A champion of British grub

Kathleen Brooks
FOUNDING a restaurant would test the nerves of even the most hardened entrepreneur. Ensuring the food and décor are both delicious and attractive is one thing, but in London a new restaurant can sink or swim based on a review.

Iqbal Wahhab, founder of Borough Market’s Roast, which opened in October 2005, swam, but not without having to deal with some pretty awful reviews. He calculates that a particularly negative review from Giles Coren in The Times, who called it a “howling dog of a restaurant”, cost him £75,000 from cancelled Christmas bookings.

“I read all of the reviews,” says Wahhab. “I spent two years getting the idea together, so of course I had invested lots of emotional energy into it. In the end it came down to the roast potatoes, they didn’t really like our roast potatoes.” So, with a little help from food writer Tom Parker Bowles, Wahhab fixed the potato problem and the restaurant has been buzzing ever since. In the first year sales topped £2.5m, they have since grown to £6m in 2009.

Wahhab is waiting at the bar of Roast, chatting to staff; he eats breakfast there most days. “I eat in the restaurant because the view from the table is different from the view in the office. I can see what works and what doesn’t work from the point of view of the person dining here, not as its owner,” he says.

This was his second foray into the restaurant business. In 2001 he founded the Cinnamon Club, the Indian restaurant nestled in the shadows of Westminster.

Wahhab calls Roast, which specialises in British food, his own personal story. He moved with his parents to England from Bangladesh when he was eight months old and loved the traditional British food that he was served for school dinners. There was no history of business men in his family, but Wahhab realised he had a knack for selling at 11 years old. He was at a Balham grammar school in the 1970s, right at the peak of the National Front’s popularity. “It was a nasty time to be at school,” he recalls. As a way to avoid racist taunts he would sell pornographic magazines. “The boys in school who were part of the NF would steal the mags, I would pay 10p for them and then flog them to the other boys for 30p a copy.”

He speaks fast and with passion about his projects, and concedes that he has an “over-active imagination.” He is planning to open a branch of Roast To Go in Westfield, and he is also trying to design an iPhone app: “A Roast app would let you download the menu and the specials of the day.”

Although Wahhab’s enthusiasm is infectious, he has one piece of advice for budding entrepreneurs thinking of entering the restaurant business: “Don’t do it. Nine out of ten restaurants fail. I’ve been the lucky one, they should talk to the other nine who never made it.”

Age: 46

Lives: London

Favourite restaurant: “Goodman Steak Restaurant, Mayfair, L’Anima in the City and I am loving Bistro Bruno in Clerkenwell.”

Ideal meal: “A spicy hot lamb curry, but I can’t eat it anymore for health reasons. Otherwise a steak.”

As you are reading this Wahhab is probably finishing breakfast at Roast before heading to Buckingham Palace to pick up his OBE.