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Brick Lane loses its ‘Olympics gold’ moment to shine

Eastern Eye Balti House Eastern Eye Balti House

Tuesday, August 7, 2012
10:52 PM

Traders along the East End’s famous ‘Curry Mile’ are hot under the collar over what’s gone wrong down Brick Lane during the Olympics.

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Emran Sohel outside his Curry BazaarEmran Sohel outside his Curry Bazaar

The ‘Curry Capital’ has turned into “a dead city,” say the restaurateurs—there are no customers, despite the status Brick Lane was given with all the Olympic razzamatazz when the 2012 organisers switched the original marathon route to the West End.

That’s how the two trade associations which run the once-lucrative tourist magnate see the effects of the 2012 Games.

Everyone’s staying in Stratford and no-one’s beating a path to the street where once passers-by would be entertained or harassed by touts in what was the spicy flavour of East End life.

They were expecting 10,000 Olympic tourists a day down ‘The Lane’ crammed with its 50 curry houses.

Waiting for customers who don't comeWaiting for customers who don't come

Many took on extra staff for the influx—they’re having to lay them off now.

“Brick Lane is like a dead city,” said Azmal Hussain, vice chair of Brick Lane Restaurateurs Association.

“The Olympics opportunity has been missed because of a lack of marketing.

“We were told 90,000 people would be drawn to the area by the Olympics.

Pop into any Brick Lane curry house at lunchtime and pick any seat

Along the ‘Curry Mile,’ Mohammed Salim, one of two brothers running the Brick lane Brasserrie, has a stern view of London 2012.

“The Olympics have been rubbish,” he tells you.

“The restaurants here are all empty. We were told we’d do lot of business as the Curry Capital—but there’s been nothing promoted to say where we are.”

His restaurant was one of the few eateries with any customers the lunchtime I looked in.

Frank Helms had popped in with his Dutch sister-in-law Nienke Ronk the day after they had been to see the Men’s Gymnastics, when Japan took the Gold. They were sitting quietly by the window, the only ones in the place.

Frank said: “We came to Brick Lane for a curry, but didn’t expect it to be deserted. The atmosphere has gone—it’s dead.”

Nienke didn’t mind so much. She wasn’t looking forward to crowded streets, but admits: “You need some hussle-and-bussle.”

Next door, the Eastern Eye’s Kamrul Hussain was running a completely empty house.

“We had high expectations—but it’s going bad,” he explains. “We were told to expect thousands a day.

“The Olympic Torch didn’t even come down Brick Lane. We were really upset about that.”

Opposite, the Bengal Village proudly displays a ‘Best Curry 2012’ banner after being named top eatery by a national newspaper. But manager Abdul Majid points to the rows of empty tables.

“There were supposed to be 90,000 coming to the area,” he said.

“We took on three extra staff—now we’ve had to lay them off. The trade is dead.”

It’s the same at the Curry Bazaar two doors down. Imran Sohel reveals how bad business is as he straightens the table napkins and polishes the empty glasses yet again.

“There’s been no promotion by the council,” he tells you. “Most restaurants took on extra staff, but the owners lose money if they keep them on.”

Preem & Prithy, at the epicentre of ‘Curry Capital’, had just two customers. The other 90 tables were empty.

Assistant manager Sied Hussain saw trade plummet by 80 per cent in the first week of the Olympics.

“The tourists are staying in Stratford,” he explains. “We’re supposed to be the ‘Curry Capital’—but we’re getting only 20 per cent of our usual custom.”

“The council told us we were the Curry capital. But that’s all they did—there’s been no promotion.”

“But instead, it’s the worst I’ve ever seen.”

He’s never seen it as bad in the 13 years he has run his Preem & Prithy restaurant.

So a meeting of all Brick Lane restaurateurs is being held after Ramadan to organise a deputation to Tower Hamlets council to find out just what the £120,000 promotion budget from the London 2012 organisers went on.

They blame some of the lack of trade on police and council together targeting the area looking for licensing infringements, street peddlers, touts, prostitutes and anyone with drugs.

“If people see lots of police in a street, they don’t go there,” Azmal explained. “There’s too much heavy police presence. People come for food and to enjoy the atmosphere—but when they see so many police they go away.”

Take a stroll down this narrow, winding thoroughfare through the heart of Spitalfields any lunchtime while the 2012 Games are on at Stratford, three miles away, and you not only have the pick of the 50 restaurants, but any seat you want—they’re mostly empty.

The rival Brick Lane Curry Association met Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman in the run-up to 2012.

The association’s Daraz Miah, whose Cinnamon restaurant was totally empty at luchtime last Thursday, said: “The mayor told us we should be ready the first day when 20,000 visitors would come.

“Many of us took on extra workers—I took two on myself.

“But on the day of the Opening Ceremony we were dead.

“Even the next day everywhere was empty. We have 100 seats and normally it’s packed on a Saturday.”

He blames all the warnings of traffic chaos and overcrowded public transport, coupled with the council not being serious about marketing Brick Lane as Curry Capital.

“The police and council aren’t helping,” Mr Miah added. “They’re frightening away the tourists.

“The only way we can promote ourselves is telling passers-by what we offer—but all that’s been stopped. They call it touting.

“The Olympics are a flop for us. The last two weekends have been a disaster.”

Traders also feel they missed out on a gold opportunity to be on the world stage with the Olympic Torch relay being diverted along Commercial Street instead of Brick Lane itself.

Tower Hamlets council, for its part, blames official warnings about travel disruption for scaring away tourists.

“Businesses showing an unexpected and disappointing slump haven’t been helped by messages about travel disruption that could have been more targeted,” says a council statement.

“With official warnings scaring visitors away, we have unashamedly been promoting the borough and Brick Lane, flooding hotels with information for tourists.”

Decisions about the Olympic torch route were made by London 2012 which the council said was out of its control. But the authority promised in the second and busiest Olympic week to work with Mayor Boris Johnson and TfL to promote the East End more.

That might be good news for the curry house proprietors, but a little late.

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