Balti Belt restaurants form cartel to stop price war taking profit off menu

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The Independent Online

The rotund Pakistani restaurateur waved a hand at the photograph above his head. "Lord Lichfield ate here," he said proudly. Across the road, another restaurant owner went one better. On his wall was a picture of himself next to the great Muhammad Ali.

The rotund Pakistani restaurateur waved a hand at the photograph above his head. "Lord Lichfield ate here," he said proudly. Across the road, another restaurant owner went one better. On his wall was a picture of himself next to the great Muhammad Ali.

Down the road, at Imran's,they had served Loyd Grossman, Rolf Harris and cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, though there was no evidence Jemima had been there yet.

The clamouring for celebrity snaps is one sign of the fierce competition among the Asian restaurants in Birmingham's Balti Belt. Now a vicious price war has broken out, with the cost of a meal plummeting to £4 per head in some places.

Tariq Chaudury, of the city's Asian Business Association says: "Quite a few have gone out of business and a few are on their way out. Long-term. the future looks very bleak."

Into the fray has stepped Khawaja Shafique, up for re-election as chairman of the Asian Balti Restaurant Association."I am saying, 'Be brave. Look at the future'," he says. "I want them to put their prices up so they can improve their restaurants. Otherwise they will not survive."

The Punjabi-born businessman set up his restaurant 30 years ago. These days, baltis bring £9m into the area each year. Mr Shafique, whose restaurant feels more like a small French bistro, is worried that the cut-price competition will force restaurants to compromise on quality of ingredients and standards.

"Why do they have to undervalue their food?" he said. "It is not junk. You would expect to pay much more in an English or Italian restaurant." He wants them to gang together and raise the minimum price to £10 for a meal. Mr Shafique does not call this price-fixing, merely "voluntary self-regulation".

Yet there are rumours that the Office of Fair Trading has taken an interest and Mr Shafique and fellow restaurateurs will have to be careful not to infringe competition laws.

But yesterday there seemed little hope that his plan would work. In Ladypool road, in Sparkbrook's Asian community, the shops brimming with bright silken materials sat alongside countless restaurants vying for business. Even The George pub offers £4.25 balti meals alongside "Bollywood Film Screenings".

At Lahore, Karahi, "The pioneers of buffet", the array of golden pots offered all you can eat for £5.95. Khurum Ali, son of the owner, had no intention of raising prices. "They are saying that because we are putting them out of business," he said. "People come here for quality of food as well as low prices."

Mohammed Afzal Butt, owner of the award-winning Imran's restaurant, said: "That place is like a service station. We offer service but if he is not going to put his prices up why should we?" In many ways, Birmingham's problem is reflected nationally for it is not just competition but attitude that keeps the prices desperately low. In a country where 200 million poppadoms are served each year, the British see their "Indian" as a cut-price option.

"It seems unfair that traditional Indian food is seen as a cheaper choice when their overheads are the same as any other restaurant," said Tania Ahsan, editor of Tandoori magazine.

Perhaps the future lies with the next generation of British-born Asian restaurateurs, such as Mr Butt's 20-year-old son Usman. He is brimming with ideas for more exotic dishes and improved standards from his catering course.

Like Mr Shafique, he would like to see an "Asiatown", like Manchester's Golden Mile. Sitting in his restaurant amid mouth-watering dishes, he said confidently: "It is all about presentation and quality. If we provide that we will survive."

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