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Will business rates be the end of UK curry houses?

PUBLISHED: 10:09 02 October 2017

Traditional chicken tikka masala Indian spicy meat food with rice in cast iron skillet on vintage wooden background

Traditional chicken tikka masala Indian spicy meat food with rice in cast iron skillet on vintage wooden background

GreenArtPhotography

Where did you have your first proper Indian curry? You know, the one consumed at a late night establishment, the exterior of which had seen better days and where the interior was decorated with a jaded red and black flock wallpaper.

This column is brought to you in association with Almary Green This column is brought to you in association with Almary Green

The one you initially regarded solely as an unexpected opportunity to have a couple more drinks, where you noted the obsequious nature of the service, but hadn’t a clue what to order.

Mine was served in a long-disappeared place on the Goldhawk Road in Shepherds Bush, west London, in the autumn of 1981. Half a dozen of us, including the girl who would become my wife (and still is) piled into the Bombay Sapphire at around 2am where we were served a mountain of poppadums and large jugs of cold, frothy beer within ten seconds of sitting down. I was immediately impressed and have continued to enjoy visiting similar establishments ever since.

There’s something very British about heading off for an Indian curry, even though most restaurants appear to be operated by Bangladeshi families. The occasion itself is usually the pre-planned, but nonetheless hugely enjoyable finale to a night out, preferably following a live music gig, your ears still ringing as you take a seat and greedily pore over a well-worn laminated menu wondering whether to order something different from your regular dish.

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I’m always impressed with the person in the party who can remember what everyone ordered when the dishes start arriving: this is usually the same guy who recommends the saag paneer, or who shifts effortlessly into ‘AA Gill mode’ to compare the momos with the steamed dumplings he ate recently at a Chinese restaurant.

Peter Sharkey Peter Sharkey

As recently as 2001, Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary, called chicken tikka masala “Britain’s national dish”. He had a point as the high street’s food-selling chains were unable to compete with the local independent curry house, either in terms of price or quality, let alone opening at times that suited half-cut revellers.

Yet times have changed. There are an estimated 12,000 Indian curry establishments in the UK, around three of which are closing every week as a combination of rising rents and the real killer, business rates, make it difficult for many restaurants to turn a profit.

Competition too is eating into the traditional curry market. The popularity of Wetherspoons’ “£6 Thursday Curry Night” meant that last year, the pub operator was the biggest curry seller in the land.

And then there’s the change in tastes. Many millennials have never been anywhere near an Indian curry restaurant. Not at 2am anyway. There’s still plenty of time for them to see the light, but younger folks apparently prefer a host of other Asian dishes, including those from Vietnam, Thailand and Japan.

What, you might ask, does a meander down a curry-and-beer-filled memory lane have to do with savings or investment?

It’s a reasonable question, the answer to which is ‘everything’.

Whenever what might be called a ‘traditional’ business sector, in this case the nation’s Indian curry houses and their suppliers, come under pressure on several fronts, investors are often well advised to step back and consider their positions, to see how the sector will fare. Admittedly, it’s nigh-on-impossible to invest in the nation’s ‘curry industry’, unless you open your own restaurant, of course, but the sector is one with which most readers will be familiar, primarily as consumers.

Which brings me onto beer. No, it’s not that time of the day just yet, but one of the industry’s main suppliers of liquid refreshment, Kingfisher, which, with rival brew Cobra, is as familiar to any patron of an Indian restaurant as chicken dhansak.

Recognising that as millennials turn their back on traditional curry houses in favour of other global cuisine, Kingfisher has announced that from next month it will start distributing drinks such as Indonesian lager Bintang, Chinese beer brand Pearl River and Sri Lanka’s Lion beer into restaurants frequented by younger British consumers. It also plans to launch an Indian pale ale next year in an effort to compete in the UK’s burgeoning craft market.

Will this be enough to increase Kingfisher’s 2016 pre-tax profits of £400,000? Considering that figure is 50% up on 2015, it might not see anything quite as dramatic over the current financial year, but if ‘going for an Indian’ is in terminal decline, Kingfisher appears to be hedging its bets and from an investor’s perspective, it’s always good to see companies planning ahead.

THE WEEK IN NUMBERS

40%

Percentage of (presumably abstemious) millennials who consider getting drunk ‘pathetic’ or ‘embarrassing’. They apparently associate being ‘worse for wear’ with older generations, hence their evident disgust.

24.5 million

Visitors to National Trust properties last year, more than two million ahead of target. However, while visitor numbers have witnessed a sharp rise, those who reportedly found their visit ‘very enjoyable’ has slumped, to 56%. That’s well below the 2011 figure of 71%.

Zero

Number of highest-paid BBC presenters featuring in the top ten of all-time radio greats’. The top three are: Terry Wogan, John Peel and Sue MacGregor.

11,500

Employees working in Australia’s space industry, even though the country doesn’t have its own space programme. This anomaly will be rectified after the folks Down Under announced the establishment of an Australian national space agency.

0.25%

Widely anticipated rise in the Bank of England’s base rate in early November. If the forecasters are right, it’ll be the first increase in bank rate since May 2007.

1 million

Signatures on a petition urging Mayor of London Sadiq Khan to reverse his council’s decision to revoke Uber’s taxi licence.

400

Job rejections received by former sergeant major Wayne Taylor, 46, a veteran of two Gulf Wars as well as tours to Afghanistan, Northern Ireland and Kosovo. There must be someone out there who can give the man a job.

Peter Sharkey read economics at the University of Bristol. He worked as an accountant on three continents and has been a company director and investor for more than 30 years, building and selling three different companies.

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