Express & Star

Chef Aktar Islam rides out the challenges with his delivery service and wants to help

There’s seldom been a more difficult time to be a restaurateur. The experience of business owners, however, simply mirrors that of us all.

Aktar Islam

Energy prices are spiralling and Government ministers are accused of not doing enough to help. As Brexit brings challenges, the costs of Covid are yet to be met and while many simply can’t afford to pay for gas and electricity, we are a nation in crisis.

Restaurateurs have it worse. They don’t benefit from the sort of energy price cap that protects individuals while many are simply unable to get staff, with vast numbers driven from the industry during Covid and following Brexit.

It’s all the more remarkable, therefore, that one regional restaurateur is coming to the aid of those who are suffering. Michelin-starred chef, Aktar Islam, founder of Opheem, and the nationwide delivery service Aktar at Home, has launched a new initiative to help those struggling to feed themselves and their families this summer.

It’s open to people across the Black Country, Shropshire, Staffordshire and Mid-Wales and beyond as Aktar seeks to feed 6,000 people who simply can’t afford to pay their bills.

His new non-profit initiative has been set up to help fight food poverty and insecurity across the UK, and ensure good food is accessible to everyone. Aktar has already been recognised as a key facilitator among those in Birmingham who want the hospitality industry to use its skills and profits to address food inequality.

Now he and his team are asking people to nominate families and individuals who are struggling to feed themselves, via email, for free fresh curry boxes. With 6,000 boxes available, it’s as simple as dropping an email - people can remain anonymous if they wish - to with the chosen person or family and their address. The team sift through every single reply, every day, and try to help those most in need first.

It’s not an easy feat for an independent business with a small team that’s being hit by a cocktail of soaring interest rates, supplier, and staff shortages, creating a snowball effect of closures across the board. However, with food inequality at an all-time high, Aktar and his team are hoping that this is the start of a movement that will spur on other businesses to work together and help do to the same.

Aktar says: “It’s been running for a month now and we’re sending out a couple of hundred boxes a week. We’re relying on contacts from the Aktar at Home family, people who are on the mailing list and who know those in need. We’re asking people to let us know about people in the community who need help and we’re responding by sending them food.

“We’ve budgeted for 6,000 boxes and we’re putting it out to the wider public now.

“It’s not just people in our network who need help; it’s people across the region and across the UK. We can only help the way and that’s by providing a few meals for a couple.”

Each box contains three or four days’ worth of food, which gives those on the breadline the boost of not having to pay their food bills for a couple of days. It also provides a considerable boost, lifting the gloom that poverty brings.

“We can’t alleviate all the pain but the reality is that it’s been left for the public to fend for themselves. There’s no action from the powers that be or the people who are supposed to be looking after us.

“The people we’ve been able to help are really appreciative and there are lovely messages coming through. That’s why we’re doing it. it’s just to help.”

Aktar at Home was launched during the pandemic for three key reasons. Firstly, staff from Aktar’s restaurant found themselves without work as lockdowns ensued. Aktar was also aware that there were huge numbers of other workers in a similar situation, slowly sliding into poverty. He wanted to act by creating new jobs.

Secondly, his regular customers still wanted to eat. There was demand from his food and he didn’t want to let down his regulars.

Thirdly, his entrepreneurial spirit meant he wanted to protect his own business, which faced ongoing, fixed costs that were not covered by Government support.

His plans worked and he managed to create a remarkable 26 new jobs as many lauded his Aktar at Home offering as being one of the very best in the UK.

“We wanted to help people who’d lost jobs around the city and we wanted to give them a way of earning an income. We ended up creating 26 jobs for people who needed help. it’s also helped us to help local charities.

“People have supported but the cost of living is a nationwide problem and we want to help other people. If in my little way I can help people here and there, that’s what I want to do. I want people to understand that there’s someone who wants to help them and they’re not suffering alone. People in the community are reaching out to get in touch and let us know people we want to help.

“Even if it’s just people having a boost for their mental health, we want to help by cooking for them.”

Aktar is funding the donation himself, having spoken to other businesses and been knocked back by potential sponsors. “We have reached out to a few partners but people can’t help – everyone is in a difficult time. So we’re paying for the delivery and the packaging ourselves.

"We’re funding it and will continue to do that for as long as we can. Our budget is 6,000 people but I’d hope we can continue and keep going. As long as we can afford to do it we will.

“We want people from the Black Country, Staffordshire and Shropshire – as well as the rest of the UK – to get in touch, it’s not just people who’ve bought from us. Everyone and everyone can get in touch where people are struggling. We’ll get in touch.

“We can’t help everyone. We’ll do what we can to help people. We aim to send out as many boxes as we can. There’s a lot of trust involved. We only want to hear from people who genuinely need help. We don’t have a sophisticated vetting system. I believe in kindness and that people won’t take advantage of it. I believe the campaign will be treated in the right spirit and not abused.”

Those experiencing food poverty can email to seek help.

We have teams checking the emails Monday to Friday.