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Faz Ahmed delivers Curry By Air [Interview]

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Shaping Director Stef Nienaltowski caught up with Faz Ahmed, co-owner of The Akash restaurant in Albert Road, to talk about the recent Curry By Air event which took the area by storm. Every major network ran the story, resulting in national interest.

Stef Nienaltowski: Good afternoon, I'm sat here with Faz, the co-owner of the Akash restaurant, and this time we're going to talk about Curry by Air, so good afternoon.

Faz Ahmed: Good afternoon Stef, good seeing you.

SN: Thank you, well, for those who are listening to this, I've just tasted the wonderful food in this restaurant. Before we talk about Curry by Air, can you tell us how it all got started?

FA: So, people from abroad will always complain how bad the curry was, so, Australia's really bad, and they would say "why don't you take one over there?" and the guy we did it for, James Emery, this is the first Indian restaurant he came in, he was five years old I think, and he would always complain. He has it mega hot, he has a phall, the hottest one, so he can have it mega hot, and the French haven't quite caught up with the English.

The English have caught up with us, we got lots of Vindaloo orders, and Phalls and what have you, and he would say that we should take one over to him, and then a guy called Roy Bushan a couple of years ago now, he took £150 worth of takeaway, and I said to him "where's that going?" and he said "oh, I'm an ex-pat, I live in Normandy, and the curries are so bad that we take them over, and freeze them there to eat on Christmas Day for his Christmas dinner. Traditionally me and my wife have a curry for Christmas Dinner". Even I don't have a curry for Christmas dinner! And then it got me thinking, I thought, James, I really want to take one out there for you, because you're a loyal customer. Originally, I was going to ferry it across, but he works in the aviation industry, so as you see he works for AEPS [Aviation Engineering & Planning Services - Ed] and he said to me, I can probably sort out a plane. From there it just kinda happened really.

SN: And that leads me to my second question. The word's often overused, but I don't think in this case it is, it's been a phenomenal success in such a short space of time. So where do you see it going now?

FA: Well, no-one would have imagined! I spoke to a few other people about it before, and no-one said to me "watch out, it's going to be a storm!" but I think I didn't tell them the full story, because they're all ex-pats, they're all English people in France, missing their curry, I said we're going to fly a curry over to France and that's it. Everything when you piece it together, it was quite a story. I looked back and thought, well actually, it was quite a story. But where next, I don't know, people have said to me, Space, the Moon...

SN: [laughs]

FA: I need to talk to NASA, but, I don't know really, it wasn't intended like anything, it was just a normal thing that we wanted to do for our customer.

SN: And literally took off!

FA: Literally took off! But we're working on many projects inside of Portsmouth, we're working with Pompey in the Community as you know, and a few other projects we're working on, so we're working on other different things, but I don't know if I'll ever top this one.

SN: You may not! And just staying on that theme, because whenever there's a great success story, and Curry by Air is a great success story, there's always those dissenting voices saying, "It's a publicity stunt for the restaurant". Now, I know you don't make a bean out of this, so what would you say to those people who are saying it's a publicity stunt?

FA: Well, I spoke to journalists before about it, and no-one raved about it and said it's going to be a thing. James is a genuine customer, he's been coming in since he was 5, so it wasn't someone that was random. He loves the place, absolutely adores it, he has a connection, it was his first curry house. Genuinely the French can't have it hotter, they can't even get the spices out there, so when I was there, they said to me, you should open one up here, and I said obviously I've got Portsmouth, it's too much for me. But they said they can't even get the spices.

One gentleman I spoke to he said, he made it himself, I think he got someone to send the spices over. So, it was a genuine thing, I mean, whatever publicity we got was a bonus, but we didn't look at that first and foremost. He told me he can get 150 ex-pats that need a curry fix! I've never done this before, let's limit it to about 30-50, see how this one gets on, and then we'll go from there. So, there is market there, it can be done, they're telling him to go out there, do it, obviously it was an expensive operation, but like I said, any publicity was great but I wouldn't say that was the main reason we did this.

SN: No, exactly. And just on that point, because as you say, because you use aircraft, and there's take-off fees and landing fees, and obviously logistics, what practical and particularly financial help would you need to maintain this brilliant project?

FA: It is quite expensive, it was a case of small businesses coming together, a lot of them I met through Shaping, obviously you're involved, and we have these conferences and what have you, I met a lot of people, and I said look, I've got this idea. And you know when you meet someone face to face, and it's like, I like this guy, I think this is going to work. So, then they put a bit in, some of the local businesses, as you can see these are Portsmouth businesses mainly. James took care of the French side, but these are small French businesses as well. RS Aero Formation have I believe one aircraft, which we took. You obviously know Southsea Laundry, who are quite a small business, we met them through Shaping, not just the businesses, but you introduced us to Express, Miles, I spoke to Miles way before it got big, and I said "we're going to do this, would it be something you'd be interested in covering?" he said "yeah no problem" - as he always does, you know, he's always really good. It's those community based companies that really help it, and then I approached one international companies, two international companies, one national company, and I said, you know, and they said, I knew someone in there, and they said "we'll pass it on to xyz" you know, I never met them, we're doing it by emails because they're in London, or wherever they were, and they just said "we don't think it's going to get coverage" or "we don't see any benefits in us investing any money". It was quite nice, because it was always small companies, Portsmouth based companies that did it, and the big ones said it's not for them, and it's a good success. It kinda showed them that if small businesses get together they can do so much, and we're working with so many small businesses now, you don't need these big ones who will come in, ok they might have the resources or the cash, but if everyone pitches in a little bit, and we made it work by everyone pitching in.

SN: Yes indeed. So, listen, it's amazing how quickly time goes, I love listening to you because of your passion and what you do for the City, and we're very proud to be associated with the Akash restaurant, you know how proud we are to do that...

FA: We're very proud to be associated with you

SN: Well, thank you very much indeed. But, I can't leave the listeners without that little date. Is there a date for this year’s event?

FA: We're working on smaller things. I wouldn't say there was a date, because the logistical side just took so long, and companies, as I said the big companies, some of them pulled out which prolonged it. A: I need a rest! and B: I wouldn't like to say, there are a couple of things that are, we're working on. I think get the smaller community stuff done, and then there will be another big one...

SN: A big something.

FA: ...yeah, I'll leave it as that.

SN: Indeed. Thank you, if it's not Curry by Air, it'll be something equally as exciting. And I know how passionate you are also about Pompey in the Community, and your support for that. I know you're a trustee now, and again, you're very privileged to be that, so I know you work very closely with them as well.

FA: Yeah, I mean, they're brilliant. I've been a trustee for about 5 or 6 month, but I've been working with Clare Martin for the last 10 years. She's just fantastic, absolutely fantastic. We've run so many community projects with her. We've said "we've got xyz ideas" and she'll come and say "I'll make it work" and she does - she does! And a lot of her work goes unpraised, and she's just always there saying "we can do this, we'll give PE lesson there, we'll give tickets to your community" you know, she just really wants to involve an integrate everyone, which is what I think we're all about really, aren't we, but Clare's got, with the Football Club, she's got the power really, and it's great to see, and we're all very Passionately Portsmouth, as Express say, and we just try and make this City the best. I think we all work together, which I think we're doing, and Shaping's doing you know, bringing us a lot closer together with a lot more businesses that we hadn't met. Express is one example you introduced us, and the relationship from nothing to this short space of time. I met Miles, I don't know, when did you introduce us?

SN: Yeah, sort of October last year?

FA: October last year, so not even a year. From that space of time, how we've progressed, it's unreal, and that's what we all need to do really.

SN: Indeed. Faz, as always, thank you very much indeed.

FA: Thank you very much.

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