Restaurants are closing at an alarming rate. Can the kebab survive? Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue
Not all kebabs are made equal. But for Hakan Topkaya, the passion comes at a price.
Were the owner of Archway Kebab to buy factory-made doner, he would be paying £3 a kilo. Instead, he buys lamb shoulder from Wales at £8 a kilo. Half of that is bone, so he’s looking at £16 a kilo in reality. By the time his chefs in the back room of his London kebab house have seasoned it, minced it, formed it up into the familiar meat cone-slash-cylinder, and hung it to tempt passers-by from the window, he estimates the cost is around £20 a kilo.
The price of meat has increased 40% in the past two years. Currently, customers pay £7.70 for a small doner and £8.90 for a large. Factory-made doner – “the worst kind of meat, bones, biscuit powder” – would bring him 80% profit. Doing things his way doesn’t get close, and raising prices to keep up isn’t an option.
“If I tried to make the same profit as my dad when he opened up, prices would have to be double. Nobody’s going to buy those kebabs”, he says.
“At the end of the year, if I make 5% profit margin, I’m lucky. 10 years ago, if I made 10% I’d count myself lucky. Next year, I’m going to count myself lucky if I survive.”
Topkaya, 52, has run Archway Kebab since 2010, taking over a business that has been in his family for 40 years. Although confident he’ll make it through the year, he’s unsure what comes after. The pressures come from all around.
Running a shop like this is not easy. Topkaya hasn’t had a holiday for seven years, and recalls a five-year period without a single day off, clocking on at 6:30pm and finishing at 3:30am. At one point, he ate a lamb doner wrap – with salad – every day for six months. Owners can – and do – just pack it in.
Then there’s the serving. The art of cutting a doner is precise one. It can’t be too thin, otherwise the meat won’t have depth to it. The outside must be crispy, the inside should be pillowy and soft. As such, staff need training, while wages rise.
Topkaya’s pride and joy, it seems, is his new grill. Costing £11,500, he’s sure it’s the world’s best. Meat doesn’t stick to the ceramic surface, making it easier to cook and clean, and a vacuum system keeps the heat in the grill so workers don’t sweat. Most importantly, though, it uses 20% as much gas as the previous grill. This is key: Topkaya’s response to the crisis has been to invest and become more efficient. The grill will pay for itself within two years. But investing like this will become more difficult as margins shrink.
Unlike most small business owners, Topkaya does not have to deal with a landlord. A year and a half ago, his family bought the restaurant building, and now have £1.5m to pay back. Yet, in common with many homeowners across the country, rising interest rates turned budgets upside down. Repayments shot up from £13,000 a month to £21,000 a month. Topkaya believes the country could do more to ease uncertainty. “If we had the chance to do a fixed-rate mortgage for 20 years, 25 years, we would have. But the country doesn’t allow it,” he says. The wind is blowing Topkaya’s way: Labour has promised to introduce 25-year fixed rate mortgages if the party is elected.
There is hope too in the Kebab Alliance. Led by Ibrahim Dogus, who runs the annual kebab awards, a suited-and-booted booze up beloved of MPs and the Westminster media class, it’s hoping to give a nation of bossmen the clout of boardrooms. Dogus paints a hopeful picture of the future.
“In the sizzling heart of our vibrant kebab industry, we face a myriad of challenges that test our resilience daily. From sourcing quality ingredients amidst fluctuating markets to navigating regulatory landscapes, the journey is not without its spice. Yet, it’s this very adversity that hones our craft, pushing us to innovate, adapt, and preserve the authentic flavours that define our heritage,” Dogus tells me.
“Together, as the Kebab Alliance, we stand committed to overcoming these hurdles, ensuring that the rich tapestry of our culinary tradition continues to delight palates and unite communities across borders.”
Topkaya sees a storm coming, a landmark financial crash at the end of 2024. Lower taxes and fewer regulations will help. But on his north London high street, loyalty and reputation may just see him through. He’s been on a mission to educate the public about the quality of his product, which he hopes will pay dividends. Jeremy Corbyn loves the falafel here, customers stick around, and families come through the generations.
“At one point, a customer took kebabs to America from here,” he tells me. “I said you can’t do that, it’s going to take 18 hours, it’s not going to taste the same. They messaged us, with pictures, said it’s still lovely, we microwaved it.”
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