Curry capital

Yorkshire Business Insider, May 2002

The food industry dominates economic activity among the South Asian communities of Bradford. Tim Chapman reports on the companies making their mark in the wider business world

According to Pat Chapman's Good Curry Guide, the bible for lovers of south Asian cuisine in all its spicy forms, Bradford boasts the highest concentration of curry restaurants in the UK.

The word 'curry' and some of the formulations served up under that name may be peculiarly British in origin, but there are around 200 restaurants and take-aways in Bradford providing curries, baltis and tandoori cooking, as well as more authentic representations of Kashmiri and Moghul cuisine. There's also the host of speciality food stores and the producers and distributors of ingredients, sauces and ready meals.

It seems like lazy stereotyping, if not actual racism, to associate the city's south Asian population too closely with curry houses, but the ethnic food industry does undeniably play a very large part in the community.

Richard Bowers, head of HSBC's South Asian business banking unit in Bradford, says that businesses in the food industry, including restaurants, shops and manufacturers, make up around half of the unit's clients in the city. Given that people from South Asia and their British-born descendants make up just under a fifth of Bradford's population - the majority with roots in the Miripur district of Kashmir - that's obviously a major driver in one of Yorkshire's most economically troubled areas.

Last year's report into the economic and social roots of Bradford's racial divides headed by Herman Ouseley, the former head of the Commission for Racial Equality, emphasised the need to support local enterprise and job creation among the city's Muslim communities. But suggestions of a lack of enterprise are given short shrift by the founders and managers of the city's many ambitious firms in the ethnic foods market.

Several restaurants have become nationally renowned for the quality of their cuisine and service. The best, such as the Shabab chain, offer authentic Punjabi, Kashmiri and Pakistani cooking far removed from the ubiquitous formula curries - korma, madras, vindaloo and so on - offered by the standard curry house. The Sweet Centre and Restaurant on Lumb Lane, founded in 1964, has enjoyed steady expansion with its promise of the Pakistani cooking as near to authentic as you can find outside of a Pakistani home.

Other restaurants are growing through a less traditional approach. "The issue facing the restaurant sector is a situation of oversupply, and trying to find new and innovative ways of increasing their share of the market," says Arshad Javed of Bradford's Asian Trades Link.

One example is Rajas Pizza, which has the rather postmodern speciality of pizzas with Asian toppings. "They spiced up the toppings and they have done tremendous business," Javed says. "From one restaurant they now have four locations in Bradford, and they are also doing halal fried chicken. The image they're projecting is they've moved away from the traditional small-window type of takeaway and are very much like the Pizza Huts and KFCs of the world. They're finding a good response to their way of doing things."

Several firms such as Kashmir Crown Bakeries and Mumtaz Food Industries have grown from small operations to employ hundreds of workers in manufacturing operations which export across Europe and to the US. Formed in1968 as a food store, Kashmir Crown now manufactures breads, biscuits, savoury snacks and sweets, and supplies wholesalers and retail across the UK and beyond.

Mumtaz (see below) is probably the best chance for Bradford to produce a South Asian brand on the scale of Guiseley's Harry Ramsden's. Over 20 years, the family-run firm has grown from a single restaurant to a sizeable manufacturing operation.

"Mumtaz is a phenomenally successful firm that started as a takeaway and now the future's huge for them," says Simon Palmer of Armstrong Watson in Leeds, who has advised the firm for four years. "We've assisted them in planning the development and expansion of the restaurant from the point of view of capital expenditure, and done a few cashflows with them which really gave them some insight how they could fund development."

Other firms have established strong niche operations. Medina Foods produces a range of halal meals - selected and prepared according to Islamic law - for bulk catering and retail. The Little Horton company has found major customers in the health trusts of Bradford, Manchester and elsewhere, and is aiming to become the main supplier of halal meals to the NHS.

Retailers are also targeting growth. Founded in 1993 and now managed by a former Co-op area manager, Haqs supermarket in Lidget Green has a turnover of around 2 million and has another two stores in the pipeline - another one in Bradford and one elsewhere.

"We have had a couple of developers come to us with a few sites that are coming available," says sales and marketing manager Bash Rehman. "What we want to do is get this site fully developed and get our blueprint totally right rather than doing a bodge job elsewhere."

Haqs is also a major outlet for local manufacturers. Of around 70 suppliers, 20 are within Bradford.

The Asian food industry in Bradford would seem to fulfil all the requirements of a thriving cluster, to use the terminology beloved of regional development agencies. But few of the leading players say they see any of the supposed benefits, or have much time for the kind of networking and best practice sharing demanded by current theory - they say they're too busy just running and growing their businesses.

The industry remains highly fragmented, and although most of the challenges facing companies are the same as facing any SME, the cultural barriers remaining in the region may be hindering their development. There is a degree of detachment from the business mainstream - nearly all players are wary of business journalists for instance, though that's certainly not unique among SMEs.

One major difference from the financial perspective is that Islamic law prohibits riba, the taking or paying of interest on loans, regardless of the purpose for which such loans are made and regardless of the rates at which interest is charged. Islamic banking is a fast-growing sector in the west. HSBC is the only UK retail bank to offer a specialist service for South Asian business clients.

Richard Bowers of HSBC's Bradford unit says that his client's requirements are much the same as any other SME. "The reason we set up the South Asian unit is to try and educate the managers within the team as to some of the cultural issues among the Asian community," he explains. "Customers are looking for banking for service, particularly among the Asian community because they work very much on referrals and individuals. Having a strong relationship is quite a strong aspect of it. It's also useful for our managers to understand issues of the extended family network. In traditional western family you don't have as much support from uncles and brothers, both financial and in terms of man-hours as you do within Asian culture. It's important to understand that side of it."

The wider success of companies like Mumtaz should help inspire and promote companies across Bradford's Asian communities. "If you have somebody who is going places from Bradford, then it's very conducive to becoming a cluster of companies specialising in Asian food products. One or two companies becoming very successful in the food sector here would have knock-on effects for others," says Javed. "I do see that happening in the sense that someone lights the way and other people follow, which is only to be encouraged as a good thing. People in the retail and restaurant side are now thinking we have this expertise, how can we take it into a slightly different area."

 

Planet Mumtaz
With its flagship restaurant on Great Horton Road undergoing a multi-million pound refurbishment and construction underway on a purpose-built manufacturing facility in the west of the city, Mumtaz Food Industries is one of the most visible success stories of Bradford's Asian food industry. The group has grown from a single restaurant founded in 1980 by the late matriarch of the Akbar family. The eponymous eldest son and chairman of the group, Mumtaz Khan Akbar, is responsible for the array of dishes based on the traditional cuisine of their Kashmir homeland that has won the restaurant one of only two five-star ratings from the online bradfordcurryguide.co.uk.

The medically-trained Dr Gul-Nawaz Khan Akbar joined as managing director in 1992, while youngest brother Rab-Nawaz Khan Akbar is purchasing director. Like many Asian businesses - and indeed like many other owner-managed businesses across Yorkshire - Mumtaz is very much a family affair.

"We've been part of the industry for a good 22 years now and we believe we have made quite a mark on the industry and helped to shape it to a degree," says Gul-Nawaz Akbar. "We were the first as a manufacturer to emphasise the quality and offer the industry the real McCoy. Our products are not watered-down or Europeanised in any way, which is why 65-70 per cent of our restaurant clientele are Asian.

"That in itself speaks volumes. We are one of the biggest Asian restaurants in Europe, and we are very popular among Asian people and we are very popular with Europeans."

The restaurant, situated in the not entirely glamorous environs of Great Horton Road, is still the most visible part of the Mumtaz group in its native city and is currently undergoing a multi-million pound refurbishment. "People do ask why we are putting so much money into Great Horton Road," Akbar says. "We started here and it's important that we stay here. These are our roots."

But the real growth of the group comes from manufacturing and distribution of ready meals through many of the country's leading supermarket chains. From starting manufacturing in 1995, Mumtaz is now the third largest Asian food manufacturer in the UK and probably the fastest growing brand in the sector.

"We knew there was a time for a change in the marketplace, the consumer was basically sick of eating garbage and wanted the taste of the real thing," Akbar says. "We knew there was a place for our product in the marketplace and we have proven that the consumers are not always fooled by gimmicks. If you succeed in fooling the consumer with gimmicks you can only do it for so long before they catch up with you. We have maintained the quality yet offered very very good value-for-money products."

Mumtaz food products have three big advantages in the competitive ready meals market, Akbar says. "Our main strength is that our products are restaurant quality products in a package. We use the same recipes as in our own restaurant.

"Because we are a Muslim organisation, everything we produce is halal, which no other manufacturer at this scale is providing. That makes us very attractive to the mainstream. There's over five million Muslims in the UK and until recently a lot of people had ignored the sector. A lot have now come to the realisation that there's a business there, let's capitalise on it. We also remove any barrier - if it's halal, it's fit for everyone.

"Thirdly, our strength is that we are the only Asian manufacturer at this scale which is equipped to manufacture the whole menu," Akbar concludes. "The benefit is that it's all Mumtaz brand and we stand by everything - our products are all tested and tried at the restaurant level. That's one of our unique points - we are by trade restaurateurs which gives us that additional strength to move the market much more efficiently than anyone else. We come face to face with the consumer at street level, and all our research is based on this. All our competitors would love to have this sort of showroom."

The Co-op was the first supermarket multiple to take Mumtaz products, swiftly followed by Morrisons, Tesco and Booths. Mumtaz also supplies a host of single outlets including the uniquely prestigious Harrods.

"The multiples feel much more comfortable dealing with us because we know what the consumer wants and we have this ability to produce the full menu," Akbar says. "We produce over 100 retail lines in the fresh food sector, so they have a vast choice to choose from. Each multiple can be different."

Construction is now underway on a purpose-built 65,000 sq ft factory, on a 3.5 acre site close to the factory of that other Bradford culinary institution, Seabrook Crisps. The facility will bring under one roof the current three manufacturing sites and numerous distribution depots scattered around the city, and accommodate growth for the next four or five years.

The manufacturing facility and the restaurant facility are funded entirely from cashflow with no borrowing. "As a Muslim operation we don't believe in paying interest or taking interest so all our growth is interest-free," says Akbar. "For us it's very important. I firmly believe that's the reason we're growing the way we're growing. The business is free from many external pressures or constraints, and it is growing at quite a substantial rate."

Turnover growth for last year was around 15-20 per cent, Akbar says, and the group now employs well over 150 employees. Mumtaz is also targeting expansion in its restaurant activities, with a national franchise operation in the pipeline.

"After the completion of the flagship restaurant, we are looking at another four Mumtaz restaurants in the UK," Akbar says. "We have to be careful where we open our next restaurant. Our catchment area here is as far as Birmingham so we have to make sure we have the sites. We have nominated the cities where we want to be."

Akbar hints at even greater things on the drawing board: "Our own future priorities are much more elaborate than what appears. There's a lot of things cooking under the surface."

But whatever the next few years holds for Mumtaz, the group remains fiercely loyal to its native city. "Bradford is our city and a lot of our business is in this city," Akbar emphasises. "We have had several opportunities to move out of the city and do our business elsewhere, but we declined all that. We are a Bradfordian organisation and it's very important we grow in our own city. It doesn't matter what southerners think about us and our city, we'll do our best to put our city back on the map and I think we are doing that."