New report says Covid-19 could end curry capital of Brick Lane

Ansar Ahmed Ullah
Contributing Editor,Shottobani

London: Brick Lane’s curry restaurants are facing a ‘devastating’ impact as a result of Covid-19, with one restaurateur describing Brick Lane as a ‘ghost town’, as a new report highlights that the pandemic has exacerbated serious challenges faced by the UK’s world-renowned curry capital, Brick Lane, in Tower Hamlets, east London.

The report, ‘Beyond Banglatown – Continuity, change and new urban economies in Brick Lane’, published today, 29 July, has found a steep decline in Brick Lane’s Bengali owned Indian restaurants and curry houses, with a decrease of by 62% in just 15 years – in the mid-2000s there were 60 outlets compared to just 23 in early-2020. Brick Lane and surrounding area also known as ‘Banglatown’ because of its status as the heartland of the Bengali community in Britain, has been transformed by gentrification and regeneration, with hipster cafés, vintage clothes shops, delicatessens and boutique chocolatiers booming, while the number of Bangladeshi-run curry eateries has plummeted.

The two-year research project ‘Beyond Banglatown’ focusing on Brick Lane’s restaurant and retail sectors, highlights a range of challenges contributing to the decline of Banglatown’s curry houses, including restaurants being excluded by gentrification, rising costs, such as rents and business rates, a shortage of trained chefs because of visa constraints on recruiting chefs from South Asia, lack of ongoing support and training from business and regeneration agencies, decline in the area’s night-time economy as the local authority restricts licensing hours, the reluctance of the new generation of British Bengalis to work in the hospitality sector and increasing competition in the Shoreditch area.

Shams Uddin, who runs The Monsoon on Brick Lane since 2000, fears the Chancellor’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme, beginning on August 3, will not be enough, stating, “Rishi Sunak can cut VAT and have as many voucher schemes as he likes, but if you don’t have any customers what’s the point?”

“Normally, at this time of the year, the City people go on holiday and we get the tourists but because of the virus, we’ve got hardly anyone. Yesterday, we were open as usual from midday to 1am and we only had seven customers. Today, we haven’t had any at all. The landlord still wants the rent. Unless customers come back soon most restaurants in Brick Lane will only be able to survive another three or four months.”

The report by Claire Alexander, Seán Carey, Sundeep Lidher, Suzi Hall and Julia King, highlights the unique contribution of the Bengali community in Brick Lane and East London, charts the Indian restaurant sector in the UK, and offers analysis of Brick Lane’s regeneration and its new economies, and their impact on current Banglatown, as well its future. Report co-author Seán Carey has been researching Brick Lane’s Bengali-run restaurant trade for over 20 years and wrote seminal 2004 report, Curry Capital. Banglatown is hugely important and symbolic to Britain’s Bangladeshi community (451,529 according to the 2011 census), in much the same way that Southall, known as ‘Little India’, is to the Indian community, and Brixton is to the African-Caribbean community. The report calls for this heritage to be recognised and commemorated in Brick Lane itself, as well as in heritage institutions and education, otherwise this vital history may be lost to future generations.

Report recommendations include government to provide significant financial support to help survive the Covid-19 crisis, cultural and social heritage offered by Brick Lane’s Indian restaurants to be recognized, planning support, training and support to restaurant owners to adapt to a changing business environment and to formally recognise the unique contribution of the Bengali community to the history of Brick Lane and east London, and global London, in heritage institutions, educational provision, and the material fabric of the street.

Professor Claire Alexander, Professor of Sociology at The University of Manchester, said, “The loss of Banglatown is not simply a business issue, it is about people. It represents the loss of a rich history of migration, settlement and the struggle to belong in multi-cultural Britain. The threat to the curry houses of Brick Lane, and across the country, strikes at the heart of one of the UK’s most vulnerable communities and risks decimating its central contribution to British life and culture – the British curry”

Dr Zubaida Haque, Interim Director, Runnymede Trust said, “Covid-19 has severely impacted Brick Lane’s renowned curry restaurants and cafes. On top of this the Bangladeshi-run curry restaurants are among the hardest hit by the shutdown caused by the pandemic – Covid-19 is not only a health crisis it is also economic and we urge government and the Mayor of London to step in with strong business and financial support to help weather this harsh economic storm.”

Bashir Ahmed, award-winning restaurateur and President of the British Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce & Industry (BBCCI), said, “Of all the sectors in the British economy, the hospitality industry has likely suffered the most. But what’s so sad for British Bangladeshis of my generation, especially those of us who made our livelihoods through restaurants, is that Brick Lane has been so badly affected by the downturn. To tell the truth, I can’t see Brick Lane surviving much longer as the curry capital of the UK – it’s dying. That said, I’m confident that Brick Lane will regain its vibrancy, but it will only do so if it provides food experiences for the new generation. And for that to happen ethnic minority businesses will need help and support.”

At the start of 2010, the ‘Indian’ restaurant and takeaway sector was one of the fastest-growing food retail sectors in the UK. Today, it is estimated that it is worth £3.5 billion, rising to £4.3 billion. The sector includes around 10,000 small businesses, of which 80 per cent are Bangladeshi-owned, employing around 80,000 people. In 2001 then foreign secretary Robin Cook famously claiming in 2001 that “Chicken Tikka Masala is now Britain’s true national dish … a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences.”

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