23 May 2022

The man behind one of Derry's most well known and long standing restaurants tells his story

Suki Nagra of Saffron says his wife Sukhjit had been integral to its success

Suki Nagra

Fom left Reece, Suki, Shannice, Sukhjit and Anil.

Suki Nagra is the man behind Derry's longest running restaurant, but as the song goes 'behind every great man, there has to be great woman', or in this case two.
His mum Shinder has been at his side since he opened India House in the early 80s and his wife Sukhjit has helped him build Saffron into the multifaceted business that it is today.
Suki's dad Tara moved to Derry in the early 1960s where he joined his brother-in-laws as a door to door clothes salesman
"At the start they were working with a bike and suitcase," Suki recalls.

"To begin with they didn't have much English, maybe just one or two words.
"The thing was, people didn't have to pay immediately, they would pay it off over 6 or 8 weeks and so you always hoped they would buy something else within that time.
"In the way that the Chinese community have always been involved in food, the Indian community has always been involved in what we used to call the rag trade.
"They were pretty much all self employed.
"Another thing was they were able to do business in both communities- the green and the orange because they weren't involved in those things."
Just three years later Tara had earned enough to buy a house and a car and wife and sons came and joined him in Derry.
Suki was roped in to help his father from an early age and he remembers the warm welcome they got across the city.
"He did big business in the Bogside and Creggan because there were so many houses there," he says.
"People were so polite and honest and friendly.
"The one thing we didn't have was racism.
"My wife grew up in Coventry and she encountered racism on a daily basis.
"But we didn't have that.
"People would say 'there's the black man', but it wasn't malicious.
"They were just saying what they saw.
"I have never faced racism. When other Indian families on the mainland hear that they are shocked.
"I think the key to it is integration.
"There are so few Asian families here that we have to integrate.
"On the mainland the communities are so big they feel they don't have to integrate.
"You have second generation people who don't speak English, because they don't have to."
Suki had a happy childhood, growing up in Danesfort and then Kingsfort and attending the Model Primary School followed by Foyle and Londonderry College.
"I absolutely loved Foyle," he recalled.
"I was very into sports and I was mad into rugby,"
His mum Shinder worked at the Rosemount shirt factory for 25 years before a five year stint at the Peter England factory.

She would drop her three sons to school at 8.15am before heading on to work.
By the time she got home in the evening Suki would have the dinner ingredients laid out ready for her.
Shinder was an excellent cook and Suki, a self confessed foodie, was the grateful recipient of her beautiful dishes.
After years of working door to door his dad opened Tara Fashions in Carlisle Road in 1972, but three years later it was bombed.
Suki, then 11 year-old, remembers the bomb men coming into the shop to tell his father they had left two devices outside the building and ordering him not to move.
Mr Nagra took his son by the hand and walked out past them saying 'they are your bombs, you can wait here 15 minutes'.
Throughout his school days Suki worked for his father, but at 17 he branched out and got his first job working for Peter Brady at Mason's Bar on Magazine Street, collecting glasses and mopping floors.
For the shy teenager from a strict home working in the bars of Derry was a real eye opener.
"On a Thursday night they would have the Colmcille Debating Society.
"I had come from a very sheltered Indian background and this was just amazing for me.
"And then on a Friday you had 'Toe Jam' playing which was Gerry Anderson and Colm Arbuckle.
"That was a very different experience and it taught me to lip read because you couldn't hear a thing," he laughs.
A job in 'New York, New York' on the Strand Road followed.
Suki says he was able to save all his wages because he didn't drink or smoke and clubbing had never appealed to him.
He left Foyle in 5th year to do his A-levels at the tec and then headed off to the University of Manchester to do a degree in Mechanical Engineering.  
"I quickly learnt it wasn't the degree for me," he admits.

But with £2,700 in his pocket from his jobs back in Derry Suki had the money to sample Manchester's bustling Indian restaurant quarter, famously known as the 'Curry Mile'.
"There I was at the age of 18 sitting ordering food and getting it brought to me and I was thinking 'this is a really great concept, it could really take off'.
"There were about 30 restaurants and I think I tried them all."

Education, education, education
At the end of his first year Suki informed the university that he was leaving, but his father had other ideas.
"He lost it and said 'you have no choice but to go back," Suki says with a smile.
"Every Indian parent bar none is about education, education, education."
"That's why the Indian community in Derry has stayed small, because their parents told them to go and get an education and then they never came back."
Suki invited his respected friend Harvans (Banse) Sangha to visit him in Manchester to see if he thought that a curry house could work in Derry.
Banse agreed it would and the pair started to put the wheels in motion for what was to become India House.
Suki tried to leave university again at the end of his second year, but once again his father sent him back.
After working for two summers at the Bass Ireland Brewery Suki had saved a healthy sum of money.
In June 1984 he graduated from the University of Manchester and his restaurant dream finally began to take shape.
But attracting a world class chef to Derry during The Troubles wasn't easy.
A family friend of Banse, Joginder Sunner, who came from a wealthy family of supermarket owners stepped in to help.
"He was almost like a playboy and he went around all the best discos and restaurants," says Suki.
"He took me to Stringfellow's in London and ordered two bottles of champagne.
"I went into the toilet to be sick because I didn't drink and when I came out he had ordered another bottle.
"I remember being sick in the car on the way home too."
Joginder introduced Suki and Banse to Shingha Raj Shrestha, an Asian masterchef who had trained in both Chinese and Indian cuisine.
After tasting his food they knew if they could bring him to Derry their business couldn't fail.
Suki and Banse had one year to learn everything they could from Shingha before he returned to England.
"Banse learnt the curries and I learnt the tandoori," Suki explains.
On November 25, 1984 Suki and Banse opened India House on the Carlisle Road, above his father's clothes shop.
The restaurant got off to a slow start and after two years it's future was in doubt. 
But after diversifying into takeaways it began to flourish and  eventually took over the basement and ground level of the building where they stayed for 29 years.

Suki meets Sukhjit
Suki was so busy at India House  he had little time for romance.
In the late 1980s he was introduced to his wife Sukhjit in England.
"I met her at 10.30am and by 12 we were engaged," he laughs.
He didn't see his beautiful fiancee again until their wedding in her home city of Coventry a year and a half later.
The couple had conducted their courtship over the phone, and she had never met his family or been to Derry.
It was a difficult transition for Sukhjit, who was just 19 when she married 27-year-old Suki.
The couple were living with Suki's parents, his three brothers and their wives in a large house in Gleneagles.
"I didn't appreciate at the time how hard it was for her," he admits.
"When I look back it wasn't fair."
The couple have now been married for 30 years and have three children.
Reece, Shanice and Anil have all worked in the family business,but none of them want to go into the restaurant trade.
"It doesn't suit everybody," Suki admits.
"My wife has said on many occasions that the sacrifices that were made were too high and that she would discourage people."
The other big female influence in Suki's life is his mum Shinder, who has worked with him since the day he opened India House.
Now 82, she still makes samosas, onion bhajis and vegetable pakoras every day from her own recipe.
"My mum says 'I sent my children to university to better themselves and my son came back and made me wash all the dishes in Derry'," laughs Suki.

"She doesn't have to work but she does it because she enjoys it and i have the greatest admiration for her."
After raising her children Sukhjit studied law at Ulster University Magee and went on to work as a legal secretary.
Everything was going well for the couple in their home and  professional lives, but in the late noughties they were hit by a series of major setbacks.

Weathering the storm
In 2007 Suki's business partner Banse took ill and had to undergo a heart by-pass,from which he thankfully recovered.
The following year Sukhjit was diagnosed with a brain tumour, which doctors thought she wouldn't survive.
Suki believes it was his wife's will power that pulled her through her illness,  but she still had to undergo a year of rehabilitation during which she learnt how to walk again.
Despite the death of her father while she was battling the tumour, Sukhjit fought her way back to full health.
"One thing Sukhjit has always had is her drive," says Suki.
"She had to lean on me for the first time.
"Like all couples we have had our ups and down, but I think we were stronger after that."
But what he didn't know at the time was that Sukhjit was about to help him too.
Derry was hit by a recession in the late 2000s and business was starting to get tough. 
Carlisle Road was no longer a main thoroughfare and there was increasing competition in the city.
Suki and Banse had to decide  whether to scale back the business or relaunch it.
He already owned the ground floor of 2 Clarendon Street which had recently been vacated by another restaurant and he took the bold move of buying the two floors above it.
The plan was to open a new city centre restaurant with a glamorous, modern feel.
"This all sounded great but it turned out the banks had no appetite for the restaurant scene in Derry," says Suki who was left with a 'serious dilemma'.
"It's like an aircraft taking off, once you hit a certain speed you just have to keep going otherwise the financial implications would be terrible," he says.

This was the lowest point of Suki's professional life. Up until then his work ethic had seen him through.
He had loyal staff, some of whom had been there from the beginning, and ran the restaurant with a series of systems that he had devised himself.
"Consistency is something that people like and week in and week out they knew what they were getting," he says.
But it was starting to seem that this wasn't enough to keep the business afloat and by the Christmas of 2011 Suki was struggling to see a way forward.
It was at this point that Sukhjit stepped in.
"She said to me 'we'll get this sorted' and through family and friends- mainly her family and her friends- she managed to raise quite a substantial amount of money.
"It was given freely and it really was quite a large sum. In the past I had helped people and now people were helping me."
The couple's family and friends loaned them the money with no guarantee of getting it back, but they have all since been repaid.
Sukhjit's flair for interior design was put to good use in Saffron,which opened in 2013 and is one of the most cosmopolitan eating destinations in the city.
Seeing a gap in the market for healthy indian food Sukhjit went on to create a low fat menu for the restaurant and in 2015 she helped her husband to create a range of low fat, high protein ready meals.
His 'Suki's Kitchen' range now supplies 22 supermarkets.
In the same year Banse, who was now in his late 60s, retired from the business.
Suki says expanding the business in different directions has been the key to its success.
"We have the restaurant, the takeaway and the ready meal business and they all compliment each other.
"You have to keep moving or you go backwards."
And he credits his wife as the key to his continued success.
"All the traits that were my weaknesses are Sukhjit's strengths and I just couldn't have done it without her."

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