Page last updated at 05:14 GMT, Sunday, 20 April 2008 06:14 UK

Can curry chain stand the heat?

By Joe Lynam
Business reporter, BBC News

Indian restaurants in the UK have traditionally been family-run

When it comes to restaurant chains, diners usually know what to expect from the hamburgers or coffee in places like McDonalds or Costa.

But with Indian food, would one want the masala or korma to taste the same everywhere?

One group is hoping so, as it aims to be the first chain of Indian restaurants with franchises all over Britain.

The British high street is teeming with franchises. Italian, Mexican, American or Chinese whatever the flavour, there is a chain of restaurants to meet the demand. But no-one has opened up a nationwide chain of Indian franchises yet.

The question is: will the British palate have a taste for it?

Recipe for disaster

Tiffinbites hopes to create 50 potential franchises throughout Britain by the end of 2009.

For a fee of 150,000 (US$300,000) plus a share of profits, franchisees get prepared food from a central kitchen which they reheat or 'regenerate' (in PR speak) locally.

They also get full marketing and training support as part of the package. One of the Tiffinbites directors, Arjun Varma, wants the south Asian food sector to modernise.

By the very nature that it's scaled up to lots of different outlets, you lose a lot of originality
John Holton
Fig Tree Network

"We are aiming for the young entrepreneurs who want to get into the Indian food industry," says Arjun.

"Rather than taking on a family-run scenario, they can have a professionally-backed franchise, which they would then build into two or three restaurants depending on their appetite."

But marketing and branding experts are not so sure that avoiding the traditional route for Indian cuisine might prove to be a recipe for disaster.

"One of the downsides is that most Indian restaurants are family-run businesses, offering very authentic home recipes from the menus. One of the things you lose in a franchise is that sense," according to John Holton from Fig Tree Network.

"It becomes slightly impersonal and by the very nature that it's scaled up to lots of different outlets, you lose a lot of originality."

The concept of franchising Indian food is not the first big national venture for the company which owns Tiffinbites the Gourmet Restaurant Group. It already supplies 350 companies including Barclays, Virgin and HSBC.

Set up five years ago by a former lingerie buyer at Marks and Spencer, Jamal Hirani, the group now has a number of spicy fingers in a variety of Indian samosas.

Its central kitchen in north London prepares South Asian food on a wholesale basis for a number of restaurants - including one at Selfridges - as well as airlines including KLM and Malaysian.

New rules

The Indian food sector has come a long way from the 1960s and 70s, when the first wave of South Asian immigrants arrived in Britain offering what was then a new type of dining at affordable prices.

But the Home Office's recent clampdown on all non-EU immigration is taking its toll on the ethnic food sector.

Many Indian restaurant staff say immigration laws are too strict

The new points-based system which came into force at the end of February is making it much tougher for Indian restaurants to get the qualified chefs they need.

Under the new rules, chefs need to speak English and have some third level education if they are to work and live in the UK.

The Ethnic Catering Alliance, which is organising a protest march in London, is calling for exemptions to be made for specialist workers such as Indian chefs

Ironically, the new get-tough immigration policy might prove a boon for the Tiffinbites franchising business.

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