We find out the secrets to his success and what lies in store for the future
There are few restaurants in Cardiff that can claim they have customers who fly over from Paris especially to dine with them. But then, Grangetown’s Vegetarian Food Studio is not like most restaurants. The family-run Indian eatery has defied the recession, expanding to capacity while other restaurants have been forced to close their doors for good, and has done so without serving meat or alcohol, or compromising on their generously low prices.
Neil Patel is the creative brains behind this thriving business. “When I started off I wasn’t expecting it to be so big,” the head chef explains. “It was just a small thing and then it gradually picked up.” Born in Grangetown in 1981, Neil’s passion for cooking was ignited as a child, helping his grandmother prepare food for the people of the local community working to build the Hindu temple in Mardy Street. “The next thing, he picked it up,” says Neil’s father, Jim Patel. “He picked up cooking from there. My mum trained him.”
After graduating from university in Birmingham with a first class degree, Neil was determined to open his own restaurant back in his home town. In 2004, with the help of his family, along with money he had saved from selling his homemade samosas and pakoras to local shops in Birmingham during his student days, the Vegetarian Food Studio was born.
Today, almost 8 years on, the restaurant is a thriving part of the Grangetown community. With handfuls of notable accolades to its name, rave reviews in national media and customers travelling from as far as Edinburgh and Paris to sample the food, it’s little wonder that Neil’s restaurant gets booked up five weeks in advance. “We’ve got appointments for January next year,” says his father. “Would you believe that?”
Building up his own business from nothing is, Neil says, the highlight of his career so far, and his family has been key to its success. With his culinary veteran grandmother still lending her hand to making chapattis, his young son helping out with cleaning the tables and Jim’s business acumen taking care of the books, Neil is free to give the food his undivided attention. His average working day, he says, involves a 13-hour stint in the kitchen from 9 o’clock in the morning till 10 at night.
And the proof of his dedication, as they say, is in the pudding. Neil cooks each of the 120 dishes on the menu to order, as well as creating a different meal each day for his student tiffin service, which delivers pre-ordered, freshly made curries to students for an eye-watering £3.50. “It’s been £3.50 ever since we started,” says Jim. “My son doesn’t want to put the price up. He says students can’t afford it.”
Jim attributes his son’s success to the quality of the food, along with the price and the personable service. “Our customers are specialist. They come here to enjoy food, enjoy service and enjoy company,” he says, adding that, “Any customer who comes here is treated like part of the family.”
But the Patel benevolence is not limited to their customer service. For the last five years, Neil has been supplying Cardiff’s homeless community with his curries. Once a week he delivers 50 freshly made meals to street carer Graham Bird, who then hands them out. “I’ve got tremendous admiration,” says Graham, explaining that the Vegetarian Food Studio is the only local business that brings food out to the streets. “These are the things which never get in the newspapers,” he adds.
But despite the indisputable popularity of the restaurant and being active members of the community, Neil and Jim’s plans to expand the business have come up against some major obstacles. After buying larger premises three doors along from the Vegetarian Food Studio, Neil and his family have found their planning applications repeatedly rejected. Described by Neil as the worst challenge of his career, he and his father have spent the last 14 months attempting to meet the council demands, all the while paying the region of £3,000 a month on the property in mortgage payments and administrative costs.
However this hasn’t damped the Patels’ enthusiasm to expand. Jim says that even if the worst happens with the Penarth Road property they will find a new site, and talks about turning the Vegetarian Food Studio into a franchise. “I want to take this company for my son to become an icon business of Wales,” he says. Neil’s ambitions are a touch more modest. “My main aim at the moment is just to try and get a bit bigger,” he says. “We’ve got to a stage now where the opportunity’s there, we’re just being held back by the council. They’re not helping small businesses at all.”