Indian restaurant Paradise is a phenomenon – three huge branches on the same small city block. Yet its biggest competitor is run by a co-founder, finds Duncan Greive, and their breakup has fuelled one of Auckland’s most intense food rivalries.
“They paved a parking lot and put up a Paradise,” a Sandringham friend told me a while ago. He had introduced me to the restaurant a few years before, and now qualifies as almost a cult-like devotee. While rightly pleased with his excellent inversion of the Joni Mitchell lyric, he’s not the only one to wonder why Paradise has opened three restaurants all within a few metres of each other.
First came the main restaurant, at the western end of the Sandringham Rd shops, then the buffet around the corner, where you pay $20 to eat as much curry as you can (a tip: it’s probably less than you think). Now they’ve shifted the takeaway operation into a new triple-width venue a few shops down, which was until recently a mechanic’s garage.
The only reason Paradise can keep opening these increasingly monstrous premises (they’re not done either – expansion of the restaurant is also well underway), all on the same city block, is that people are obsessed with Paradise. Like, queue for ages on a cold winter’s night obsessed. Seven hundred kilos of lamb and a tonne of chicken a week obsessed. 100 staff over just three locations obsessed.
All over “good, authentic food at a reasonable price”, according to Salah Mohammed, who runs the business with his younger brother Waseem. This is manifestly not nearly a hard enough sell for what comes out of his kitchens. The expansion has been fueled by an extremely well-executed expression of Mughlai cuisine – including their signature biryani – along with curries and Indo-Chinese dishes, all a riot of colour and flavour.
This has attracted some very prominent patrons and fans. Salah claims John Key and Prince William have dined there, along with the prime minister of Sri Lanka (“I can’t remember his name,” he says with a smile). This is in addition to a steady stream of international cricketers – there’s a loose cricket theme, with signed bats and screens playing lo-res replays of Indian Premier League matches in the restaurant and takeaway.
Aside from the memorabilia, the decor suggests opulence with stacked slate walls, but there are much larger doses of the utilitarian. The emphasis is on hard-wearing furniture and stain-defying carpet, perhaps the only way you can cope with the sheer volume of custom which runs through.
There are plenty of Auckland establishments growing quickly, including several Chinese restaurants which have opened new locations away from their Dominion Rd originals. But none is as vast and imposing as Paradise. Growing any business that fast requires a particular intellect and strong will, and to that mix Paradise’s Salah has added a certain ruthlessness.
Just down the road is Bawarchi. It too makes delicious Hyderabad biryani and has expanded from its original takeaway to become a restaurant, in the process spreading into the premises of the Chinese takeaway and $2 shop that used to be its neighbours.
That’s not the only thing it has in common with its bigger rival. In fact, Bawarchi’s owner was the original co-founder of Paradise. He and Waseem were partners – hardworking young immigrants in their mid-twenties, out to build a business.
Then, somehow, it all fell apart.
“Salah wasn’t even in the picture when two friends started a business,” says Bawarchi’s Azeem Mohammed. He met Waseem in 2002 when he came to New Zealand to study IT. The pair were both from Hyderabad, and became fast friends and, not long after, roommates. Both attended the same Stoddard Rd mosque, as they still do today.
“Everybody there knows about us,” he says. “Everybody talks about our businesses.” Those businesses are rival biryani juggernauts, one crushingly dominant, the other smaller but undaunted – like Sandringham’s own version of the brute force competition between Facebook and Snapchat, only much better smelling.
Waseem was a chef, having learned the family trade from his father, who ran restaurants in Hyderabad, while Azeem was more comfortable with marketing and communications. The first restaurant the pair ran was Biryani House, which they built in the shell of a former internet café in 2006. Council took months to approve its conversion to hospitality, and the pair spent the time painting, installing the kitchen and even building the chairs themselves. Waseem was waiting on his residency, so worked in IT by day before coming across to run the night shift. It was exhausting but exhilarating work.
He achieved residency in 2008, and wanted to work on Biryani House full-time. They cashed out, selling it to a friend, and Azeem and Waseem decided to open a new restaurant away from Sandringham’s Indian community, at a site adjacent to the iconic KFC on Ponsonby Rd.
The name they chose was Paradise.
Things went well for the first couple of years, though the pair realised that the distance between Ponsonby and Sandringham, cultural as well as geographic, was enough to prevent some in their community from traveling. “We always had a feeling that if we did something in Sandringham it would do good,” says Azeem, somewhat wistfully.
Anna King Shahab, who wrote approvingly about Paradise in a 2014 ‘food neighbourhoods’ Metro column on Sandringham, says it’s followed nearby Balmoral to the upper echelons of our local food culture. The suburb has become a key centre for Auckland’s Indian community, with a recent Asia NZ report on ‘the evolving ethnoscapes of Auckland’ noting that the proportion of its population identifying as Indian has increased over the past 30 years, changing the nature of its shopping district. While many suburban high streets have stagnated, Sandringham’s has been reborn. “It’s growing like a little India,” says Salah.
Paradise has been well-placed to profit from that – like Dominion Rd’s original breakout star Barilla, it drew crowds which created a kind of human advertising. But while Barilla’s crowd gradually whitened, Paradise remains mostly peopled by crowds of South Asian ethnicity. King Shahab recalls a couple she spoke to at the time who’d driven across from Howick. “They told me ‘this is the best Indian food in Auckland’,” she recalls.
Cassia, which creates modern Indian and has twice won Auckland restaurant of the year, might have something to say about that, but its proprietors Sid and Chand Sahrawat are said to be big fans of Paradise, too. Paradise has been named to Metro’s Cheap Eats top 10, and Kim Knight’s recent Herald review called it both “insanely cheap” and “bone-suckingly good”.
Despite the critical consensus, it’s a people’s restaurant, and Salah views the plaudits with something like suspicion. “We don’t want any media certificates or anything like that,” he says. “If they give, we appreciate. But if my customer is happy, that’s enough for me.”
The phenomenon began thanks to a brave move by Azeem and Waseem. While Ponsonby was going well for them, the pair became interested in a small site that became available toward the Mt Albert Rd end of the Sandringham shops. The pair signed the lease on this second premise in July of 2010.
Around the same time, Waseem’s older brother Salah was looking to exit a restaurant he was running in Sydney. He doesn’t want to talk about the circumstances surrounding the departure, except to say “there was a problem with my partner”. He and his family flew across to Auckland to join his younger brother Waseem and his fledgling enterprise.
What happened next is a little murky. When I initially speak to him, Salah doesn’t make any reference to the Ponsonby iteration of Paradise, instead emphasising the primacy of the Sandringham location. “In Auckland, you see that Sandringham is near the city, plus you will find other places, other shops which Indians go to – grocery shops and restaurants,” he said. “I thought it would be a good idea to open here.”
The only time he mentions Azeem’s Bawarchi is to accuse him of plagiarising Paradise. “They used to work here, in my restaurant. It’s good if we’ve got competition. But I don’t feel, at this stage, this is the competition for me,” he says. “They are copying whatever we do.”
This is probably not fair – as well as being a Paradise co-founder, and one who has become an accomplished chef in his own right, Azeem has built Bawarchi into a place considered the equal of Paradise by the likes of Anna King Shahab. ‘Paradise without the queues’ is how she sees it. Bawarchi also has its own distinctive signature dishes, including bheja fry – masala brains.
When I put Salah’s characterisation to Azeem, he demurs, not wanting to be drawn into a fight with his old friend and former business. He also won’t detail the specifics of the breakdown. “There are some facts behind the scenes which are buried,” he says. “We had some miscommunications, like friends do.”
What he will admit is that the aftermath of the breakup was hard on him. In a few short months he went from a longstanding business partnership and personal friendship with Waseem to nothing at all. He was offered the chance to run the Ponsonby branch, but baulked at the idea and handed back the keys before the year was out.
Azeem lost not only his business, but his best friend. “It was a bit of a rough time for me,” he says. “I ended up driving a taxi at that time.”
While Azeem was driving his cab, Waseem and Salah’s Paradise was starting to really gather momentum. There have been great Indian restaurants in Sandringham for a long time – most notably Satya, with its renowned dahi puri, for example (Satya’s Sandringham location is itself evolving: a shipping container down an adjacent houses its Spice and Chai Shop, one of Auckland’s most fun bars).
Paradise, though, was something else again. Other local proprietors must have watched in envy as their custom trickled away, and a number of familiar Sandringham sights have disappeared, including an excellent Gujarati vegetarian in Jai Jalaram Khaman and a biryani pioneer, Top in Town. The latter was what Biryani House became after Azeem and Waseem sold it; now it’s just another a casualty of the biryani battles.
For all the choice you have clustered in that compressed run of shops, something about the pace, price and rich flavours of Paradise quickly made it a magnet in the years after it opened in Sandringham. Queues would spill out the door of both the restaurant and the small takeaway bar they ran next next door. Around mealtimes traffic, already slow through the Sandringham Rd shops, would be right down to a crawl. Those driving might not all have been wanting to eat there, but it felt like it.
To fuel this growth Salah needed more chefs with the specific skills needed to cook their Hyderabadi cuisine. He would return to India to find them, and once located sign them to two-year contracts so as to bring a semblance of order to the inevitable chaos of a growing kitchen. Yet as quickly as a new recruit filled a hole, another was created.
“The problem is with the staff. What we do normally is we bring the staff from overseas. Here we don’t find the chefs. But when they come, if they want to move, they will move,” he says. “Keeping them is hard.
“If you’re paying properly, when they sign the contract for two years, they should stay at least for two years. But if they find people giving them more money, they will move. And you can’t stop them.”
There’s a sense of tension between what might be agreed in good faith in India, and the realities of New Zealand’s employment law – though it’s easy to have sympathy for both parties. Certainly from Salah’s perspective, the loss of chefs is part of what has made his operation hard to run. Despite all the hard work he puts in – “seven days a week, 8-12 hours a day” – he rates Paradise as only about 60-70 percent of the level he aspires to for food and service.
Being able to retain staff is critical in moving that number north. There are multiple challenges, most pressingly our rapidly evolving immigration debate. Paradise’s entire business model, which also employs dozens of young New Zealanders, pivots on a steady stream of relatively cheap Indian-sourced chefs. Changes by National are making getting them harder; changes by a Labour-Greens-NZ First coalition might make it impossible.
“We’re afraid,” he says. “It’s very hard to pay that much. If it gets hard, I can’t run my business – we sell at a reasonable price. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
As well as immigration, he’s also challenged by others eyeing his key staff. When asked to say which restaurants have Paradise chefs in their kitchen, he is willing to name only Bawarchi. (Azeem says he has only ever employed one ex-Paradise chef.)
When we first speak, Salah refers to them only as poaching Paradise’s style and chefs – neglecting to mention that its owner also co-founded his restaurant, prior to his arrival. “Other people want the Paradise chef, because we’re going good,” he says. “So they think that if they get the Paradise chef they’ll do as good. That’s the problem – otherwise we would have opened at least 10-12 restaurants in New Zealand.”
Perhaps that’s a good thing. Chain Indian restaurants have an indifferent history here – Little India closed its cavernous Kingsland branch recently, and most have tended to target those wanting a creamy, sugary anglicised version of the cuisine. The three Salah has to run are plenty enough work, anyway – the 100 plus staff he oversees could probably run 10 smaller locations. In some ways, Paradise has the scale of a chain, only intensely concentrated.
A big operation inevitably means excess production. The restaurant industry – and Western food production generally – is notorious for wastage, yet Paradise has chosen to give away their excess. ‘Paradise – Free food for people in need’ the sign reads, above a chiller filled with leftovers. He says a trickle come through on a daily basis, only a dozen or so. That changed briefly when a news story appeared on the Herald about it, when he got 40 in the door.
The startling thing, though, is less the charity than people’s response to it.
“I’ve seen the feedback. Some people are saying ‘look after your family’. Or, ‘look after your staff’. But, see, this is the food industry. You know how much food we make every day. And I’m not doing anything extra. I’m not putting some money into [the free food]. Whatever we make, if it is extra, then we are packing the food and keeping it in the cabinet instead of throwing it in the bin. For my family I’m doing the business,” he laughs. “I want to clarify that – I’m not putting any single dollar into this one.”
It’s a bleak indictment on our times when a restaurateur donating food feels he has to make it clear it’s not costing him money, but here we are.
It’s Sunday evening and we’re at Paradise with friends and our appallingly behaved children. After we’ve eaten we head over to the takeaway to get a butter chicken to go. It’s 6.15pm and heaving, with the crowd about 90 percent South Asian. As Salah says, Paradise is a community phenomenon. Driving home, we pass Bawarchi, harsh lights blaring in the early evening. The crowd here is orders of magnitude smaller than at Paradise, but it’s building.
There’s an unresolved rivalry going on, for sure, but you get the impression that the loser in Sandringham’s battle of the biryani will not be either of these restaurants, but every other eatery in the city.