No Place Like Home

Whitechapel’s Sonargaon delivers authentic Bangladeshi food buffet-style and provides a place to chat, giving a new meaning to comfort eating

 ‘Adda’, which roughly means gossip or a bit of conversation, is a favourite pastime among Bengalis. And you’ll see plenty of this at Sonargaon restaurant in Whitechapel, east London. Opened in 2017, on the former site of another Indian establishment, the restaurant has quickly built a reputation as a place where you can happily hangout and catch up with friends and family. With its location by Whitechapel market, there’s a steady footfall from people shopping and stopping for a bite to eat.

The restaurant, open from morning through to the night, from 9am until 11pm, is owned by TufazzalAlam, Babul Ahmed Chowdhury and Misba B S Chowdhury. All three are friends who had already worked together at another restaurant (they also have other business interests including a grocery store, which is located next door to the restaurant). Their aim is to bring a ‘quality Bangladeshi food experience and to ensure this is delivered with perfection.’ The restaurant is run buffet-style, helping to reinforce the idea of bringing communities together and sharing good conversation over food.

The dishes, focusing heavily on Bengali fare, are an obvious draw, with 30 items on offer at any one time, usually 25 savoury and five sweet options. You’ll find authentic dishes such as paratha with beef bhuna and beef liver curry – popular with Bengalis at breakfast time, and Kala Bhuna (on the bone), a fiery dish of fried meat, onion and shatkora (a bitter citrus fruit), cooked with the chef’s own spices. There are also a range of fish dishes, including Mrigal, a fish curry on the bone (using fish flown in from Bangladesh), a choice of homemade chutneys and sweet snacks that are made fresh daily. Buffet concepts often bring to mind food that may not be the freshest, but dishes at Sonargaon are cooked fresh daily, with many ingredients sourced from the grocer’s next door.

“The Bengali community likes to gossip – everyone gets to meet and come here for food and some ‘adda’,” says Alam, who first came to the UK in 2004. “It’s become a place for the local community to gather. There are not many restaurants in this area that have such a strong focus on Bengali dishes. Many of the dishes we serve are influenced by those you would find in Sylhet, in north-eastern Bangladesh.” Ninety percent of Bangladeshi origin people in the United Kingdom are from that region.

Even though the restaurant has yet to celebrate five years in business, it has already built up a loyal customer base; as Alam explains, those who visit Sonargaon feel right at home. The restaurant was also named ‘Best Bengali Food Restaurant 2021’ at the recent Curry Life Awards 2021. People are welcome to stay for a quick snack or for a more substantial meal, while an upstairs space can host events for around 100 or the entire restaurant can be used for events for up to 200 people. An outside counter also does a brisk takeaway business and was used extensively over the various lockdowns at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. With such space on offer, unsurprisingly Sonargaon is a popular venue choice for weddings and perhaps even more so post-pandemic, with its ability to host sizeable, rather than mass gatherings. It’s also in demand as a caterer for external events.

Around 95% of customers are Bengali, and they are not only from the surrounding areas, but from much further afield too, while the restaurant is also popular with westerners who would like to try some authentic dishes. Alam also made the unusual move of ensuring that all of his front-of-house staff are women, which lends a welcoming, caring vibe to an Indian restaurant, an environment that is often male-dominated. There are three main chefs and 10 waiters who work different shift patterns and Alam has known his employees for many years. This means that staff turnover at the restaurant is kept to a minimum and Sonargaon is not plagued by staffing issues to the extent that many other restaurants are in the current business climate.

“Our female front of house staff is a strong team and staffing isn’t such a big challenge for us,” says Alam. “We have more issues with the lack of parking available, as so many people make the effort to travel to eat here.”

Access to the restaurant may not be a problem for much longer, with a new station set to open in Whitechapel in 2022 – part of the Elizabeth Line, while a new town hall will be unveiled, also in 2022, on the site of the former Royal London Hospital. It’s a clear sign that the area is changing rapidly and that passing trade is set to grow. To capitalise on the potential for a growing lunch trade, Alam is looking to launch a ‘grab and go’ concept for the outside counter/takeaway side. He is also looking to expand the Sonargaon concept and is toying with the idea of opening a second restaurant.

“We want to encourage others in the UK to come to this place and try Bengali food to get inspired and be inspired,” he says “It’s a great place for small meetings, people can enjoy a traditional breakfast or a late night dinner in groups. We offer tradition and value for money too.” The name Sonargaon is taken from the popular tourist destination in Bangladesh, which was the old capital of Bengal, roughly about 40km from the capital Dhaka. It translates as ‘golden village’ or ‘heritage village’. Alam and his partners have certainly spotted a golden opportunity and made their own restaurant a special place among Whitechapel’s Bengali community. Their next challenge will be taking the concept to a wider audience.

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Now that the hospitality industry isfree to open once again and the pandemic seems to be under control with the vaccination programme on track, Curry Life has a few tips for restaurant owners regarding reopening successfully.

we have gathered this advice in recent weeks through our many conversations with veteran restaurateurs, hospitality experts, and business strategists. We hope you find these tips helpful!

Prioritise your regulars

While your regulars have likely visited you for takeaway throughout the pandemic, they’ll have missed table service. Ordering a takeaway is great, but your regular customers will be keen to come back and enjoy sit-down dining once again. Therefore, make sure your local, frequent customers are welcomed back and treated like old family members.

While we fully recommend doing what you can to attract new business, it’s your regulars that will keep the bills paid. At this point in time, they are the customers you need to impress the most. Show them what they’ve been missing. Many of them will have craved your cooking in the past few months, so make sure it was worth the wait! Reward their loyalty in any way you can, but most of all, just make sure they have a great experience. If you’ve seen them regularly during the pandemic, then thank them for their support.

Don’t abandon takeaways

Takeaway food may have been your primary source of income over the past twelve months, and chances are you’re keen to leave it behind and get back to being a dine-in restaurant. You may also have sold a lot of takeaway food before the pandemic, meaning it will always form part of your strategy. Tempting as it might be to focus more on restaurant dining, we’d caution against abandoning takeaway or easing off the throttle fully.

We understand your desire to jump back into table service now that restaurants are open again, but it’s a good idea to keep your takeaway processes active. Lots of people are still wary of the virus and will still be ordering takeaway food for a while longer. They may not yet be comfortable returning to restaurants yet.

Covid-19 is still a threat, and nobody can rule out another lockdown. This is why restaurants need to be able to go right back to a takeaway-only model if the need arises. We sincerely hope this doesn’t happen, but few things in life are certain. Keep your takeaway infrastructure in place, just in case.

Review your menu

You may have made amendments to your menu during the pandemic. You may have omitted some items due to increased supplier costs or difficulties procuring certain ingredients as a result of recent trade complications. Be it due to Brexit, the pandemic, or a certain ship being stuck in a certain canal; it’s been a complicated time for businesses which import goods.

But some of these issues are being resolved and this creates more options for restaurant owners. Work out what you can comfortably bring back. It may be your whole menu or just certain dishes. Now may be a good time to shake things up and make the changes you want going forward. You could even advertise your ‘New Menu’ to get your customers excited.

Evaluate your suppliers and your staff training

Speaking of suppliers, take time to evaluate them and see which ones are worth keeping, now that the industry is coming back to life. There may be cheaper alternatives, or it may be worth paying more if there is a price increase.  The price of many suppliers skyrocketed during the pandemic, and they may lose customers if this continues in the long-term. Make sure you do what’s right for you and your business. 

Health and safety concerns are now at the forefront of customer’s minds. Hygiene and cleanliness have always been essential to the restaurant trade, even before the pandemic, but now these concerns have increased in importance due to the existence of Covid-19.

This means restaurant owners and managers need to ensure their staff are taking health and safety guidelines as seriously as possible. There is no room for error or a relaxed approach. Staff must adhere to the rules if they are to work in this sector.

It’s your responsibility as a restaurant owner to ensure your team is fully trained and aware of what the guidelines are. It’s also worth encouraging your staff to get vaccinated. This could help ensure Covid stays out of the restaurant, keeping you, your team, and your customers safe.

Keep up to date with guidelines and reassess your marketing

As restrictions ease, the guidelines are changing rapidly. However, the government’s roadmap could change as new strains of Covid are identified. There are likely to be regional guidelines too, depending on where you are in the UK.

Stay up to date with current affairs and keep an eye on what’s going on in your area. While restrictions are relaxing, they could return at a moment’s notice. It’s likely that summer 2021 will not be the complete end of Covid-19, so stay vigilant. Know what you can and cannot do legally, then act accordingly.

Now is the time to tell the world that you’re back in business. There are many different ways to do this; you could consider traditional advertising, like leaflet drops. Or you could take advantage of digital and social media with targeted ads. If you can afford it, then you could hire a marketing executive or an outside agency to help you – but only if that works for you and your restaurant.

Even if you don’t pay for it, we’d advise using social media to let your customers know that you’re back. Share some enticing pictures of your meals and let them know your opening hours. Remember, it’s free to use a Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter page, so don’t be afraid to try these out.

Plan for a gradual reopening

Just because you can reopen fully doesn’t mean you have to, at least not right away. If you’re more comfortable opening in stages, draw up a plan for this. It could mean only opening on weekends or weekdays or simply opening a few days a week and seeing how it goes.

Go at your pace. You may still be building back up to a full reopening. There may still be staffing, menu, or other logistical concerns to consider. Therefore, do whatever works for you, and don’t be pressured into doing anything you’re not ready to do.

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A triumph of tastes & talent

By Cosmo Brockway

DEEP IN THE KENT COUNTRYSIDE, surrounded by oast houses and hop fields, lies the pretty village of Tenterden. Known as the ‘Jewel of the Weald’ the tranquil market town has a huge amount to offer a visitor, from quaint antique shops to scenic rides on the Kent & East Sussex Railway. Tenterden High Street is one of its most charming features, a tree-lined, wide boulevard of clapboard and Georgian shops and houses, it is as British as apple pie and custard and is a fine place to wander down on a summer day.

At the very end of the picturesque High Street is one of Tenterden’s gems, the locally-renowned Badsha. Having been established 26 years ago by restaurateur and businessman, Abul Kalam Azad Suton, the Indian restaurant has gone from strength to strength and has a devoted following, both locally and nationwide. The pause of lockdown has given Suton the time and space needed to refurbish his dining room and it has recently reopened with ‘a new spring in its step’. Suton has been reinvigorated by this unforeseen opportunity to step back and reassess his business direction, and like many other small businesses, he has taken the chance to move into the next season with a renewed sense of purpose and vitality, despite the many obstacles faced in the last fifteen months.

A hearty welcome

We walk into Badsha’s newly unveiled dining room on a chilly evening (despite it being late May) and are immediately swept up in the warmth of our welcome. Suton treats each and every restaurant guest as though they are walking into his own hearth and there is an intimacy and charm that is the hallmark of an experienced and genuine host. “I am known across this region as one of the first curry houses in this part of the world,” he says as we sit down at one of the socially distanced tables in the beautifully decorated dining room.

Abul Kalam Azad (centre) with his daughter Tisha and brother Suhan

“Family generations have grown up with me and I have known many of my adult diners from when they were little children teasing me”, he says.

Such longevity would be appreciated in this very traditional part of the British countryside and Suton is proud of his respected place in the local community.

The figure sitting across from me is a far cry from the young man who arrived from a village in Sylhet, in the northern part of Bangladesh, in 1983 with little to his name. However, Suton’s work ethic and determination ensured that by the end of the following year he had his first business up and running, Shapla Tandoori in East Grinstead before moving on two years later, purchasing the 500-year-old building that is now Badsha. All this in addition to achieving his BA (Honours) from Anglia Ruskin University. 

In 1995, he returned to his first perch in the UK to establish Azad Bangladeshi Cuisine. Suton’s son is now running Shapla in East Grinstead. Aside from these highlights, Suton’s proudest moment has been ‘setting up Britannia Spice in an old whisky bond in the foodie area of Leith in Edinburgh. It was a dream to create something like this and I have great partners involved.’

The innovative Britannia Spice has, since its founding in 1999, gone on to win critical acclaim and awards aplenty. Its regular diners are a who’s who of Edinburgh movers and shakers and Suton has continued his Midas touch with its enormous success.

Dinner across the generations

Back to Tenterden and dinner is being served, accompanied by Suton’s engaging commentary on the dishes and their inspirations. He is extremely pleased with his head chef and believes that Badsha will go from ‘strength to strength over the next year; people are hungrier than ever for new experiences and want to make the most of joyful gatherings that restaurants like ours offer’.

Abul K Azad and his son Abul E Azad

Our first course is a mixed platter of succulent, fiery red duck tikka, an unusual combination that wins on every level alongside glorious Mughal Lamb Chops, with a rosemary and mint marinade, and juicy chilli King Prawns sitting atop meltingly delicious chicken kebabs. There is nothing more satisfying than knowing at the first bite that you are in the hands of a chef with raw talent in his fingertips – and Badsha offered exactly that.

The main course was a fragrant trio of curries personally chosen by Suton to showcase what makes his restaurant such a destination for those in the know. A richly-masaled garlic-infused Roshni Chicken set the scene for a milder but velvety Chicken Reshmi Makhani, soaked in buttery cream and deeply comforting on a chilly evening. The third dish, Braised Lamb with Yoghurt, had all the smoky, refined quality of ancestral food handed down through the generations.

A journey through the nuanced flavours of the Subcontinent, with a perfectly pitched Bengali chord running it, this was the perfect dinner to welcome the joys of dining in a restaurant back to our lives. It was a fitting first meal after the long, desolate, takeaway-spiced restrictions of the year so far. Alas, we did not have any space for dessert but I am quite sure they would have lived up to the rest of our sparkling meal. I only hope the gentle residents of Tenterden know quite how privileged they are to have both Badsha and Suton in their midst – but I have a strong hunch they do.

A man of many talents

Suton is a man of many facets, while hospitality and the cuisines of his native Bangladesh are a passion, he also has many other accomplishments. Not least a book, titled Enlightened Noble Personality, detailing his life and achievements, with moving testimonies penned by the many figures whose lives he has touched. Having started as a freelance writer for various Bengali language newspapers on his arrival in the UK, Suton went on to co-found the weekly Sylheter Dak alongside some associates (including the editors of Curry Life) and write a very successful weekly column, SabinoyAroj. This was followed by the founding of British Bangladeshi News Agency and a large number of other writing projects, including several published books. A man of letters as well as business, Suton is very obviously passionate about engaging with his community in Britain and highlighting their culture, both within Bengali circles and to the outside world.

Suton was highly instrumental in the building of Gatwick Mosque (living with his family in nearby Crawley) and was the founder and secretary-general of Bangladeshi Islamic Community Association since 2000. Behind the scenes, he has also been involved in many local community initiatives. The epitome of marrying success with giving back to the community, his charitable achievements are numerous, and I enjoyed hearing about them over dinner. I am also surprised and impressed by the scale of his charitable concerns in his native Bangladesh. In addition to being a noted fundraiser for national disasters, Suton has established several foundations across Sylhet for those who are less fortunate. A son of Nabiganj Village and the descendant of landowners, Suton takes his responsibility to his old country very seriously. Each year, students in need of financial help benefit from his Educational Trust, Badsha Mia, created in remembrance of his father and the font of regular scholarships. He is also a noted donor of Dighalbak High School and cares deeply about the next generation of his region.

Suton is a renaissance man and everything he touches seems to turn to gold, but it is humility and gentle charisma that make Badsha the unique place that it is – and so much more than a provincial curry house. It is a hub of taste (both cultural and physical), community spirit, teamwork and, above all, joy. We leave with a sense of privilege at having been given a glimpse into the inner workings of a special dining destination – with a very special man at its helm. Long may it last.

10 West Cross, Tenterden Kent, TN30 6JL. Tel: 01580 765143

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By the Water’s Edge

CURRY LIFE’S reporter Sam Smith caught up with Jangir Alam, proprietor of the stunning waterside restaurant Bombay Quay in the town of Northwich, to share his views on opening and running a successful large restaurant – and how to sustain one during a time of national crisis.

THE TOWN OF NORTHWICH is south of Warrington, which just so happens to feature Bombay Quay’s sister restaurant, Bombay 8. That restaurant featured in a previous issue of Curry Life from last year. The River Weaver runs directly through the centre of the town, making Northwich an ideal location to relax by the water’s edge and enjoy a good meal – especially now that the UK hospitality industry is coming out of hibernation.

Alam believes Northwich is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan and that more people are settling in the town, so there is a demand for new and exciting places to visit and eat at. He points out a trend for fewer people leaving in the evening  to go to nearby town centres; instead, they choose to stay in Northwich. All of which bodes well for his restaurant.

“More people have moved to the town, and more houses have been developed in recent years,” he says. “This has resulted in more restaurants too. We identified this trend and chose the town as our location for this reason. We named it Bombay Quay due to it being by the water and to connect to Bombay 8. We’re glad we did because our customers love it, there’s also nothing else like us nearby, so it was a worthwhile investment.”

Team approach

The restaurant opened in 2016 and around 80% of its customers are regulars, who bring new people who then return themselves and bring their friends.

“We’ve done no traditional advertising since we’ve been open, with our popularity all about word of mouth. Our growth is down solely to our customers’ experience,” says Alam.  “We have 12 chefs in the kitchen, most of whom have been here since day one. This has been great for consistency; our customers know what they like and what to expect each time they visit.”

One of Alam’s business partners from the front of house side has been stuck in Bangladesh since the pandemic started, however, leaving him and the other partners short-handed. The team has stayed in touch and continued to support one another, with everyone aiming to keep the restaurant operating at peak performance, even if they are separated for a period of time.

“It’s helpful to have a partner in each area of the restaurant, be it front of house or kitchen,” says Alam. “Each of us can then keep an eye on a different aspect of the business and take responsibility for it, and we all have a vested interest in its success. Other partners also know that the remaining areas of the restaurant are in good hands. We all want to succeed together. This method also helps us lead our individual teams from the front. You’re never taking instructions from a manager, but from one of the owners.”

Seizing opportunities

Alam himself started working in the restaurant trade at 14 years of age and gathered experience throughout school and college. He went on to study computer engineering at university, but upon leaving higher education, he decided to go back into hospitality, opening his first restaurant at the age of 21.

“My heart was in my course, I’m still very interested in technology, but I was always making five-year plans in my head, and opening a business was part of that”, he explains. “I think I was just more of an entrepreneur at heart. I have used these skills to improve the business though, be it through new digital innovations or software; I still love computers.”

Running a restaurant during the Covid-19 pandemic presented a fair number of challenges, with everyone having to adapt to change.

“When the pandemic struck, we had 400 people coming in for Mother’s Day 2020,” recalls Alam. “I was driving to work listening to the news, and by the time I arrived, I started getting call after call asking to cancel reservations. This was just a few days before the first lockdown started.”

“We closed for a while just to gather our thoughts and make plans. Staff were asking what was going on, and for a while I didn’t know what to tell them. As their boss I needed to reassure them, but I didn’t know what was going to happen myself. Everything was so uncertain, and at first we only thought this was going to go on for a few weeks.”

Alam recalls leaving the restaurant the day it had to close. He says that as he put that key in the lock, he felt quite emotional, and he had no idea when he would be turning this key again.

“Or would I be passing the keys to someone else?,” he says.  “It was an indescribable feeling, especially when you’ve worked so hard to build a business. I never thought I’d see the day when I’d need to close this place down. It was good to spend some time at home with the family when it all started, but in the back of my mind I needed to work out what was happening with the business.”

Changing times

When the business reopened, Alam decided this would be for only five days a week instead of seven, and with a minimal number of staff, who all worked together to share shifts to make sure that everyone got to be involved in some way. They liaised over Zoom and WhatsApp groups,with the team taking over responsibility for the rota.  Alam says the partners were really impressed by how the team pulled together.

Once Bombay Quay reopened, Alam and the team had to work within the restrictions but also needed to ensure that as a business, it remained profitable.

“We’ve never done delivery, and have focused our efforts on takeaway only,” he says. “Once we opened, I was overwhelmed by the response from our regular customers. We created a one-way system for people to collect their food.  People were queuing out into the car park and close to the street. We’d never seen anything like it before.”

To cope with the demand, the restaurant also had to turn off the phones and take orders in stages; this was to prevent the kitchen staff from being overwhelmed. 

“Everyone liked the idea of enjoying a curry while things were so uncertain in the world, that may explain the demand. But this is when we realised we could get through this,” he says. “One challenge was paying the rent for the site. We have a fifteen-year lease here, and we did fall behind for a time. But I’m proud to say we’re totally debt-free now. We managed to open this May for table service with a clean slate, ready to start again.”

Keep your customers front of mind

So what advice would Alam give on running a restaurant during a time of crisis? Bombay Quay chose not to participate in the Government Eat Out to Help Out scheme, where diners received a 50% discount on food or non-alcoholic drinks when at a restaurant (up to a maximum of £10 discount per diner), every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday between 3 and 31 August 2020.

“We understood and appreciated the support from the government, but in my mind, we had already had that and Eat Out to Help Out risked alienating our regulars,” explains Alam. “We knew the restaurant would fill up anyway, but it would fill up with local customers who were just happy to be back. If we had done this half-price scheme, the restaurant would have filled up with new customers looking for a discount, and our regulars may have struggled to get a table. We’d rather make sure our regulars know they are always welcome.”

Bombay Quay didn’t limit its menu either and continued to serve its full range of dishes. While supplier costs did indeed increase during the pandemic, the Bombay Quay team didn’t feel the need to stop cooking anything from their menu. Alam organised his kitchen to make sure all dishes were available and could be cooked without difficulty.

“Chicken Tikka Masala has remained our most popular dish, but on top of that our house specials are also very popular,” he says. “In fact, we have a new dish on the menu, our Desi Lamb. This has a story behind it. At home I have meat on the bone and our chefs were making this lamb on the bone curry for our staff after their shifts ended.”

“It just had so much flavour, so I thought, why not add this to the menu?,” he explains. “The issue was these curries take a lot of time to prepare. So, we decided to cook it the day before and let the flavours really marinate overnight. This is now one of our most popular house specials.”

The dish is described on the menu as ‘This is what the boys eat!’. We tried this dish during our visit and were blown away by the flavours. The meat on the bone really did add another layer of taste. And despite the playful warning about how spicy the dish was in the description, we felt it had just enough heat to be enjoyed by any palate.

For Alam, there is one standout factor that helped Bombay Quay survive the pandemic, which he says applies to running a successful restaurant during any period of hardship.

“I couldn’t have made it through without my staff,” he says. “Of course, you need to treat customers like they are a guest in your own home – at the end of the day, without them you don’t have a restaurant. But you also won’t have a business without your staff. I’m so thankful for my team, everyone was there for each other, and now we’re like a family. I would credit our survival and success to our staff.”

Alam is very much aware of the continuing need for the pandemic to be under control but he is looking to the future and making tentative plans for the coming months. He hopes to give back to the restaurant’s customers in some way and is also looking forward to planning a special celebration to tie in with the restaurant’s fifth birthday in October 2021.

Bombay Quay, Hayhurst quay, London Road, Northwich CW9 5EU

Tel: 01606 249911

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Get your business back on track

Curry Life is hosting its Culinary Workshop on the 25th July at the Crowne Plaza London Docklands. Presented together with experts from the hospitality industry, it promises to be an event packed full of insight into future trends and advice on how the curry industry can recover post-pandemic.

The evening will include a drinks and canapés reception, with plenty of opportunity for networking. This will be followed by talks and presentations from industry experts and suppliers, live cooking demonstrations and a gala dinner. In our event preview, speakers highlight their experiences from the last year and how they have kept positive, offer a taster of their presentations and share advice on kick-starting the curry industry.

The power of spice

Acclaimed food writer and celebrity chef Mridula Baljekar will be highlighting the health benefits of everyday spices. She is passionate about healthy eating and says Indian food is ideal for a healthy diet. 

Mridula Baljekar

“Spices have healing properties which many people are unaware of,” she says.  Everyday spices such as turmeric have been used in India for thousands of years to cure arthritis, boost the body’s immunity levels, fight heart and brain diseases and many more ailments.  Chinese herbalists called turmeric a ‘healing plant’. Other spices we use daily are garlic, ginger, chilli and onion, all of which contribute to a healthy lifestyle”.

Baljekar’s next book, due to be published in 2022, is called Spice Secrets; A Doorway to the Magical World of Spices. It features the health benefits of spices and their origin, a guide to buying and storing and easy-to-follow recipes.

As well as writing her book, Baljekar has been busy in the last year adapting her business in light of the pandemic. With her cookery classes and live cooking demonstrations cancelled during Covid-19 restrictions, Baljekar looked to replace some of the lost income, while also helping those who love Indian food, but who could not visit their favourite restaurants.

“I developed a range of Indian ready meals and launched them in food stores near my home in Windsor and I am hoping to take my meals to a wider market in the near future,” she says.

Mridula’s Kitchen

She also launched online cookery classes for those looking to build on their home cooking skills, attracting budding cooks from the UK alongside Europe and the US. “Making people happy through my food has always been very dear to my heart and I am thrilled that I have been able to do that even during the pandemic,” she says.”Promoting Indian food and the industry has been my focus for many years. Indian food is vast and varied and it is the spices that unite this vastness.”

Baljekar believes that it is time for the curry industry to re-think how it cooks and presents food, bearing in mind the enormous doubts and fears that the pandemic has created in everyone’s minds. 

“Clean tasting and healthy dishes with clear and precise descriptions on the menu, highlighting the health benefits of the dishes, could be one way to instil confidence in people,” she says. “Avoiding too much salt, sugar, oil, butter and ghee will be my way of cooking; it is not necessary to use excessive amounts of these ingredients to produce delicious food.”

Baljekar says the future of the curry industry can be as good – if not better than it was pre-Covid, but there are certain challenges the industry needs to overcome. 

“We need to ensure that restaurateurs are not crippled by high rents and business rates – both landlords and local authorities hopefully will look at these issues more sympathetically,” she says. “Industry suppliers have also suffered during the pandemic; hence sourcing local produce could be another way to gain customer confidence and help suppliers.  Needless to say, eating local will also reduce carbon footprint, which in turn will contribute to a cleaner planet.”

Staying positive, says Baljekar, is the key to success in life, but when adversity hits us, it is easy to fall into a negative mindset.

“Faith and hope are the only things that can help us to hold on to positive thinking. Bad times don’t last forever, just as good times do not,” she says. “My own thinking is ‘have faith in yourself and your work and never give up hope’; this has helped me to overcome hard times and enjoy sunny days.”

Refocus and recharge

Mark Poynton, chef patron of MJP@TheShepherds in Fen Ditton, located close to Cambridge and former head chef at Michelin-starred Alimentum, will also be speaking at the workshop. In the last year, as well as refining recipes for his restaurant, he has been busy working on a debut cookbook, due out in autumn this year, featuring a range of his signature recipes.  His current menu showcases dishes such as tandoori roast cauliflower, cumin dhal, pomegranate; smoked pork belly, snails, focaccia and stone bass, turnip, pistachio, mustard.

Mark Poynton

“My main challenge in the last year has been making sure we can stay afloat and have a business to come back to,” he says. “We flipped to ‘at home boxes’ at a very early stage and that has been a massive help, both business-wise and to keep the team motivated. The Government has also been fantastic with grants and the furlough scheme.”

Poynton has kept himself motivated by thinking of his team and his family, and pushing every day to be better than yesterday. In the near future, he says he is looking forward to hosting ‘a full restaurant, seeing people cook recipes from my book and who knows, possibly a second MJP.’

For the curry – and other food industries to recover, Poynton believes it’s important to refocus and look at streamlining the business. “Think about whether you need to open seven days – at MJP we are only open three and a half days a week as it is better to be full on those days rather than half-empty across seven,” he says. “It means less staff are needed and you can use the same staff everyday for consistency, so there is less waste, less mistakes and fundamentally happy customers.”

Getting back to basics and looking at education and staff welfare is one avenue Poynton says could be further explored.  “Has anybody ever looked at opening a purely Indian-styled catering and hospitality college in the UK? We have to forget that we can no longer hire from abroad and think outside the box,” he says.

A sustainable approach

Sustainability and how to buy products wisely will be the main focus of Dominic Chapman’s workshop session. The chef/patron at country restaurant/pub The Beehive in White Waltham, says that in the wake of the pandemic, sustainability and looking after the planet are important issues for the restaurant industry.

Dominic Chapman

“Try not to use unsustainable produce; if you spend a little more to get a better product, you get happier customers,” he says. “Buying sustainably is going to benefit you more. At The Beehive, we focus on sustainable, seasonal food. We buy day boat fish, source locally-grown produce and opt for free range, all of which can reduce air miles.”

Like others in the industry, Chapman focused on takeaways during the pandemic but also adapted in other ways to manage cashflow, offering goods such as toilet rolls, cornflakes and bin bags.

“If we could get it from our suppliers we sold it, I was supplying all the things you couldn’t get in the supermarket such as flour and eggs,” he explains. “We adapted very quickly and we found our rhythm to create ready meals – ‘Beehive dinners at home’.”

This included a range of takeaway dinners, such as  fish and chips, burgers, burritos and kebabs. Chapman also promoted the dishes on social media, with the aim of creating community spirit and reaching as many people – local and further afield, as possible.

He believes the curry industry is a leader in the takeaway sector and hopes that this side continues to flourish. But with Indian restaurants facing so much competition, Chapman believes the key to survival and recovery will be focusing on using good quality ingredients and sustainable produce. And with many Indian restaurants providing a large menu, Chapman believes they have to provide the quality to match the sheer size of what’s on offer.

“Indian restaurants are very entrepreneurial businesses – as long as they focus on the quality of food and service they will bounce back,” he says. “Sustainable food does not have to be expensive; if you have good ingredients and offer wonderful service, you will have the makings of a good restaurant.”

Keeping busy has helped Chapman to maintain a positive outlook in a tough year. As well as having reopened The Beehive in line with Government rules, he is continuing the takeaway and delivery operations that were started during the pandemic.

“We will see how this goes and if we need to employ more people we will get creative and think on our feet,” he says.

Adapt to changing behaviour

Mo Gherras has more than 20 years experience in the restaurant trade and opened his new venture – The Cross Keys pub in Sherborne in June 2019, less than a year before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. The business remained open from the very first UK lockdown, with Gherras changing and adapting the model on a regular basis, adjusting to customers’ needs.

Mo Gherras

“We are very much part of the community, doing food deliveries and changing our menus to suit customers’ tastes, “ he explains. “For example, on Friday we do fish and chips – this is one example of the classic dishes that people want.”

During the third lockdown, Gherras turned the pub into a shop, establishing a community hub, serving breakfast and providing essential supplies. He says such a business model means they can quickly adapt to customers’ changing needs.

His efforts thus far have paid off, with The Cross Keys being recognised with a number of awards. It was the winner in the New Business of the Year category at the Dorset Tourism Awards 2020 and also won Silver in the ‘Pub of the Year’ award. It was also named a ‘Great Days Winner’ by South West Trains; this accolade was given to five small businesses, with each receiving a recovery package worth £12,000. Gherras says upselling customer demand put the restaurant on the map beyond Sherborne. The package was used to help with marketing, with the restaurant featuring on billboards on 20 stations from Waterloo to Exeter, as well as investment for new equipment.

Gherras believes curry restaurants are adapting to people’s changing behaviours, particularly with regards to deliveries.

“The mindset with delivery has changed – previously it was seen as a treat now it is a necessity,”he says. “That is how you get your name and brand out there, doing door-to-door deliveries yourself, not through a third party. If you make an effort,  locals will support you and this is particularly true for Indian restaurants. There is a lot of competition out there.”

He sees staffing as the biggest issue, not just for Indian restaurants but for the entire hospitality sector, with a shortage of chefs one of the main challenges.

“Furlough in part has created this, with many people only choosing to work a couple of shifts here and there, without any pressure to do more,” he says.

To register for the Curry Life Culinary Workshop

Curry Life Culinary Workshop and Networking Dinner is taking place on SUNDAY 25th July 2021 FROM 4PM TO 10PM, at the Crowne Plaza London Docklands, Royal Victoria Dock, Western Gateway, London E16 1AL.

Participating chefs and restaurants will receive a certificate for attending the culinary workshop and panel session. The headline sponsor for the event is JUST EAT, with additional event partners including Unisoft Solutions, CLCC and Travel Links Worldwide.

Those interested in attending this event must reserve tickets in advance.

To reserve your space at the event Call 07956 588 777 or send a text.

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Takeaway tips: Capturing that restaurant feel

DESPITE TABLE SERVICE (finally) returning to the UK hospitality industry, takeaway meals will continue to be important for a long time to come. Many curry lovers in the UK  order a takeaway instead of going for a sit-down meal, so getting the takeaway right is always important.

We’d be naive to assume that everyone in the country will rush back to restaurants now that they are open. There’s still a lot of trepidation around the country, with many people waiting to see what happens before they go out and eat within a restaurant setting.

Habits will have changed forever, and normality may still be a long way off. Therefore, takeaway meals are likely to still be an essential part of any restaurant’s business model going forward.

The question is, what can businesses do to make their takeaway meals replicate that restaurant quality feel?  While the food is often similar, there is usually a difference between restaurant quality and what you might get as a takeaway; here are a few ways to bridge that gap.

Perception makes all the difference

It all starts with a restaurant’s perception of takeaway food and their attitude towards it. If a restaurant treats their takeaway dishes with the same attention they devote to sit-down meals, this will become apparent to the customer. It communicates to them that all food from the restaurant is of the same standard. It demonstrates that takeaway customers are just as valued as those who visit for a sit-down meal.

If however, the restaurant views takeaway meals as less important, then this too could be reflected in the food and the customers may pick up on this. As a result, those customers may choose to avoid that restaurant. If they didn’t enjoy their takeaway, they’ll be unlikely to ever visit for a sit-down meal, fearing a similar experience. This is why takeaway food needs to be considered just as important as any sit-down meal.

Taste and quality is key

It’s important that any food cooked for takeaway meals is of the same quality as the dishes served in the restaurant. Customers who frequently visit for a sit-down meal will be able to tell the difference if this is not the case.

Customers who order a takeaway are likely paying the same as those who enjoy a sit-down meal, so they must receive the same attention to detail when it comes to food preparation. Ensure the same ingredients are used regardless of whether it’s a takeaway or restaurant dining.

Essentially, don’t cut corners when it comes to food cooked solely for takeaway; treat every meal like it was going out of the kitchen and onto someone’s table. The only difference between the two is that the table in question just happens to be in a different building. 

Pay attention to presentation

The presentation of a takeaway is never going to be able to match that of a sit-down meal. A takeaway is a very different experience, and while it can match a sit-down meal in terms of taste and quality, aesthetics is a whole other matter. The good news is customers don’t expect a takeaway to resemble the presentation of a meal served in-house. They are far more concerned with taste, quality and value.

However, that doesn’t mean a restaurant shouldn’t endeavour to make their takeaway meals resemble their sit-down dishes as much as possible. The more similar they appear in their presentation, the more customers will feel like they are eating a restaurant-quality meal. Presentation always counts for a lot when it comes to enjoying food, so this should always be considered.

If you can find ways for your takeaway dishes to be more aesthetically pleasing in their presentation, then customers will have a better experience. Remember, you sample food with your eyes before your tastebuds.

Consider your packaging

Packaging is heavily connected to presentation, but rather than serving your takeaway food in the standard aluminium containers with card lids, try to investigate other forms of packaging. Restaurants which pride themselves on healthy dishes should consider more sustainable packaging; not only is this good for the environment, but it will also win the hearts of customers who care about these issues.

By investing in new forms of packaging, you can also arrange your food to match your on-plate presentation more closely. This allows you to deliver and serve your food in a way that reflects your sit-down dining experience, rather than the typical takeaway presentation. It may be a small detail, but it counts for a lot when it comes to takeaways capturing that restaurant feel.

The social factor

Many restaurants use social media and other forms of advertising to share delicious-looking pictures of their cooking. The images are usually of food cooked in the restaurant and reflect what a dish would look like when brought to your table. This is something every restaurant should do – and continue to do. But don’t forget to showcase snaps of your takeaway food too.

Have some professional pictures taken; this is because many of your customers will only be ordering food for takeaway, perhaps for the foreseeable future.

Marketing materials and images that simply show your food on a plate may not be enough to tempt a customer into ordering a takeaway. However, if your pictures of your takeaway meals look just as delicious as your plated ones, then seeds will be planted in the minds of your customers. This will make them far more likely to pick up the phone (or use an app) and order a takeaway from you.

Research and recharge

When the pandemic struck, and takeaways became the restaurant trade’s only lifeline, the curry industry was quick to adapt. Many restaurants already had a takeaway infrastructure in place, so they could pivot quickly and continue to earn a profit.

However, restaurants in the fine dining business across all cuisines were much slower at adopting this approach. In the eyes of some restaurants, takeaway was simply not something they’d consider. To them, serving food was a pageant, and the experience could not be replicated through takeaway.

Yet as the months went on, many fine dining establishments needed to change this policy – or they risked going out of business. In time, they developed some creative and novel ways to sell their food as a takeaway, but without compromising on their values or the experience.

Naturally, some concessions were made, but these restaurants made serving takeaway food into an art. They all did different things, but much of it had to do with presentation and artistic flair. Investigate what some of these restaurants did and see if you can apply it to your own takeaway meals.

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Council approves plans to make Brick Lane traffic-free

TOWER HAMLETS COUNCIL has approved plans to make sections of Brick Lane traffic-free on certain evenings and all weekend, as part of the council’s ‘Liveable Streets’ programme.

The plans were approved at the end of May at the Council’s Cabinet meeting, following a consultation process with residents, businesses, key groups and emergency services.

The changes will see the road closed to traffic on Thursday and Friday between 5.30-11pm and Saturday and Sunday from 11am-11pm.  Proposals to restrict traffic at these times to support Brick Lane businesses and make the road safer, were supported by a majority of residents, visitors and Brick Lane businesses. The restrictions will be monitored by Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras.

Detailed designs will be prepared with the first works set to start this summer in a phased manner to minimise disruption to residents and businesses.

The Council has previously said timed restrictions for motor vehicles would ensure businesses can continue to receive deliveries and collections during the day on weekdays. It says the timed closures will provide a safer environment for pedestrians during evenings and weekends and could support businesses to trade safely and make use of outside dining space.

Last year, parts of Brick Lane were temporarily pedestrianised in the summer, to provide safe spacing for walking and social distancing and outdoor seating for restaurant customers. However, during this trial, there were 24/7 road closures and roads were blocked with planters to restrict access.

John Biggs, Mayor of Tower Hamlets, said: “Our Liveable Streets proposals will give a boost to Brick Lane by making it a safer, greener and cleaner place. Reducing traffic at peak times will help create a safer and much more enjoyable environment for everyone.

John Biggs

“The changes will help our local businesses bounce back from the effects of Covid-19 restrictions by being able to use more outdoor space and attracting more shoppers and visitors. We will of course monitor the impact and continue to work with those businesses and our residents so we can ensure this jewel in the crown of our borough thrives.”

Further measures, as part of the Liveable Streets scheme, include a School Street, which restricts traffic at drop off and pick up times on Underwood Road, Buxton Street and Hunton Street. Tower Hamlets says this will improve air quality and safety for children who attend these schools.

Deal Street will become one-way southbound between Underwood Road and Woodseer Street and 10 new cycle hangers will be installed in the area.

The Liveable Streets programme aims to improve the look and feel of public spaces in neighbourhoods across the borough and make it easier, safer and more convenient to get around by foot, bike and public transport.

According to information from Tower Hamlets, Brick Lane is an area of London that attracts over 18,500 pedestrians every day. This space is also shared with over 4,000 vehicles, many of which use Brick Lane to cut through the area. Tower Hamlets says they are not visiting local businesses, schools or places of worship but are significant contributors to the already unacceptable levels of air pollution and congestion along Brick Lane.

These proposals are a key part of Tower Hamlets commitment to support Brick Lane’s economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and aims to attract more visitors to the area and support businesses to trade safely. In the consultation, the Councils said if the traffic management proposals for evening closures are supported, further discussion will take place with local residents and businesses as to whether these are still preferred in winter time, when the benefits of facilitating outdoor dining are much smaller.

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Staff shortages a growing concern for curry houses

INDIAN RESTAURANTS ARE struggling to reopen following the easing of lockdown restrictions as they do not have enough staff, with recruitment for skilled roles such as Tandoori chefs remaining a challenge.

Mohammed Atikur Rahman, owner manager of Watford-based Indian Sizzler says he is trying his best to keep the restaurant open for as many hours as he can.

Atikur Rahman

“I might have to close at certain times as I don’t have enough staff to keep up with the number of customer orders,” he says. “Some staff were put on furlough during the lockdowns but they have since found other work and don’t want to come back.”

Rahman has advertised for staff on social media, via Facebook and through an agency but says the majority of applicants are wanting more money than he can afford to pay. As Rahman points out, his business too is recovering from months of closure owing to lockdown, and he cannot justify putting prices up to pay increased wages to staff. The effect of Brexit is also having an impact; previously Indian Sizzler employed staff from Eastern Europe, but Rahman says many Europeans have returned home, a combination of Brexit and the pandemic making it less attractive to stay in the UK.

The Derby Telegraph recently reported that the Marigold Indian in Tutbury did not reopen the week of the 17th May, when in-door dining resumed, as it could not find staff for positions including chefs, waiters and pot washers. The restaurant was closed throughout the various lockdowns, resulting in staff moving on to different roles.

Oli Khan MBE

Oli Khan MBE, senior vice president at the Bangladesh Caterers Association, says staff shortages have been a long-standing problem for curry houses. Tough immigration rules mean restaurants are unable to hire skilled chefs, while the curry sector is also suffering from succession issues. Many children are reluctant to follow in their parents’ footsteps and join the family business, pursuing other careers instead. The pandemic has made a bad situation even worse.

“The pandemic has certainly not helped – many staff were furloughed, but since a lot of restaurants don’t have contracts in place, when it’s time to come back, staff have moved on to other jobs,” says Khan. “Many Eastern Europeans who worked in curry houses have also gone back home or they are in alternative employment.”

Training colleges have previously been set up to encourage potential staff to learn new skills, but Khan says these are not a workable solution. “They closed because not enough people were signing up for the courses. It’s a real challenge to recruit skilled roles such as a chef, tandoori chef or sous chef,” he says. “More needs to be done to recruit staff from South East Asia, semi-skilled staff who could train here for three to four years to become a skilled chef.”

Last month, trade association UKHospitality released findings from its survey of hospitality workers, revealing the extent of the staffing crisis facing the hospitality sector. It said the shortage of front-of-house staff and chefs is particularly acute, with 80% of those surveyed reporting vacancies for front-of-house roles, such as waiting and bar staff, while 85% are in need of chefs. The survey suggests a current vacancy rate across the sector of 9% – which implies a shortage of 188,000 workers.

The survey also showed that for overseas workers, many of whom returned home at the beginning of the pandemic, travel restrictions were a primary reason they had chosen not to return to the UK. Nearly a fifth said the cost of quarantine on return was preventing them from coming back.

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Magazine 89
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