Iqbal Wahhab: Roast and The Cinnamon Club
The restaurateur reveals all about his investment woes, blowing budgets and winning landlords over
When Iqbal Wahhab decided to open his own restaurant, ‘every restaurateur in London' told him he was crazy. Having come from a PR background he admits to never having served a single plate in a local curry house, let alone cooked anything in a professional environment. Most restaurateurs cite a long career in the industry as vital preparation for the difficulties that lay ahead, but Iqbal believes it was his lack of hands on experience in the industry that made his first restaurant, The Cinnamon Club, such a success.
Although Iqbal hadn't directly worked in restaurants, his PR and publishing career had revolved around the industry. As well as representing several high end eateries with his PR firm, Iqbal founded Indian restaurant trade magazine, Tandoori, in association with Cobra Beer. However, after some strong criticism of the way Indian restaurants in the UK were being run, he fell somewhat foul of the industry. “They hounded me out,” he says. “It's hard to believe, but I had death threats. I had to go away, distance myself from it and open a restaurant of my own to show everyone what I was talking about.”
Iqbal had become tired of what he regarded as poor service and a lack of interest in the provenance of ingredients. “I had seen from French restaurants the limitations of what the Indian restaurants at the very top were doing. There wasn't the same level of service or branding let alone culinary direction, so I really saw a gap in the market.”
Armed with a novel concept, and the determination to prove his idea for a fine dining Indian restaurant could work, Iqbal now had to find the investors willing to fund the project, which proved trickier than originally envisaged. An initial site in High Street Kensington fell through as a result of funds not being secured for the lease. However, a new site in the Old Westminster Library then became available. “Our biggest problem was convincing the landlord to give me the property. There were 300 people bidding for it so I wasn't exactly his last resort. I had to convince him he should give it to me over Conran, The Ivy or any of the others after it.”
Of the initial £2.5m needed to start the restaurant, Iqbal says only ‘a tiny amount' came from his own funds. He needed a large chunk – around £1m – to come from the bank. As fate would have it, having already dreamt up the restaurant's name, he came across a bank manager called Paul Cinnamon. However, having secured the bank loan from the restaurant's namesake, Iqbal now needed to convince investors it was worth taking a chance on.
“Back then I didn't have a proper understanding of how to sell the idea. I'd hired an accountant who would come with me to presentations and do the numbers. But he didn't really know the restaurant trade and I soon realised he wasn't the one investors wanted to hear from. I found the more I got to grips with that side of it myself, the more encouraging the response from investors was.”
The numbers weren't the only thing Iqbal lacked experience in. He dramatically underestimated the amount he would need to learn. “I used to sit in meetings with architects, engineers and builders not having a clue what they were talking about but signing all the cheques.” Iqbal soon found himself £700,000 over budget and had to go cap-in-hand back to the investors. It's a mistake he didn't repeat when he opened his second restaurant, Roast.
After dodging several financial bullets, The Cinnamon Club opened its doors to the public in 2001 and despite turning over £2m in its first year the critics had some harsh words. There were accusations of ‘ponciness', and the suggestion that Indian food simply didn't work when presented in the European template. Iqbal responded by fine-tuning the whole operation and insists the criticism gave him even more determination, eventually leading to respected restaurant guide Harden's describing it as ‘London's best-known Indian'.
Despite The Cinnamon Club ultimately becoming a critical and financial success, the start-up phase had left some deep scars in the relationship between Iqbal and his investors. “The relationship had gone from bad to dire with litigation on both sides. They had much deeper pockets to sue me so we agreed to a ‘drop hands' settlement.” In 2005 he walked away from the restaurant to set up Roast in Borough Market.
Iqbal describes Roast as ‘traditional British food but not like you've seen it before'. The restaurant combines the finest quality ingredients to make classic British dishes in a beautiful setting and fine dining experience. Once again Iqbal had to fight off pitches from the top restaurant groups for the location – the Floral Hall at Borough Market which overlooks the bustling stalls and sellers. But the concept of Roast fitted so well with the site's theme of great fresh produce, the market trustees were won over.
Having learned from his mistakes with the Cinnamon Club, the road to success wasn't quite so rocky the second time round and Roast has enjoyed praise from critics and diners alike from the outset. “I wasn't going to let anyone pull the wool over my eyes this time so I learned all the unglamorous and tedious details. As a result we came much closer to hitting our budgets and deadlines.”
Iqbal's time is now split between Roast, chairing a government advisory group on ethnic minorities and working with the Prince's Trust, but he isn't quite ready to give up the restaurateur's lifestyle yet. “I'm starting to fill more and more time away from Roast, but I keep telling myself: ‘Open some more restaurants. You're good at it!'.”