The founder and Managing Director of the award winning Akbar’s chain of restaurants, had intended to become a carpenter/joiner until a decline in trade when he left Tong School meant that he couldn’t find an apprenticeship.
“One Sunday morning the milkman came to collect the money and asked my dad why I was always sat at home and not out working. He suggested that I go work for his cousin who had an Indian restaurant in Keighley. It was really horrible. No one came in until 11pm at night and it was very rough. It was the worst experience of my life with fights every night until it closed around 4am. The customers were terrible and I couldn’t stand the aggravation and long hours, so I left after six weeks. I then started at a more upmarket restaurant in Bradford city centre with a nice clientele who dined at 7.30pm and left by 11pm. I soon adjusted to the atmosphere and settled in. I discovered that I loved talking to people and found the job easier every day. It didn’t take long to find that I was the best of the fourteen waiters employed there and I decided that this was my new career.
I knew then that one day I was going to open my own restaurant but not until I knew every job inside out myself. I had seen the owner blackmailed by chefs and staff and I wanted to be in complete control. So over the next few years I set out to learn everything I could; spending a year behind the bar, two and a half years cooking, eighteen months running the restaurant and six months back of house in the prep area. I then went to work at four different restaurants for six months to see what they did well.
Back in the 1980s there was no element of formal training in Asian restaurants. When I enrolled on the two year City & Guilds course at Bradford College to train to be a chef in 1986, I was the only Asian guy in the whole of the three or four hundred catering students. I was really pleased when I
saw another Asian face but it turned out he was Italian! Aldo de Vittoris was a lovely lad and we are still friends. The class and the teachers were all wonderful. The cuisine itself including nothing Asian – much of it was French, though it covered other territories. But I was so experienced that I felt one step ahead and what I learnt was really useful, for instance, when I was making presentations. The desserts were fantastic, and although a lot of them would not fit on our menus, I still cook them at home.
Lecturer, Mr Schwaller, was the best guy that I have ever encountered in this industry. He had that panache and was so good at what he did that I just loved to watch him in at lunchtimes when he was running the dining room. I told him he was my role model and that I would love to be him. He said to me ‘Anything is this world is possible – it just depends on how badly you really want it.’ I remember asking him, ‘Anything?’ and he talked to me about how men had learned to fly. This was my most valuable lesson and I believe it is true today.”
Shabir's vision and thorough business planning paid dividends and since the opening of his first Akbar's restaurant in Bradford in 1965, his empire and reputation have continued to grow. He currently haas nine restaurants, in Bradford, Leeds, Manchester, York, Sheffield, Middlesbrough and Birmingham, with more in the pipeline. "My name as an individual and as a company speaks so strongly in the UK in my industry, that everywhere I go people welcome Akbar's."
Shabir is thoroughly committed to Bradford and presently lives in the house formerly owned by Ernest Busby, who built a department store that was in its day, Bradford's answer to Harrods. Similarly ambitious and committed to excellence, he feels a strong connection with the businessman who created such a memorable and well-loved Bradford brand, and he has spent time investigating Busby's history.
"I am sick of the negative press that Bradford receives and so I deliberately branded my restaurants 'Akbar's of Bradford.' I am a true, patriotic Bradfordian. I believe in Bradford College and what it did for me. I now employ four hundred people and I have one hundred and twenty-two of them training at Bradford College on various courses."