Perween Warsi: True grit got my samosas into Asda

Looking at the BBC’s autumn food schedule, you’d think Britain was a gastronomic paradise. But when Perween Warsi moved here from India in the 1970s, the country wasn’t exactly bursting with culinary genius. And Anglo-Indian food was among the worst. It was “bland and tasteless. Besides potato, cauliflower and peas, there was hardly anything available”, says Warsi, founder of Indian food company S&A Foods. “Call it naïve or ambitious, but I thought I could do better.”

Born in Muzaffarpur in north-eastern India, Warsi came to Britain in 1975 with her husband, a doctor. It was in 1986, having settled in Derby and shocked by the poor quality of the local food, that she began making her own samosas and touting them to her local takeaway, a fish and chip shop. “I started with 12 samosas – half a dozen veg and half a dozen meat,” she says. “Total investment, £2.50.”

They went down a treat. She gradually extended her range, making pakoras, tandoori chicken and kebabs, buying the ingredients from Indian wholesalers then selling them all around Derby. Everything was made in her kitchen, which soon expanded out into the conservatory of her house. “My husband was very upset when he came back from the surgery and saw his pots of plants were outside and my rolling pan and board were in their place.”

Warsi then began calling around the supermarkets. She won a contract to supply Asda in 1987, after submitting some of her products for a blind tasting. “I got a call saying: ‘We liked your food, it’s really nice and we’d like to work with you.’ Whoops!” The trouble was, Warsi was still working from her kitchen, and there was no way that she could supply Asda with the quantity of food that they required. But rather than panic and try to fulfil the order, “I decided to tell them the truth. They appreciated it and liked the openness and honesty. And since then, we have grown our business with them.”

Warsi realised that it was time to expand, and moved to a local industrial unit. Twelve staff were driven to and from work each night in her Renault Laguna estate. Her “biggest challenge… was to have the finance and the resources to invest in the business”. She sold shares in S&A Foods to the Hughes Food Group to raise cash, but three years later, with sales of more than £4m, the firm suddenly found itself fighting for survival when Hughes went bust. “That was a very tough time. It was very de-motivating for staff, not knowing what would happen.”

But, backed by venture capital, Warsi regained control of her company in 1991 and opened a new £8m factory in 1996. Innovation was the key to her business – for example, S&A introduced The Curry Pot at Asda plus the Meal for One and supplied ready-made meals to supermarkets and pubs. The group now turns over £65m and Warsi has become a high-profile entrepreneur, judging at this year’s NatWest Everywoman Awards. Her secret? True grit. “You have to be absolutely sure about what it is you want to achieve. There will always be obstacles in life. Be determined to remove them.”