The Cinnamon Club: Iqbal Wahhab

How a new type of Indian cuisine became a real hot ticket

Westminster’s The Cinnamon Club has become one of Londons’ most popular eating venues with its eclectic range of upmarket Indian dishes. However, despite its success today, the restaurant’s beginnings were not without a bit of spice of their own as founder Iqbal Wahhab tells Startups.co.uk

Name: Iqbal Wahhab Age: 39 What does your business do: Restaurant and members bar Business name: Cinnamon Club Number of employees: 65 Turnover: £4 million What made you take the plunge and startup your own business? I had been a restaurant PR and was running a catering trade magazine when I first started to think about opening my own eating venue. I had clients who were top-end Indian as well as Michelin-starred French. The former were very popular but the latter category won greater acclaim and therefore commanded higher prices. I often told my Indian restaurant clients their future lay in upgrading their product and adding that extra attention to detail which upmarket French restaurants did so well. They didn’t listen to me so I decided to practice what I was preaching.

Where did you get the funding to start your business? The original investment came from friends, who in turn introduced me to others. I found a bank manager with the surname Cinnamon and he too proved most obliging!

How much did it cost to startup your business? £2.5 million

At what age did you decide to go it alone? The Cinnamon Club is the biggest business I have ever launched, but I have been working for myself most of my adult life. My first job coming out of university was as a trainee reporter on an Asian newspaper. Within nine months I was the editor. I left to go freelance and then in 1991 I set up my PR business.

Where did the idea for your business come from? I was the archetype dinner party host who gets told by his guests he should open a restaurant. I love cooking and entertaining and, with the benefit of being on the inside track of the restaurant industry, I saw a lot of blind spots and drove the vision forward by thinking as a customer rather than as an operator.

How long did it take from your startup idea to your first day trading? It took forever to get going. Armed simply with a dream of how the ultimate Indian restaurant of the future would be, it took a lot of persuading a lot of people to come up with all the money required. The building I had acquired needed massive renovation work and we ran out of funds seven times. A nine-month programme ended up taking two years.

How did you know there was a gap in the market for this type of business or how did you go about carving one out? What I planned to do – namely to take a European design template and re-construct Indian food within it – had never been done. That was the gap in the market in this sense. There was no way of knowing, however, whether people actually would want this in sufficient numbers to make a commercial success of what I was planning.

What marketing did you do initially and now? I originally made wild claims about Indian food never going to be the same again, that this would be the ultimate restaurant and so on and then one day a restaurant critic friend took me aside and said: “I think it’s best you let us be the judge of that, old boy.” Restaurants survive on publicity and after the original spate of reviews, we undertook some controversial advertising. Some of cheekier ones were banned and this introduced an element of notoriety, which allowed the public to see us in a different light. The best form of publicity is word of mouth and we concentrate now on converting our ever-increasing database from being simply customers into being fans. This is achieved by concentrating on maximising guest satisfaction.

Did you have help from friends and family? I don’t come from a family of business people; my parents being academics thought the idea of owning a restaurant rather gauche to start with. They saw I was having a terrible time getting it going and only felt able to provide moral and emotional support and they didn’t realize this is what I needed the most of. I have an amazing set of friends who unquestioningly did the same.

What academic qualifications did you get? An ideal one to become a restaurateur – a degree in politics from the LSE!

Did they help you and if not then what course would have helped you? If I’d had the patience to do it, I could have benefited from an MBA.

What jobs did you do before you started your own business and did they help you? I was the editor of the Asian Herald and then a freelance journalist with The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. After that I founded, East West Communications and Tandoori Magazine. Each one has in its own way helped form what I am today

What skills and personal characteristics do you need to start your own business? Confidence to the point of arrogance, the ability to motivate and lead a team, a thorough knowledge of what everyone around you does and the ability to appoint the right people and then to trust them.

Having overseen the traumas of getting started, then suffering from a slow start and then moving on to doing so well now (we doubled our turnover from the first year to second year) involves a new challenge of coping with success and maintaining it in a more assured manner. I understand a lot more about finance now than when I first started and I’ve also learned how to delegate.

What’s the single most important thing that helped your business succeed? My unflinching belief that the Cinnamon Club mission was right has been brought to life by two people in particular – Vivek Singh, our Executive Chef, and John Turner, our Managing Director who both stayed loyal when the chips were down.

How many hours a week do you work now and how many hours a week did you work when you started? I now work about 60 hours but to begin with it was more like 80 hours a week.

Was there ever a time when you thought you were close to failing – and what did you do to overcome that? Have you ever had to cope with a downturn in sales? When we first opened the reviews were less than ecstatic and volume of trade was much lower than we were banking on. One restaurant critic from the Telegraph said to me: “You know Iqbal, we English don’t really want all this fancy stuff from a curry.” Other suggested introducing comfort dishes – ie bowls of brown stuff rather than our elegantly designed plated dishes. It was never an option in my mind to adulterate the brand in this way; instead we concentrated on fine-tuning the product, getting the service right and converting the sceptics, which eventually we did.

What is your top tip to anyone wanting to startup his or her own business? Don’t think you can do it all alone.

Where do you see your business in a year’s time? With a cookbook (due out in October) and a second branch in New York

Are your main ambitions financial (to make a lot of money) or lifestyle based (to enjoy what you do)? The Cinnamon Club’s premise is based on a vision about where a type of cooking can go if handled in a different manner. The whole idea was if it worked, money would follow.

Would you start another business? Definitely – I’m not going to stop now!

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