Posh or old spice? Michelin stars or a standardised chicken tikka masala? Asif Hashmi looks at the best bet for the Indian restaurant sector as it faces a maturing market.
Despite its huge popularity, curry is not and never has been the UK's favourite dish. It's amazing, but true - a survey commissioned by supermarket chain Waitrose last year into what tickles the nation's tastebuds found Indian food trailing third behind Italian and French dishes, while only 13% of people replying to a recent American Express restaurant survey cited Indian restaurants as their favourite eating-out choice. And, according to researcher Mintel's figures, fish-and-chips has always been more popular than take-away curry.
So why are there these extraordinary claims for the sector? What, in April 2001, made Robin Cook, the then foreign secretary, declare that chicken tikka masala was the national dish? Why is there the broadsheet fascination with the cultural implications of curry houses? Why is it tabloid news that Madonna has curries delivered to her London mansion by taxi, or that David Beckham celebrated in an Indian restaurant after scoring the goal that put England into the World Cup?
It smacks more than a little of hype, says Iqbal Wahhab, restaurateur, former journalist and Indian restaurant PR consultant. "I'd say one thing and it would be in the newspapers the next day," he says. Now at the helm of the Cinnamon Club, his £2.5m attempt at redefining the Indian dining experience, he chuckles at the mainstream media's gullibility. "That there are more Indian restaurants in the UK than in Delhi and Bombay is such an absurd lie," he says, "but people buy into it."
Just around the corner from the House of Commons, the 180-seat Cinnamon Club celebrated its first anniversary in April. After a difficult start - lack of trialling, because of a rushed opening, resulted in bad reviews - the restaurant now serves 250 to 300 customers per day, with a lunchtime average spend per head of £45 and a dinner spend of £65. Its turnover last year was just under £3m. This year it's projected to be £4m, with a month-on-month net operating profit.
So what is the redefined Indian dining experience? It's an updating of the ways in which Indian cuisine is served, presented and appreciated, says Wahhab. "When I had my PR company," he recalls, "my clients included Michelin-starred French restaurants, and I'd look in detail at how effort was put into wine pairings, on sourcing special supplies, on presenting dishes in a beautiful way, in recognition of the fact that we eat with our eyes and our imagination.
"This wasn't really being done in any coherent manner in the Indian sector. I told my Indian restaurant clients this, and they all thought I was crazy. But it didn't deter me from developing the idea and, eventually, when no one would listen, I decided to do it for myself."
But isn't Wahhab fixing something that isn't broken? The growth of the Indian restaurant sector in the UK, whatever the hype, has been phenomenal. It went from 3,000 restaurants in 1982 to more than 8,500 by 2001, by which time it was worth a massive £2.4b. That year, London's Tamarind and Zaika were the first Indian restaurants to gain Michelin stars - one each. So hasn't the curry house concept proved itself?
Wahhab doesn't disagree, but he argues that customers are changing and there's no guarantee that they will always hanker after the traditional curry-house offer. According to the latest Mintel eating-out survey, while demand for Indian food remains high, the sector is seeing little growth. Upmarket customers no longer think of Indian restaurants as "cutting edge", while young professionals are moving towards new eating experiences. It's no coincidence that the number of Thai restaurants has increased from 300 to more than 1,000 in the past three years.
To maintain a healthy growth in the sector, it must constantly innovate in order to meet the demands of its customers, says Namita Panjabi, owner of the upmarket Chutney Mary and 75-year-old Veeraswamy restaurants. As part of a three-month-long revamp at Chutney Mary, Panjabi recently added a new wine list. Put together by wine consultant Matthew Jukes, its 100 wines complement the flavours of the restaurant's regional Indian cuisine - just what the discerning customer wants, Panjabi insists.
As a result, both Chutney Mary's proportion of wine to food sales and the quality of wines its customers drink have risen, and average spend per head at the 13-year-old restaurant has increased from £40 to about £47. In addition, Panjabi launched the budget Masala Zone last summer, a "hip" street caf‚ with stylish, modern interiors and an average spend per head of £13.
Wahhab agrees that, if curry houses want to survive, they'll have to innovate. "People who were students 10 years ago, who loved their curry, have gone into the professions and now have corporate expense accounts," he says. "My argument's always been that the traditional Indian restaurant owner has to reinvent himself and adapt to the dynamic food industry market. If they don't adapt and they don't move, by remaining static they're moving backwards."
He stresses that traditional Indian restaurateurs should invest in their businesses and their people. "If you don't make the effort to bring in top chefs, if you just rely on the old paste, your culinary products won't be up to it," he says. "If you're not training your waiting staff in upselling, then you're not going to be meeting your service requirements."
And what if customers don't want change? Pat Chapman, founder of the Curry Club, the forum for Indian food fans, complains that the curry-house stereotype stops the development of innovations such as Indian regional cuisine. "You've got to get a change in the public," he says, "but the public still want their beastly chicken tikka masala, bless 'em."
Yet, diehard curryholics can't be taken for granted. At the lower end of the market, economies of scale give supermarkets an advantage over traditional Indian restaurateurs. Offering convenience at a cheap price, the retail Indian food market is booming. Supermarket-ready and bagged meals are worth about £536m, says Mintel, which predicts that the retail Indian food sector will show 63% growth by 2005.
To meet the challenge, canny Indian restaurateurs are adding value to their offers. Charan Gill, owner of the Harlequin Restaurant Group, runs 13 midmarket Indian restaurants in and around Glasgow. Although 30% of his £7.7m annual turnover comes from take-away orders, he doesn't see the supermarkets as a threat. His turnover from take-aways and home deliveries hasn't decreased. "If people see the curry in Asda, then it encourages people to come and use our facility," he says.
Spending £300,000 to £350,000 per unit, Gill plans to open three Ashoka Shak restaurants next year, possibly four, at high-visibility sites in Scotland, typically beside multiplex cinemas. The aim is to provide a "young, vibrant, quite chic, colourful, energetic, but Indian" offer at an affordable price. Each restaurant will have a bar, and average spend per head should be £11. If these prove successful, he plans on rolling out the concept south of the border.
But a national chain is hard to get right, warns Panjabi. It took her three years to work out the Masala Zone concept, delivering good Indian food with an average spend per head of £13. Running a national chain would be a logistical nightmare, she says, and she has no plans to roll out her chain nationally. "Pizzas are easy enough to do on a large scale," she says. "Once the dough is supplied to the restaurant and you have a proper oven, you can deskill the job and give someone training for 14 days and he'll make a really good pizza. But Indian food requires time, effort and skill. You can't deskill with Indian food and still offer a quality product."
Gill, however, disagrees. "The homework's been done by Frankie & Benny's, Pizza Hut, McDonald's," he says. "I don't see why an Indian restaurant shouldn't do well in this part of the market, too."
Never one to back off from a challenge, Wahhab agrees. In the next five years, he hopes to open two more Cinnamon Clubs - one in the USA and one on the Continent, maybe in Paris - and plans to launch a midmarket Indian brand in the UK. "Doing the Cinnamon Club, you get lots of profile and prestige," he says. "But go mass-market and get yourself a rollout Indian concept, that's where you can make lots of money."
Old Westminster Library, Great Smith Street, London SW1P 3BU
Web site: www.cinnamonclub.com
Owner: Iqbal Wahhab
Number of seats: 180
Average spend: £45, lunch; £65, dinner
Covers per day: 250-300
Number of employees: 60
Turnover for last year: just under £3m
Projected turnover this year: £4m
Group Chutney Mary
13 Palace Street, London SW1 5HX
Web site: www.realindianfood.com
Owners: Namita Panjabi and her husband, Ranjit Mathrani
Covers per day: 786
Number of employees: 140
Chutney Mary: seats, 140; average spend, £47
Veeraswamy: seats, 170; average spend, £44
Masala Zone: seats, 180; average spend, £13
Harlequin Restaurant Group
10 Clydeholm Road, Glasgow G14 0QQ
Web site: www.harlequingroup.net
Owner: Charan Gill
Covers per day: 1,461
Number of employees: 300
Turnover for last year: £7.7m
Projected turnover this year: £8m
Ashoka (nine outlets): seats, 45-300; average spend, £15
Spice of Life: seats, 75; average spend, £15
Kama Sutra: seats, 135; average spend, £17.50
Whisky Galore bar diner: seats, 60; average spend, £9
Mister Singh's: seats, 90; average spend, £17.50