Profile - Amjad Bashir: Strength in diversity of city that inspired the man behind Zouk

He couldn't speak a word of English when he arrived in Yorkshire, but Amjad Bashir is now a successful entrepreneur who believes Asian businesses must integrate. He speaks to Greg Wright.

BRADFORD in 1960 was an uncompromising mix of thrift and grime.

For eight-year-old Amjad Bashir, it was an alien, gloomy place.

As he stepped off the train from London with his parents, he must have longed for his former home in Pakistan.

"When we arrived at the railway station I remarked to my mother that I couldn't see the sun,'' he recalled.

"There was always a big cloud over Bradford. My mother said, 'The sun is up there somewhere. We'll find it one day'.

"I also remember asking my father why the buildings were all black. He said it was due to the smoke from the wool mills."

It was the booming textile trade that brought the Bashir family from the Punjab to their new home in Bradford. There were plenty of jobs in the wool mills, and Mr Bashir's family, in common with thousands of others, left their friends and relatives behind to start a new life in Yorkshire.

Half a century later, Mr Bashir is at the helm of a restaurant business that has aspirations to become a global brand.

The Zouk Tea bar and grill in Leeds Road, Bradford has plenty of trophies in its cabinet, and the company has grown to include a restaurant in Manchester. A base in Liverpool is expected to open soon, and talks are underway about opening Zouk restaurants in places as far afield as Milan and the US.

This is quite an achievement for a man who couldn't speak English when he arrived in Bradford. So how has he succeeded?

Mr Bashir's family went out of their way to get to know their white neighbours, and today, he's a great believer in having schools with a mix of Asian and white pupils.

There have been dramatic changes in Bradford since the 1960s. The textile trade has declined, and the city was the scene of riots in 1995 and 2001.

Today, it has a hole in its heart. A 15-acre site in the centre has been empty since demolition work began in 2004 to make way for a 320m shopping centre.

Sadly, work has stalled due to the recession.

More positively, hi-tech businesses such as set top box maker Pace have established their headquarters in the Bradford district.

"People in Bradford are very enterprising and very hard working,'' said Mr Bashir. "Bradford has a growing population, which is an asset but it also has its dangers. If this population feels neglected and feels it hasn't got a future that causes dangers.

"The other challenge for Bradford is that, unfortunately – I'm not blaming any particular community – there has been a ghetto-isation of different communities.

"Largely, there has been 'white-flight'. A lot of white people have re-located to the outskirts. A lot of Asian people have located in the centre of the city.

"I feel this is unhelpful. I passionately believe we must live together and work together and share experiences.

"This gets rid of any misconceptions and any negative feelings about others. But Bradford's restaurants are a beacon of hope – not only Zouk but others have become national brands."

Mr Bashir, an engineering graduate from Bradford University, worked in his

father's fabric business before opening a mini market in Whetley Lane, Bradford.

A trip to Lahore in Pakistan in 1978 proved the catalyst for his restaurant empire.

He was impressed by the quality of the city's cuisine, and believed he could introduce it to a Bradford audience.

He recalled: "Sure enough, within a year, I had opened my very first restaurant (the Kebabeesh in Whetley Lane) in Bradford."

An engineering degree might not seem to be an obvious qualification for a restaurateur.

"I wasn't a professional in the trade, but I did a lot of research," Mr Bashir said.

"I thought I knew the psyche of the English customer. What I learned very quickly, was that they had negative perceptions of Indian and Pakistani restaurants.

"They had an image that the kitchens were dirty and the standards were very low. Some of them even claimed that they (the restaurants) used dog food to cook their food. I thought this was not on.

"One of the things I decided to do was break that negative perception. One way of doing that was to open up my kitchen. I wanted to make sure that the chefs were very visible and they had high standards of hygiene.

"I put big windows on all sides so people could see in. That got a lot of people through the door who wouldn't normally have come in."

The Zouk restaurant in Bradford, which was founded by Mr Bashir in 2006 with his sons Mudassar and Tayub, can accommodate more than 100 diners. In November 2008, Mr Bashir invested 1m in a restaurant in Chester Street, Manchester.

"A Zouk restaurant is going to be built in the centre of Liverpool in the next 18 months,'' he said.

"After Liverpool, we are looking at London, because we believe that once you get a presence in the capital you get recognised throughout the country.

"We as a family have been out to Bahrain, Milan, the US and Turkey. We are looking at these sites to develop abroad."

Mr Bashir has flown out to help people affected by the floods in north-west Pakistan, which have killed more than 1,500 people.

Mr Bashir said: "It's a colossal tragedy. Fourteen million people are on the road with no shelter. They have very little clothing apart from what they've got on their backs. Their livestock is in peril or has drowned. Their farmland is under water.

"As the water recedes there are the chances of other water-borne diseases, such as cholera, coming in. Lots of people are dying due to snake bites. The death toll is going to rise.

"A handful of business people met (in Bradford) and raised 17,000.

"I'm hoping the figure will be 30,000 by the time I fly out. With this money, I intend to buy provisions for these destitute people."

His heart may be in Bradford, but, like many migrants, Mr Bashir will never forget his childhood home.


Title: Owner, Zouk tea bar and grill

Date of birth: September 17, 1952

Education: Thornton Grammar School, University of Bradford

Favourite song: Any Indian, Turkish and North African music

Last book read: Michael Crick's biography of Sir Alex Ferguson.

Favourite holiday destination: The Middle East, Morocco, Turkey and Egypt.

Car: BMW 535 Sport

First job: Working with Kodak after taking a degree in chemical engineering.

The thing you are most proud of: My family.