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Third of Britain’s curry houses at risk of closure

16As much as third of Britain’s curry Houses can face closure as a result of tough immigration laws  and shortage of workers. A combination of tough new immigration laws – exacerbating an existing shortage of skilled chefs – and the reluctance of a new generation to work in the sector is threatening to undermine an industry that provides jobs for around 100,000 people, not to mention £4.5bn for the UK economy. Some analysts fear a third of the UK’s 12,000 curry houses face closure.
It’s only midday on a grey Friday lunchtime, but from the kitchen tucked away in the back of the Prince of Bengal in the Suffolk market town of Saxmundham, a heady whiff of spices is already wafting through the peach-painted tandoori and balti restaurant.
Owner Abul Hussain, 32, is relishing the calm before the storm that will be unleashed when the restaurant opens at 5.30pm for what he hopes will be a typical Friday night, with sit-down and takeaway curries for up to 60 diners.
Hussain is one of a growing number of primarily Bangladeshi, but also Indian and Pakistani, proprietors who are finding running a curry house increasingly tough. So much so that later this week more than600 curry house owners and other industry representatives will attend “crisis talks” in London to explore ways of ensuring a long-term future for their food sector.
“Business is ticking over, but the costs just keep rising,” he said. “We have not put our prices up for at least five years because to keep our core local customer base we need to provide top-quality and tasty curry at affordable prices.”
The talks in Edmonton, north-east London, on 2nd February have been organised by Catering Circle, a body set up to share the issues facing family-run and often isolated businesses. The event, which will culminate in a television programme in March, follows the success of a series of regional roadshows.
“We need to work as a community to solve the curry crisis,” said Ahmed us-Samad Chowdhury, the chief adviser to Catering Circle, who is also chairman of Channel S TV and the former owner of 10 restaurants.
Bangladeshis such as Abul Hussain run up to 90% of the Indian restaurants in the UK, most of which rely on anglicised favourite recipes such as vindaloo or tikka masala. Like many of his generation, he has taken over the running of the Prince of Bengal from his father, but is now grappling with huge challenges to ensure its ongoing commercial success.
Immigration restrictions are now the biggest problem faced by curry restaurateurs. David Cameron last year unveiled new measures to “significantly reduce” non-EU migration, a move that raised fresh fears about the businesses’ ability to bring in chefs. Crucially, from April, restaurants that want to employ a chef from outside the EU will have to pay a minimum salary of £35,000 – or £29,750 with accommodation and food – in order for their employees to qualify for visas.
Oli Khan, vice-president of the Bangladesh Caterers Association, the largest of the many trade bodies claiming to represent the industry, is an award-winning chef who runs a curry house in Luton and two more in Stevenage. He pays his own chefs between £18,000 and £25,000, and warns that in future only the most successful restaurants will be able to absorb the latest wage rise.
“This is an inflexible policy that will force our costs up and inevitably lead to more curry restaurants going out of business,” he said. “Indian cooking is an art, yet we are being prevented from hiring the staff we need.”
Other obstacles include competition from superior ready-made curry products from the supermarkets, alongside myriad other takeaway cuisines that are often seen as healthier options.
Yet the humble curry has an emotional pull that few other cuisines can rival. It even has its own committee in parliament – the all-party group of the BritishCurry Catering Industry.
Its chair, Paul Scully, Tory MP for Sutton and Cheam, will be attending this week’s event. He is also undertaking a comprehensive state-of-the-industry survey. “It’s a big exercise,” said Scully. “But it is worth doing. It is unimaginable to think of Britain without a curry house on every high street.”