Worthing, on the south coast, has often been seen as a poor relation to its bigger and brasher cousin, Brighton, a few miles to the east with its universities, nightlife and ‘party town’ reputation. Its smaller, more sedate neighbour, conversely, used to be known primarily for the elderliness of its population – the prevailing image of Worthing in many locals’ minds was a caricature of aged retirees hobbling gently along the town’s Victorian seafront esplanade. Over recent years, however, there has been a significant lowering of its citizens’ average age and Worthing now actually boasts a younger demographic than many of its West Sussex neighbours. This, along with Worthing’s perennial appeal as a British seaside holiday destination, has led to an improvement in the diversity and standard of its dining scene as the town’s increasingly youthful residents demand more modern and cosmopolitan cuisine.
Shaan, an 80-cover restaurant situated between two of Worthing’s main railway stations, has built up a loyal clientele from right across the age spectrum. Young millennial diners these days demand healthy cooking, sustainable ingredients and fast service whilst their older, more conservative customers want to eat their familiar favourite dishes in a comfortable environment served by staff who take the time to make them feel at home. Is it possible to keep both sides happy? Owner Shamim Ahmed and his wife Lima have proved that it is. This husband-and-wife team, who both hail originally from Sylhet in eastern Bangladesh, have combined their uniquely different skill sets to create, over the last ten years, a highly successful business that has defied, and even thrived under, the challenges presented by the global pandemic.
Being lockdown, the restaurant part of Shaan was closed to the public when I visited on a cold, wet, weekday evening in late January but I could see that deliveries were flying out of the door at an impressive rate. A socially distanced part of the main dining area, which is decorated in contemporary neutral tones featuring soft mood lighting and lots of natural materials, had been set aside for me in order to meet the strict Covid-19 regulations. From this vantage point, I could observe customers coming in to collect their takeaways, so I had the opportunity, as I waited for my own food, to ask some of them what made them keep coming back to Shaan. The same two answers were repeated by nearly everyone I asked: “flavour” and “service”.
The flavour element of Shaan’s appeal I discovered for myself immediately as a selection of starters were brought to my table: A Chicken Pakora with a subtly tangy honey and mustard dressing, a generously portioned King Prawn Butterfly and a Mixed Grill which included the most succulent and attractively hued Lamb and Chicken Tikka I’d had the pleasure of tasting in a long time. These were followed by an equally satisfying main course which comprised just about every single item on the menu. Everything looked and tasted perfect but particularly noteworthy were the plates that Shamim had told me are their regular customers’ favourites, including a tantalisingly good Bangladeshi deboned fish curry served with a hot and spicy sauce made from garlic, chillies, tomatoes and coriander, plus a medium-hot dish of wonderfully plump and juicy Chatga king prawns marinated in spices and cooked in a clay oven.
Lockdown had prevented supplies of their draught lager, Cobra, from being replenished by the supplier but there were ice-cold bottles of Bangla on hand as well as a small but well-stocked corner bar with wines and spirits to keep the dine-in customers lubricated when they are finally allowed back in. Once that happens and things return to normal, Shaan will return to employing four staff front-of-house plus five in the kitchen as well as three delivery drivers who have recently been supplemented by the Just Eat service which, Lima told me, currently represents around 25% of their takeaway business.
So how has Worthing’s changing demographic affected their business, I ask the couple. Shamim replies that “It’s now important to provide healthy, and not just tasty, food – especially to the younger generations. They spend more time at the gym than in the pub and take care about what goes into their bodies, so we offer plenty of vegetarian options and a gluten-free version of everything on the menu”. He adds that “They are also more concerned with the speed of service and can be less patient than our older diners.” Shamim concedes that this can cause misunderstandings sometimes when customers do not appreciate the time it takes to cook something really well but explains that he tries to avoid delays by ensuring staff have clearly defined stations which they take total responsibility for in order to prevent overlap and repetition of duties.
He also points out, interestingly, that “The difference between the ages is also very noticeable when it comes to drinking: ten years ago (when Shamim worked at another local Indian restaurant) we would occasionally have problems at the weekends with groups of young people consuming large amounts of alcohol before, during and after their dinner, getting loud and sometimes rowdy. Nowadays, they drink moderately with their meal because they’re so much more health conscious; they just pay the bill and leave quietly without any problems”.
As I enjoyed my post-dinner coffee, I had the opportunity to note Shamim and Lima’s relationship with their customers as they called in to collect their orders. It became apparent that many of them knew the owners by name and that Lima, in return, had made efforts to remember personal details about her customers and their families. One of these, a local nurse named Siobhan who had just finished working a twelve-hour shift, was stopping off on her way home to pick up an order of that ever-popular British favourite, Chicken Tikka Korma. She told me that Shaan is “without a doubt, THE place to go in Worthing” and, as I found when I checked a few reviews on Trip Advisor, this is a sentiment echoed by many of their customers. Siobhan went on to reveal that she would never touch curries before a friend took her to Shaan where she tried a Korma for the very first time. “I never used to like spicy food”, she laughs, “but since discovering Shaan, I’ve become so much more adventurous in my tastes…I even had a Jalfrezi the other day!”.
Siobhan is not the only nurse who has been enjoying the restaurant’s cooking. Shamim received a letter of thanks from his MP, Tim Loughton, for having generously provided Worthing Hospital with hundreds of free meals. He had contacted the hospital wanting to find a way of supporting NHS staff in their battle against Covid-19. Together, they came up with the idea of delivering up to 125 three-course meals in hygienic boxes each Thursday for a month during one of the worst periods of the pandemic last year. Needless to say, the deliveries went down a treat with the hardworking and hungry hospital staff. The local MP’s letter is proudly displayed in the restaurant along with his ’Covid Curry Hero’ award from Curry Life magazine in recognition of his good deeds. Not wanting to forget his roots, at the same time Shamim also paid and arranged for enough rice and meat to feed 500 people to be distributed to the poor of his native Sylhet back in Bangladesh. His altruistic giving seems to have brought him instant karma (or should that be korma!) too in the way of a doubling of his takeaway business: over the last year, Shaan’s average weekend trade has increased from around 25 to over 50 meals per night.
This success naturally makes Shamim and Lima Ahmed happy to be able to ensure continuity of employment for their staff and their families, many of whom are from the BAME community which has suffered disproportionately in the pandemic. Of course, it also makes the lucky residents of Worthing happy to have such an excellent source of fresh, flavoursome food right on their doorstep. After all, a good curry is something they can all appreciate, whatever their age.
Shaan Indian Cuisine
205 Tarring Road, Worthing
West Sussex BN11 4HN
T: 01903 209955 www.shaanindian.co.uk