Authentic Foods: The real deal
Editor, Global Trader magazine
Post date: Friday, 17th August 2012
A woman with a mission, who turned a cottage industry into a national food company and raised the bar for pub and supermarket meals, talks to Global Trader's Eric Jackson.
Kamal Basran still shudders at the thought of camping holidays in the late seventies. Not because of the weather, the communal washing blocks or the discomfort of sleeping bags, leaky canvas and rough ground.
Rather, what the founder of north west-based Authentic Foods and Lloyds-TSB Entrepreneur of the Year in the 2011 Asian Women of Achievement Awards recalls with horror is that she packed Vesta curries. “Oh weren’t they awful?” she says. But back then, there were few alternatives if you wanted something spicy to eat on the hoof.
Now, though, thanks to people like Kamal who have an almost visionary zeal about offering ‘real’ food with ‘real’ ingredients, the choice for consumers with a taste for Indian and other exotic dishes is virtually limitless. And the history and bi-lingual teacher turned businesswoman, looking much younger than her 61 years thanks to a slim figure, jolly demeanour and a decidedly unfusty fashion sense – she’s wearing a fetching red cardigan from Banana Republic teamed with an elegant skirt – raves about how far Indian food has come since those camping days.
"It makes me feel very proud," says Sheffield University-educated Kamal, in the boardroom of the company’s main office and production facility in Sharston, Manchester.
"Not just because curry has become our national dish, but because Indian food is now so much more upmarket than it was.
"I remember the days when people would eat Indian food and dismiss it as something a bit smelly, something to eat after the pub."
Now, states the woman who moved from the Punjab to Wolverhampton as a child in the sixties, the opposite is true, with Michelin-starred Indian restaurants and people being far more discerning about the flavours and ingredients of Indian food.
"They now even understand the health benefits of Indian food and the subtleties of the regional cuisines, as people are travelling more and to different parts of India,” says Kamal, whose other passions include reading the historical novels of Philippa Gregory and Ken Follett (though she’s never read E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India), yoga, travelling and watching Manchester United.
"They want dishes from Kerala or Goa or Rajasthan, or wherever.” Kamal’s contribution to this culinary revolution was to set up Authentic Foods, which started 27 years ago, producing snacks such as samosas, from a small unit in Stockport containing just two little fryers, a table, a sink and a gas ring, and has grown into a successful £40m turnover business spread across three sites in South Manchester, employing about 250 people.
The company now supplies ready meals to supermarkets such as the Co-op, Iceland and Asda, hotels and pub chains Wetherspoons and Greene King, among others, and as well as Indian dishes its range includes Chinese and Mediterranean options, so the chances are you have sampled one of Kamal’s recipes in a pub without even knowing it.
"But our focus is very much on Indian and Chinese with some Italian ranges and even British products too, including a lamb cobbler and chicken casserole. But if the customer says it wants a Mongolian curry then we will produce a Mongolian curry. That is the flexibility we have, and one of the reasons for the success of this business,” she says.
The company’s relationship with Wetherspoons goes back 16 years, and the two have grown together.
"The group’s curry club has been a huge success. When we first started working with them they had just 60 pubs and now they have 850 with 30 or 40 being added to the estate every year,” beams Kamal, whose culinary skills were passed down by her mother.
She turned from teaching to cookery at the age of 35 after impressing friends and family with cooking demonstrations, and says her products reflect the more sophisticated palate of the modern consumer.
"The improvement in the quality of food in restaurants means people want to eat those dishes at home, but they don’t have the expertise or don’t want to go out and buy all the spices. It’s so much easier to have a quality product from the supermarket,” says Kamal, who lives in the affluent Cheshire town of Wilmslow.
"You’ve got to be a real foodie to go to the trouble of doing all that grinding of things such as cardammon pods. With us you and buy a quality product with no additives and no artificial colours which is 100% natural. We pride ourselves on that."
Having laboured ‘24/7’ to build up the business, Kamal decided last year to take more of a back-seat role within the company, working three days a week, while her son, Nik, 32, took over as managing director five years ago. Her other son, Parminder, works in equities in London.
It gives her more time to indulge in her love of travel – she’s just enjoyed a holiday in Kerala and a weekend in Bournemouth, and she says her favourite places are the Far East and, of course, India. But any notion that she is any less committed to the business is brushed aside.
"I’m very lucky because Nik has this passion and an innate ability to make this company succeed, but I still have a very strong interest, particularly in the staff, a lot of whom I hired, and in the operational side of the business," she says. "I’m also very much involved in all the future plans – it’s still my baby. The intention is to build it up and take it to the next stage."
The past year alone has a large investment in the company – with the backing of the ‘very helpful’ RBS – at the Stockport and Wythenshawe sites, including the purchase of a new nitrogen freezing plant, but Authentic Foods has always grown organically.
"It has been a good, sound business with good foundations because we have never been greedy to make massive strides all at once. We’ve been content to grow slowly and invest when we could afford it. We’ve been very low-key – I’ve been surprised so many features have been written about me in the papers. We’ve just got on with making a success of the business."
Kamal moved from the Midlands to the Manchester area 33 years ago because of her husband’s work and switched from teaching A level history to becoming a peripatetic bi-lingual teacher in two schools, before eventually fulfilling her ‘calling’ as a hands-on entrepreneur in the food industry.
"I did the all the developing in the business for the first 16 years. We didn’t have development chefs, but when a business starts you have to be able to do everything yourself.
"In those days there were no Indian cookery books, so I got my mother to tell me about the secrets of her ingredients and how to create all the blends. I’ve always had an interest in cooking and always cooked at home."
Indian people, believes Kamal, have a natural talent for business, but she’s quick to praise her adoptive country for facilitating success.
"Most Indians have this inside them as they have to start something of their own, and once they do start they really work at it. And in this country we have opportunities to expand our talents and our education that maybe we would not have had in India.
"There just haven’t been any hindrances here. If you are prepared to work hard and promote your business, people are supportive of it. Indians have that work ethic – whether it’ll be there in the third or fourth generations only time will tell."
With the rise of India as one of the new economic superpowers, the number of food retailers, such as Tesco, moving into the sub-continent has risen dramatically, but Kamal does not envisage joining them in the near future.
"It would be a nice thing to do, but the reason I can’t see it at the moment is that they don’t have the chilled and frozen infrastructure for distribution of the products.
"That may come. With frozen temperature control so important, you can’t take the risk. However there is every possibility that we will look to Europe."
In the meantime the company will carry on building at home and engaging with the local community. It does much fund-raising charity work with the local St Ann’s Hospice, going back to when one of the longest serving employees, Albert Wilks, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. “When he couldn’t be cared for at home we asked for him to be put in the hospice close to here so we could visit him on a regular basis.
"Since then the links have grown stronger, and the company has also forged links with Francis House Children’s Hospice. Our chefs go and do a lunch for all the volunteers on a regular basis.
"Our chefs also go out and do a day in a local infant school to teach the children how to cook a particular product. Which is all about spreading the message about healthy, Indian food," she concludes.
This article first appeared in Global Trader, Summer 2012. To read the entire publication, click on the ebook.