Indian History 101: The Mughal emperors who ruled India from 1526 to 1857 built one of the grandest dynasties in history. And from first (Zahiruddin Babur) to last (Bahadur Shah Zafar), they were all connoisseurs of fine food. Fearful of poisoning, emperors dined only in the harem. Their kitchens produced more than 100 dishes for every meal. And since an imperial harem numbered more than 5,000 wives, concubines, and eunuch guards at the height of the dynasty, the scale of cooking was gargantuan. Today, the Great West Road out of London leads to another Indian culinary empire of equally vast proportions. Southall, one of London's oldest and most established Asian communities, is the seat of power of Sir Gulam Kaderbhoy Noon. "The Curry King," as this 68-year-old modern mogul and founder and chairman of Noon Products Ltd. is known, has just built one of the world's largest ethnic food factories, which cooks and ships close to 1 million packaged dinners a week.
These days, chicken tikka masala and rogan josh are as much a part of British life as fish and chips. More than 8,000 restaurants now indulge Britons' love of Indian food, generating revenues of around $3 billion a year. Noon, meanwhile, is leading the assault on supermarkets. The market for chilled (not frozen) pop-in-the-oven dinners is one of the British food industry's most explosive sectors, with annual sales approaching $2 billion. Three-quarters of British households eat such ready meals; market researcher Mintel International says sales of Indian food in supermarkets have surged almost 60% in the past five years. And Noon sits at the head of the table—claiming 35% of the market and $145 million a year in sales.
With an army of some 1,000 workers—mostly Asians from the local community, including Indians, Pakistanis, Tamils, and Afghans—Noon has advanced into mainland Europe, exporting to Belgium, France, Italy, Scandinavia, and Spain. He has embarked on new ventures making Moroccan tajines and Spanish paella. He even exports frozen Chinese meals to Hong Kong.
A day in Noon's $20 million, 100,000-square-foot factory reveals the scale of this titanic takeout. It begins at 6 a.m., when chefs look at estimated orders for tomorrow's meals. By the end of the two-shift day, the factory's kitchens will have served up more than 150,000 meals from a menu of 800 different dishes. Most are Indian, but 72 are Mexican, 40 Thai, and 20 Chinese. The majority of this factory's output is for Sainsbury's, the U.K.'s second-largest supermarket chain. Two more factories in west London supply another half-dozen of the major chains.
At 9 a.m., the supermarkets firm up their orders and the factory crunches into top gear. Raw materials are received, passed through metal detectors (to check for stray bits of machinery and such), and examined for quality. Ingredients for each batch of a recipe are weighed out and piled high on trolleys that are wheeled to huge "bratt" pans and steam kettles. The pans cook 500 pounds of rice at a time—the factory boils 15 tons a day—while the sauces are cooked in 1,000- and 2,000-pound kettles with internal stirrers.
It's the only mechanical movement in the production of sauces, claims executive chef Martin Prasad. "The complexity of Indian sauces means they demand a great deal of human skill," he says. "A typical recipe will have 30 to 40 ingredients and our workers need three to four years of experience before we allow them to make sauces. They need to understand every ingredient and realize how best to bring out the flavor of each."
The cooked products are returned to trolleys, batched, and labeled with precise details of who prepared and cooked them. Then it's into one of five vault-sized blast chillers for cool-down, the critical phase when the risk of contamination is at its greatest.
Further down the line, chicken, salmon, and shrimp are being coated in one of 80 different marinades—inside what look like concrete mixers, which tumble the meat for 45 minutes, 800 pounds at a time. The meats rest on silicone sheets before passing through one of the factory's conveyor-belt tandoori ovens—invented by Noon's own technicians—emerging fully cooked just 10 minutes later. Packaged, wrapped, and labeled, the meals pass through metal detectors one last time. As second-shift workers clock out at 10 p.m., 150,000 meals are on their way in 40-foot trailers to distribution depots and then to supermarkets around Europe, ready for purchase the following morning.
Noon didn't invent the Indian ready meal—but no one has done more to improve its quality and popularity. Raised in Bombay, he took over the family candy business after the death of his father. He brought his business to Britain in the 1960s, was making airline meals by the early 1970s, and had snared the supermarkets by the end of the 1980s. "The number of Indian restaurants was mushrooming all over the country, and I had a hunch that one day Indian food would hit the shelves of the supermarket with a vengeance," says Noon. "But when I started picking up Indian food from the supermarkets, I found it insipid, unattractive, and badly packaged. I knew I could do it better."
With just 11 employees, Noon won an order from Unilever's Birds Eye and was on his way. Despite setbacks that included a fruitless four years in New York trying to sell chilled and frozen Indian food, a devastating factory fire, and a disappointing foray into restaurants, Noon says that over the past decade his sales have doubled every two years.
He enjoys the trappings that come with running an empire. He was a recent president of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the first nonwhite holder of the post in its 152-year history. And in 2002, the Queen made him a knight. Noon appears to be a benign emperor—he has given $6 million to medical research and educational projects through the Noon Foundation. He is also a trustee of the Maimonides Foundation, an organization that promotes Jewish-Muslim cooperation.
Shrabani Basu, author of Curry: The Story of the Nation's Favorite Dish (Sutton Publishing, 2003), says Noon's critics fret that his success is now hurting those 8,000 Indian restaurants. For his part, Noon shrugs off the concerns. "The restaurants were the pioneers, creating a taste for India. But I have broadened the base," he declares. "Now every Englishman wants to eat curry." Like all emperors, he can afford to be gracious in victory. nFC
Sidebar: Recipe for success: 5 Indian takeaways
1. Keep it real. Noon won't use additives, colorings, or flavorings in his food. A team travels frequently to India to source quality spices, and he has established a company in India to buy, hand-clean, and grind spices.
2. Talent matters. Noon has attracted some of the world's top Indian chefs. In his development kitchen, six such chefs are charged with ensuring the quality and authenticity of dishes, as well as with developing new products.
3. Stay close. Noon's workers regularly play cricket with suppliers and travel with customers. Two years ago, Noon and supermarket chain Sainsbury's sent a joint team to India to taste local foods. Result: a more exotic line of regional dishes.
4. Cater to precise tastes. Thorough research means Noon knows that the average Sainsbury's customer likes cardamom seeds ground finely, but the Waitrose customer doesn't. Noon makes made-to-measure dishes for the masses.
5. Keep it clean. Noon's decontamination processes put hospitals to shame. His is the only factory in the world covered in Microban—an antibacterial coating. And the factory air is scrubbed of smells before it's sent back onto the streets.
Ian Wylie (email@example.com) writes for Fast Company from London.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.