Bringing mum’s bhajis to the masses

Jamal Hirani of Tiffin Bites (left) turned his dream of selling real Indian food to City workers into a very profitable reality. And it was all down to his mother's cooking - and an awful lot of research.

Jamal Hirani's mother loves to cook. So much so, says the 40-year-old, that when she left Idi Amin's Uganda for London in 1976, she started her new life by cooking samosas and onion bhajis and selling them in local delicatessens. "I remember coming home every day and peeling 55-pound bags of potatoes." All of this rubbed off on Hirani: he spotted his own business opportunity in selling real Indian food to City workers not the anglicised version that we're used to ("only eaten after ten pints of beer"), but the "light, fresh" food his mother made.

As head of a large price-comparison website in Europe in 2002, Hirani was perfectly placed to check out the market. He had access to a profiled database, which he used to target 1,000 City workers aged between 21 and 45. "I sent them an email saying, if you had Indian food that was healthy, had low fat and was served on a plate in five minutes, was it something that you'd have for lunch?" Just 24 hours later, he had a 48% response. It was all positive. "That was the cue."

Hirani quit his job, got cracking on a business plan and started researching the market. For six months, he sat in cafs, noting what time customers came in, what they bought and how much they spent. "I basically sat there drinking coffee, just ticking the boxes." Hirani borrowed £200,000 against his house and hired architects, accountants and lawyers. Then he opened his first test' outlet on Soho's Wardour Street. "In order to make the business viable, it was important to test the concept out, see what worked, what didn't work, and also to build up credibility with landlords." A second test site was then opened in Cannon Street in the City. The results showed that the grab-and-go style caf outlets did well at lunchtime, but not so well in the evening.

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So he took two new sites in the City, in Moorgate and Liverpool Street, put in seating and started touting for dinner business too. Another site soon followed in Canary Wharf, replacing an Indian restaurant that had served a mere 50 meals a day. He was soon doing 500. "Same product, just packaged and presented in a different way. Ours was much more fun, much more energetic," he says. A meal also cost no more than £10, which can't have hurt.

At this point in early 2005 Hirani decided to go back to the basis of his business plan and bring production in house. He located a factory in north London and spent more than a million pounds making it into a state-of-the-art Indian food-production centre. This done, he set about starting Tiffin Wednesdays' whereby Tiffinbites food is served in corporate canteens. "We're now the second-largest brand after Starbucks in contract catering," he says (Starbucks runs full-time outlets inside canteens). The entire business turns over an impressive £15m a year.

Still, none of this success means that Hirani doesn't still need his mother. "Our executive chef spends one day a month with her in the kitchen," he says. "My mum's still the biggest influence here."

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.