: "I have eastern European chefs. Welsh, English people are taught to cook at our culinary school. My best naan bread maker is a Canadian. You have to adapt to the availability of the local workforce."

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Mr Ali disagrees. He does not favour cooking off-site for his restaurant, which last year made a profit of pound 60,000 on turnover of pound 150,000; nor does he think the public is ready to see a Pole preparing chicken vindaloo.

He is less resistant to recruiting Britons who have been brought up to think curry is their national dish: "My son's friend, who is English, understands curry, he knows chutney, poppadoms, more than an eastern European. People like to know this is genuine food. Maybe it will change in 10 years - maybe then it won't matter, but it takes time."

When he started in his family's restaurant 30 years ago, beer was the first item on the menu. "Half the dishes weren't even curry. We sold chicken Maryland and lots of chicken and chips. Indian restaurants used to be a place (to go) after the pub closed. Now people want an authentic culinary experience," Mr Ali says.

He is lobbying for a relaxation of immigration rules that require migrants to speak English: "We need government support to be able to bring skilled chefs into the country from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India . These are not people coming for benefits, they are contributing to the economy. It's not necessary that they speak English; they only need to know names of spices and oil. The immigration service's requirements are so high I'll end up having to recruit a lecturer to work in my kitchen."

Ranjit Mathrani, chairman of Masala World, which has turnover of almost pound 20m a year and includes Amaya, a boutique Indian restaurant in Belgravia, Chutney Mary in Chelsea, and Veeraswamy, which is almost 90 years old, as well as the chain Masala Zone (which does not have a central kitchen), also wants the rules re­laxed: "We want people from India for their culinary skills. If someone was setting up a Mexican restaurant in Oslo, would their cook be expected to be fluent in Norwegian?"

Mr Ali also hopes to attract second- and third-generation British Asians into the restaurant business. The BCA established the British Curry Awards in 2005, to celebrate the industry and encourage the younger generation to work in the sector. However, he does not believe chains are the future. "People come to Indian restaurants for cheaper food but they also like the community feel," he says.

Mr Hirani disagrees, and says the local community mentality is holding restaurants back. "Indian restaurants tend to be family-run small businesses. They might have two or three restaurants owned by a cousin or brother. But once they run out of extended family, it's a natural end to their expansion."

He is ambitious for his company and, as well as attracting private equity investment, he has recruited Maurice Gammell, former chief executive of Harry Ramsden, the fish-and-chip shop chain that started from one outlet near Leeds and was eventually sold to the Wallenberg family, Swedish private investors, as part of a much bigger deal worth pound 1.8bn, duly noted by Mr Hirani.

Humayun Hussain, editor of Tandoori Magazine, a trade title serving the UK Indian food industry, believes the sector is at a crossroads: "Like many family-run businesses, Indian restaurants have modernised but there is still a long way to go." Yet he is hopeful for the sector's future: "Flock wallpaper is dying but not Indian restaurants."

As Mr Hirani says, "the popularity of Indian food won't go - it's ingrained in the British psyche. People eat turkey curry on Boxing Day and when they come back from holiday, they run back to eat curry to make them feel at home."
Emma Jacobs