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Curry Leaf Café: A small business with a kick

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More than 9,000 Indian curry restaurants are estimated to operate in the UK, where the famous dish is served to thousands of hungry customers each month. One such establishment is Curry Leaf Cafe, a South Indian eatery that saw a gap in the market and decided to fill it. In celebration of National Curry Week, (10-16th October) co-founder Euan Sey talks about how the business has become such a sizzling success – the largest independent food operator in Brighton.

Journalist Euan did not foresee his future centred around paratha wraps until he met a chef named Kanthi when looking for a flatmate in 2013. Three years on and the duo have 37 employees and run three trading premises – the original Curry Leaf Cafe on Ship Street in Brighton, a kitchen inside the Temple Bar and a kiosk in the main concourse of Brighton Train Station.

For the first few months I was running around the streets trying to lure people in with poppadums.

“I had no previous experience of opening or running a restaurant, but food has always been my first love and I did some food and drink journalism earlier in my career,” Euan admits. “After Kanthi and I met and became flatmates, the idea of opening some kind of restaurant kept building until we decided to take the plunge.”

Euan and Kanthi saw a gap in the market, between the standard Indian restaurants with Bangladesh-inspired menus and the high-end, fine dining side of Indian cuisine in the UK. With this in mind they decided to launch a cafe rather than a restaurant that served high-quality ingredients in a casual environment.

“Nobody else was really pairing Indian food with craft beer — or not properly, at any rate — which we saw as an opportunity. Our café on Ship Street has a range of 30 craft beers for customers to try while they eat,” says Euan. “That’s something that we’re famous for now, and shortly after we opened the Guardian named us one of the top ten places to drink in Brighton, which we’re really proud of.”

At the start, Euan had to carry on working in journalism while the Cafe found its feet. “We bit off more than we could chew with the premises we took over. The refurb was far more expensive than we thought, and we were borrowing money from wherever we could to get the cafe open in time,” Euan explains.

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“We were on a huge high when we managed to open, but we underestimated how much money we would lose in the first few months. I was running around the streets trying to lure people in with poppadums!” The hard work paid off, the customers gradually began to flock in and it was not long before awards started to be won — including ‘Best Newcomer, South Coast’ at the 2015 Asian Curry Awards, ‘Newcomer of the Year’ in the Sussex Life Awards and a listing as a ‘Local Gem’ in the Waitrose Good Food Guide.

Social media has been vital to our success – we work harder than ever on Twitter during quiet periods.

One of Curry Leaf Cafe’s most defining USPs (unique selling point) is its rustic and informal atmosphere. “We serve everything from breakfast and lunch dishes to more restaurant-style starter and main courses in the evenings, plus a standalone Sunday brunch menu,” says Euan. “The bar restaurant has a more ‘pub grub’ style menu, and at the station kiosk we take inspiration from station stalls in India, serving paratha wraps, South Indian curries, craft beers and even vindaloo bacon rolls.” Hyderabad-born Chef Kanthi is the driving force behind the food and culinary inspiration, meaning that the entire menu is authentic — even the tea and coffee.

Like every hospitality business, the Curry Leaf Cafe, pub kitchen and station kiosk experience peaks and troughs throughout the year. “The cafe is always busy during school holidays as we’re a popular venue for families, but the quieter times tend to be in January and September,” says Euan. “We make sure we’re on top of cash flow for these periods, but we also host events such as supper clubs and popups to help us deal with the customer drops. Social media is also vital to our success — we work harder than ever on Twitter during quiet periods.”

Assigning receipts and paying expenses from my smartphone is particularly helpful.

When times were tough at the beginning, Euan hails their use of Xero, as one of the tools that helped them keep on an even keel financially. “It took us a long time to fine tune our business. When we first started, we had the turnover but didn’t have the profit,” Euan says. “Xero helped us to examine where the costs are coming from, work out the trends and fine tune the operations to turn good turnover into healthy profit.”

The business uses Xero for transparency — to compare the three strands of the business and to ensure payments have been allocated correctly across the different operations; during the summer holidays the cafe sees more customers, while demand for food drops at the train station kiosk due to a fall in commuter numbers when the schools kick out. “We look at profit and loss reports every month with the figures in front of us, but we can access the numbers whenever we like at the click of a button, and even on our phones using the app. Assigning receipts and paying expenses from my smartphone is particularly helpful.”

For Kanthi and Euan, this is just the beginning of an exciting time for the business. The duo have recently launched a click-and-collect online payment app where customers can order food from the train and choose a collection time — the first used at any train station in the UK. They also use an app called TooGoodToGo that allows customers to buy food that would otherwise be thrown away at the end of the shift for a heavily discounted price. With three strands of the business already under their belts, the future looks bright for the Curry Leaf Cafe.

Euan’s 3 tips for budding entrepreneurs starting out in the hospitality business:

  1. Have a really clear concept. What are you trying to achieve and how does it differentiate you from other people? Start working on logos early, visually differentiate yourself and be professional – don’t start off by cutting corners.
  1. Be pessimistic and realistic with your numbers. Your start up costs will be more than you think, your refurb will cost more and it will take you longer than you think to meet your costs.  Think of a number and multiply it by 1.5!
  1. Take social media seriously. The first month we opened, about 50% of our audience was coming from Twitter. If we weren’t active, we wouldn’t have made it through month. When you get home and you’re knackered, that’s the time to find people to follow on Twitter!
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