The strange death of Britain’s curry houses, or not

A recent article in The Economist featured the apparent decline of what’s become the traditional British curry house. I say “traditional” because these institutions – which proliferated in my childhood – undoubtedly changed British eating habits forever, making them culturally significant in our recent history. At some point in the 1970s Indian takeaways and restaurants replaced the “Chinese chippy” as the exotic culinary staple of most provincial British communities. And, by the late 1990s, chicken tikka masala had been declared Britain’s national dish.

That’s a quick and profound transformation that, in my opinion, reflects the change in Britain’s tastes and cultural values more than any other trend. What started with patterns of immigration into the UK – escaping war and poverty on the sub-continent – developed into a paradigm shift that has utterly changed Britain’s attitude to food.

It’s also a testament to entrepreneurialism, as curry houses are essentially family-owned businesses. Nearly always, they’re fantastic examples of bootstrapping a business from the ground up – in their case developing an entire sector virtually from nothing and in some of the least-likely spots in the country. The Economist wrote of a curry house in Ballater in the highlands of Scotland, although surely – for remoteness – the curry house in the Shetland settlement of Brae (population 660) must win the prize (it’s the only restaurant in the “town” and the UK’s most northerly takeaway).

So curry houses should be celebrated as an extraordinary example of entrepreneurial verve. Their owners have shown determination and courage, often in the face of local hostility – and often venturing where others feared to tread (for instance, both the Falls Road and Shankhill Road in Belfast are graced with curry houses).

Yet their contribution to this wholesale shift in British attitudes may have peaked. As part of our country’s culinary patchwork, curry houses may not survive the immigrant generation that opened them. For a start, the supermarkets have caught on: offering high-quality Indian ready-meals at prices the restaurants struggle to match. This allows consumers to eat their favourite food in front of the telly, minus the flock wallpaper or piped sitar music. In response, takeaways adopted home delivery (usually by scooter), but that couldn’t match the sheer convenience of the supermarkets, as well as the “devil you know” factor – the poor quality of a minority of Indian restaurants being a reputational drag on the entire sector since the start.

Perhaps too late, the quality of restaurant-offered Indian food has been improving, with even the smallest provincial joints upping their game in terms of the quality of ingredients and, importantly, the décor (which looked tired even 20 years ago and has always been a little on the garish side for suburban British tastes).

Yet the sector faces other existential threats. Escalating rents are forcing many out of their traditional town-centre fringe locations. This is particularly acute in successful cities such as London. For instance, Brick Lane – once a cluster of perhaps 40 curry houses just beyond the eastern edge of the financial district – is witnessing a gentrification that spells disaster for the curry houses.

I cycle down Brick Lane perhaps once a month and, each time, notice that the hipsters have advanced a shop or so north and south from their Truman Brewery epicentre. Coffee bars, hookah cafes, clothing chains, gift shops, smart non-Indian eateries: all are replacing the wall-to-wall curry houses that have dominated the area since I first knew it in the early 1980s.

Yet neither location nor the supermarkets are the biggest threat to the traditional British curry house. That comes from within (which also explains my interest). Many of Britain’s 9,000 Indian restaurants face HR issues that are wrecking their business model. According to The Economist some 42% of Britain’s working-age Bangladeshi males “toil” in restaurants (Bangladeshis own around 70-80% of Britain’s curry houses). This is mostly as waiters, as the chefs tend to be imported from Bangladesh.

In fact, the need to import the chefs is HR-problem number one. Visa restrictions are hurting this sector more than any other. And while the government has recognised that chefs from the country of origin are required for all restaurant sectors – and have made exceptions – they have also spotted that takeaways draw skill-less migrant workers (legal or otherwise) and are clamping down.

Of course, the obvious answer is to employ young British Bangladeshis – a group suffering higher than average levels of unemployment. But here lies HR-problem number two. Restaurant work has an image problem for second-generation Bangladeshis. Those educated in the UK have stronger prospects than their parents, and are keen to explore jobs in property, finance or even in the professions. Few want to experience the low pay and unsociable hours endured by their folks. Fewer still want to have to politely defer to loutish crowds of lagered-up Brits.

Sure, the unemployment figures suggest many are struggling to achieve this leap, with some likely to fall back on waiting in their parent’s restaurant while seeking more “self actualised” employment elsewhere. But it’s a natural progression. The first generation were largely cut-off from the labour market, forcing them to invent the most popular hospitality trend since the rise of the pub. Their offspring have more choice, and are choosing more formal, and less risky, careers – usually involving big employers, remunerative pursuits or professional qualifications. As The Economist concluded: “Good for Bangladeshis. Too bad for British curry lovers”.

Given this, restaurant owners have started employing white English waiters. I met my first one the other Friday in Hackney. He was hopeless, and – out of earshot – the owner and I swapped “you can’t get the staff” style business-owner camaraderies (focusing on the waiter’s youth, rather than ethnic origin I hasten to add). And, while I’ve yet to see female waiting staff in Indian restaurants, my guess is that’s also inevitable, which brings me to my second development point (after the generational change in aspirations).

That, as the sector matures, it also has to “normalise”. Few people have ever questioned the lack of female staff in Indian restaurants. But, faced with a shortage of male chefs and waiters, my guess is that, either the gender balance in the sector will change, or the questions will start being asked. Essentially, curry houses are going to have to start looking and acting like other UK catering sectors with a range of workers more closely reflecting the available UK workforce.

As for Britain’s changing tastes, my guess is the curry house has life in it yet. The restaurant with the hapless white English waiter had just had a makeover – turning it into a “street vendor style” café redolent of Kerala or Goa or other spots favoured by European backpackers (it even had an auto-rickshaw out back). And, just as with the pub, the better restaurants are likely to survive by going upmarket. Meanwhile, the dross will fail. National chains (potentially with private equity backing) may also emerge.

Also, while Brick Lane may be struggling, I cannot help thinking that clustering remains an effective counter against trends threatening the survival of the curry house. When last in Manchester, I walked down the Wilmslow Road astonished at the scale of Rusholme’s “curry mile” (claiming to be the largest concentration of south-Asian eateries beyond the sub-continent) – a significant growth since my time in the area (when it was just earning the sobriquet). In this respect, Brick Lane was simply too central and too close to the hipster heartlands to compete, meaning less fashionable spots such as Green Street in Upton Park could take on East London’s “curry mile” mantle.

Whether this will work for Brae in Shetland, however, remains to be seen.