It seems incredible to think that not so very long ago it was near impossible to enjoy the delights of the Mughlai Biryani, Mator Paneer and Prawn Saag in the UK. Culinary choices were decidedly limited, and for many Britons the food we ate was as unremarkable as it was occasionally bland. This is not to decry traditional British food, or the rich array of fresh ingredients available in these islands, it was just that mainstream food seemed to be in a rut. Hence the enthusiasm and indeed affection that the British have for South Asian food. The rich and varied culinary traditions of India and Bangladesh, along with adjacent countries, offered something that is rightly lauded for the stimulation that it affords the senses. Exotic colours, the skilled fusion of herbs and spices and carefully selected ingredients result in mouth-watering offerings that have become firm favourites. Yet for all this, currently there are some who seem intent on drafting an obituary for South Asian restaurants and takeaways in Britain.
Is this the beginning of the end?
So why is it that certain industry professionals, and even food critics are feeling so gloomy about the prospects for this sector? Put simply it is economics. For many of the UK’s estimated 10,000 Indian/Bangladeshi restaurants these are lean times, profit margins are slim to non-existent and there is a sense that they face challenges everywhere they look. Whilst rent and business rates rise restaurants see the local high street become ever more crowded with eateries. Competition is fierce. Where once people would choose whether to dine at an Indian, Chinese or maybe an Italian restaurant, now the culinary whole world seems to be chasing after their custom. From purveyors of Mexican and Peruvian street food to Ethiopian cafes and Thai restaurants, customers are spoilt for choice. The heat is one in more ways than one.
In some parts of the country restaurants are indeed closing, but in truth businesses open and close all the time. Yes, there are businesses feeling the pinch, but the same could be said of other elements of the service sectors too. The merchants of doom neglect to mention the fact that the industry has been estimated to employ some 75, 000 people and have an annual turnover of between £2-3 billion. Is it any wonder that UK politicians of all political persuasions are eager to curry favour (please excuse the pun) with bigwigs from the industry? That said, there are very real challenges and certainly no room for complacency.
It’s tough out there
So where is the pressure coming from? Competition not only comes from other restaurants and food outlets, but also from the supermarkets who have undertaken an aggressive expansion into our high streets. These same supermarkets have done their homework and are hungry for a share of the exotic food market and have made much of offering South Asian foodstuffs as well as selling ready meals. Whilst there have been some who have been critical of visa restrictions which they claim have resulted in a shortage in qualified chefs, this reason alone would not sound the death knell of the sector. There are problems around image, branding and marketing strategies, something that many restaurants have tried to overcome by signing up to food aggregators such as Hungry House and Just Eat. Whilst these have been beneficial to a degree, what has often been overlooked is the margin that they charge, something that if combined with special offers results in precious little profit for any increased footfall. It is important for businesses to realise that the online customers are very different from those attracted locally. Ideally the sector requires an aggregator that understands its’ dynamic and approaches it in a greater spirit of partnership, one that recognises the profit margins are often tight, and is thus willing to adapt its’ charges accordingly.
Heed the warnings and seize the opportunities
It is time to take heed of food critics, many of whom have long been champions of the sector. It is fair to say that certain restaurants are beginning to look decidedly tired, their décor is drab, furnishings cheap and tawdry and marketing materials badly written and poorly produced. Menus are invariably far too long, a fact that many customers find decidedly off putting. All too often eateries have no Unique Selling Point (USP), have no signature dish to celebrate and depressingly seem to operate in total ignorance of how other culinary traditions are drawing on the past whilst fostering innovation. What might have worked in the 1980s now comes across as dated and lacking in originality and flair. Critics have a point when they rail against processed and formulaic food and restaurants that look and feel unloved. Rather than being engaged in a race to the bottom, we need to see restaurant owners forging a bond with existing customers. Loyalty cards and schemes should become standard, whilst the more imaginative restaurants could be organising a monthly gourmet night which helps explain the origin of various dishes. The vegetarian and vegan markets in the UK are growing year on year and it is important to be responsive to this. Equally customers want to see Gluten Free options clearly marked, as well as greater emphasis on regional specialities. Young chefs must be aware of the theatre of food, and as such be conscious to the fact that customers not only expect the food to taste rather special but look amazing too. British diners adore puddings, yet invariably feel that the selection of desserts on offer in South Asian restaurants is at best limited and seemingly detrimental to health. There is an invariably a substantial profit margin on puddings, and so maybe now is the time for young Asian chefs to start being creative.
All is not lost
There are owners and chefs who are beginning to benchmark against the culinary mainstream. It is heartening to see some chefs learning lessons from the Slow Food Movement (www.slowfood.org.uk). Culinary ghettos stifle innovation, and so it is essential to be outward looking and prepared to learn and reinvent the offering. Young entrepreneurs recognise the importance of websites, of ensuring regular engagement with the wider world via Instagram and Twitter. Some enterprising individuals have already making use of www.futurelearn.com for free training in branding, marketing and other business insight. If restaurants focus on ambience, authenticity and service we see no reason why they should resign themselves to declining market share. A new year presents an opportunity to reinvigorate the sector, to inject a little theatre and greater willingness to engage with and listen to the customer. Diners want authenticity and are always eager to be wowed by a culinary experience that has them coming back for more. 2017 presents plenty of challenges, but also a wealth of opportunities. Now is the time to prove the doubters wrong.
Mark T Jones, Editor-in-chief, International Journal of Higher Education Management
Dr P.R.Datta, Editor-in-chief, Journal of Business and Retail Management Research