The ongoing impact of Covid-19 is threatening the future of Brick Lane’s Bangladeshi-run curry restaurants with owners fearing that their businesses can only survive a few more months without help.
While restaurants on the east London street re-opened on the 4 July after three months’ enforced closure, they have not encountered their usual influx of office workers and tourists, leaving the area ‘like a ghost town’.
Shams Uddin, who has run The Monsoon on Brick Lane since 2000, says help offered by the Chancellor, such as the Eat Out to Help Out scheme will not be enough to salvage his restaurant and others like it.
“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?,” he says.”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 news comes as a report – Beyond Banglatown – Continuity, change and new urban economies in Brick Lane – is published.
The two-year research project highlights how the pandemic has exacerbated serious challenges faced by the UK’s world-renowned ‘curry capital’ which has seen the number of South Asian-owned restaurants and cafes decrease by 62% in 15 years. In the mid-2000s there were 60 restaurants and cafes, now there are 23.
According to the report’s co-author Seán Carey, who has been researching Brick Lane’s Bangladeshi-run restaurant trade for over 20 years, a range of factors had led to businesses struggling before the Coronavirus outbreak, so a further lack of trade would decimate those restaurants still open, unless they receive help.
Carey recalls how vibrant and busy Brick Lane and its curry houses were in the mid-2000s. The arrival of Vibe Bar, which opened in 1995 on the former Truman Brewery site, helped open up the area to a younger audience, who would visit there for drinks and then move on to one of the Bangladeshi restaurants.
However, the regeneration of Shoreditch and the opening of new bars and restaurants there gradually pulled this market away, and together with rising costs, such as rent and business rates, the impact of visa constraints on recruiting chefs from South Asia and lack of support from regeneration agencies meant that many of the restaurants were no longer financially viable.
The report, which Carey co-authored with Claire Alexander, Sundeep Lidher, Suzi Hall and Julia King, and published by Runnymede, 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.
It suggests ways that the area’s Bangladeshi restaurant trade, which dates back to the 1980s and is an important part of British Bangladeshi heritage, can be salvaged.
As well as calling for financial support from the government to help the sector survive the Covid-19 crisis, the report suggests that the ‘unique cultural and social heritage offered by Brick Lane’s Indian restaurants’ should be recognised and renewed with investment and training.
It also suggests the development of borough planning report, including an investment in the night-time economy and providing training and support to restaurant owners to adapt to a changing business environment.
However, Claire Alexander, Professor of Sociology at The University of Manchester, says the loss of Banglatown, is not just a business issue, it is also 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,” she says.
Hope for the future
Despite concerns for their future, Carey believes that Banglatown’s restaurants and cafes can be revived if they focus on delivering more authentic Bangladeshi curries, rather than serving the traditional curry house fare tailored for British palates.
“Chaat on nearby Redchurch Street, which was run by a young British Bangladeshi woman, served authentic Bangladeshi curry, and was a huge success. It closed as she was no longer able to run it, but I think there is a market for Bangladeshi regional food. Of course, the cafes in Brick Lane and Whitechapel do serve this kind of fare, but mainly to Bangladeshis.”
Carey also thinks the arrival of Crossrail next year and its station at Whitechapel will help make Brick Lane more accessible and open it up to more potential diners.
The question is, can these businesses hold on until next year?
Bashir Ahmed, president of the British Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce & Industry, says help and support is needed now.
“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,” he says.
“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.”
Readers interested in the history of this part of London will enjoy watching the video Beyond Banglatown.
Article by, Emma Eversham
Banglatown Brick Lane London – 29 July 2020 – Banglatown Brick Lane London