BOX PERSON OF THE MONTH
Many readers will be familiar with the Bengal Bear restaurant in Box, near the traffic lights. It opened on May 23rd 2014 to produce and serve traditional and authentic Bengalese food.
Its manager is a young man named Afzal Uddin. He was born in the R.U.H, the second of four children – Sarah 26, Afzal 24, Aman 21 and Hamza 13 – and has lived in Melksham all his life. His father was born in Bangladesh, a country lying east of India and which borders both India and Myanmar. He began training as a medical student and after receiving sponsorship to continue training in the UK, moved to Ireland. He met his future wife in 1987 in Birmingham, but found he could not afford to continue his medical studies as well as being married, so they moved in 1989 to live with relatives in Melksham and began working at a takeaway with two family partners. He was able to earn enough to support his brothers and sister in Bangladesh, give to projects in their local community and in time to provide for his own family, growing up in the UK.
Running a business in the UK provided the means to obtain work permits for his extended family to live and work legitimately in the UK. Afzal recounts tales from his father of his struggles in the early days of working as an immigrant in the restaurant business. With immense courage, persistence and hard work they overcame these obstacles, becoming respected members of society. The work ethic was firmly sown into the minds of Afzal and his siblings and has had a profound effect on their futures.
Afzal attended school in Melksham, working at weekends in the family restaurant, then went to boarding school in Birmingham, before going to college to study electrical engineering. He decided his loyalty and future lay in helping with the family business and made himself indispensable, being left in charge when his parents were away. In time, the family was able to consider opening a second restaurant, eventually finding suitable premises at what used to be The Bear pub in Box. Afzal became manager.
He decided to call the premises The Bengal Bear, acknowledging that the building has had ’Bear’ in its title since the mid 1600s and also in recognition of his origins. Although a family business, Afzal has the freedom to develop The Bear in his own way. The restaurant has 40 covers for eating in, and also provides a takeaway service. Despite managing a successful venture, Afzal finds there are many challenges to developing a restaurant business. The majority of his regular staff are Bangladeshi, most having been born in the UK, though staff of non-Bangladeshi origin, or local students, are occasionally taken on. Even though all are English speaking, language continues to be a barrier to complete integration, as a kitchen full of mostly Bangladeshi staff means they resort to their native tongue when things become busier and more stressful.
Bengali food is cooked by different methods in each region of Bangladesh, but it is always simple in presentation, with a lot of fish and fewer vegetables and strong spices than in pure Indian dishes. He particularly relishes pangasuis fish, which is imported from Bengal. All other meat and vegetables are locally sourced.
Afzal is a practising Muslim. He and his staff have to fit in their five calls to prayer at specific times of day, but work very much as a team, to allow brief absences of staff during opening times to achieve this important duty. Sometimes staff are from other religions, but all are very respectful of each other’s beliefs. Afzal decided to follow his father’s example, successful for over 28 years, of not licensing The Bengal Bear, though customers are very welcome to ‘bring their own’.
During Ramadan last year Afzal invited people of all religious beliefs to join together in The Bengal Bear to celebrate Iftar at 9.30 in the evening when Muslims break their day-long fast. This was part of the Iftar Initiative – a countrywide grassroots movement which encourages all Muslim-owned restaurants and community centres to invite their non-Muslim friends to ‘meet and eat’, celebrating life, culture and diversity. He hopes this will become a regular event.
Afzal leases the premises, which were recently threatened by change of use. Afzal was overwhelmed by the support of the local community, particularly Stephanie Millward. He sees the Box community as something ‘special’ to be valued and has tried to become involved in local events, supporting fundraising efforts and responding to the needs of locals: for example, when the year six Box school leavers’ party was rained off Afzal opened his premises so the party was not cancelled and the young folk not disappointed.
Afzal feels younger people are not attracted to work in the restaurant trade nowadays and worries for the future when the current generation have retired. He is passionate about the fact that his ancestors paved the way for his generation and laid the foundations on which to build something worthwhile. He feels that with dedication and commitment and the right mindset you can achieve anything in life. He would like to ensure that restaurants thrive. In the future he wants to be at the helm of a fully functioning Indian restaurant, employing staff of all nationalities, which would hopefully attract the younger generation who, in turn, would be willing to invest in their own futures, building on the past and working in the trade.
His vision for the future is to be able to settle in Box and hopefully bring up children here. He sees children as our collective future and being passionate about family tradition and values wants to do more to interact with youngsters to motivate, encourage and promote their confidence so they become productive members of the community. In this way he feels that the great sacrifices and hardship his parents endured will have been worth it. Afzal treasures his past and remembers his roots with pride. Now it is time to move on, building on the past and taking his experiences to a new generation.
Hopefully, the publication
of this article will coincide with the 4th Anniversary of
the opening of The Bengal Bear.