The writing was on the wall for Sukhi Gill, or at least on the menu of his Dunedin fish and chip shop in the late 1980s. It spelled out ‘rogan josh’.
Gill introduced the Indian lamb curry on a Friday night to see how the fish and chip faithful would react.
It quickly sold out.
That popularity encouraged he and his wife, Joanne, a chef, to ‘’take the plunge’’ and later open a restaurant, Little India, in the city’s CBD in 1991.
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Fast-forward over three decades and that Little India name now features across 11 restaurants nationwide.
Gill and his young family came from the United Kingdom to Dunedin in 1986, but the trained accountant did not enjoy accountancy work in New Zealand and soon eyed a career change.
‘’As a good Indian, I suppose, I bought a dairy and a takeaway.’’
The success of selling rogan josh at the takeaway led to the opening of the Indian restaurant – still something of a novelty in the southern city.
Gill used recipes from his mother Premjit Kaur Gill, who ‘’is a famous cook in our family’’.
The 90-year-old, who lives in Chandigarh, India, was the mastermind behind the restaurant spices and dishes, and continues to train the company’s head chefs.
The restaurant’s success grew partly because of Dunedin students who quickly developed a taste for Indian food, and who would bring their BYO beers or wine ‘’because of their tight budgets’’.
‘’We still have those customers… and their kids come to us.’’
While he had served Indian food to some famous people, including the Dalai Lama and Cat Stevens, ‘’it was local Kiwis who supported us’’.
The restaurants include two in Auckland, two in Hamilton, three in Christchurch, and one each in Palmerston North, Nelson, Timaru and Dunedin.
Gill said the same dishes that were popular three decades ago remained the same today: rogan josh, butter chicken, chicken tikka masala and palak paneer.
‘’Those are outstanding dishes.’’
The business is now managed by his son Arjun Gill, 36, who started as a dishwasher and would later have to wear a tie when he sat in his father’s office.
Those early days were a family affair, and included a memorable moment when one of the sisters was fired by their mother, and later rehired by their father.
A few years ago the business changed to a franchise model, with the individual restaurant managers financed into buying the restaurants which ‘’gave them a step-up into the future’’.
Covid-19 presented a few difficulties, including staff still being in India and a few restaurants having to reduce trading to six days a week.
But the secret to the business’s longevity had remained the same: ‘’To do the basics right,’’ Arjun Gill said.
That included adhering to those traditional recipes from his grandmother, and using a tandoor oven fired by charcoal and not by gas.
Restaurant Association chief executive Marisa Bidois paid tribute to the Gill family, for surviving and thriving in an industry where most businesses have a life span of three years.
‘’So to get to this landmark is really testament to the combination of their passion and solid business sense which are essential components of longevity in the hospitality industry.’’