How Royal Chef Poonam Ball Saved Her Family’s $14 Million Legacy
As family businesses go, Madhu’s—an Asian culinary conglomerate that has taken upwards of $14 million in revenue a year—has built quite the legacy.
Spanning four generations, Madhu’s dates back to 1930s Kenya, where Bishan Das Anand arrived from India (now Pakistan) to build a career.
“He was a masterful chef and began catering for the newly settled Indian community,” says Poonam Ball, Madhu’s Head Creative Chef and Bishan’s granddaughter.
“The community flourished, grew, and with that came the need for hospitality services such as caterers for weddings and events.”
Ball’s father followed in the same footsteps, having been born in Kenya, and further enhanced the art of specialist Northern Indian cuisine and by using ingredients indigenous to Kenya.
“The business was a total success and the family reputation skyrocketed amongst the community due to our several hotels, restaurants and even clubs around Nairobi.”
However, with political tensions and unrest in East Africa rising by the early 1970s, Ball’s father and his family took the decision to move to the UK.
“The move affected my father greatly and he began to rely on alcohol more and more,” says Ball, recalling the difficulties she watched her family face losing their livelihoods.
Eventually, her older brothers Sanjay and Sanjeev would take it upon themselves to utilize everything they’d seen their father build abroad and open their own family restaurant in the UK—aged 16 and 17, respectively.
“With my mother as a strong head chef and my father to always learn from, Madhu’s Southall became our first footprint in the UK.”
The name Madhu’s, specifically, to honor their father’s nickname—Madhu—which translates to ‘honey’.
“To this day that very restaurant, which was built on modest resources with a very low-key profile and 37 covers, still stands as the main hub to our nationwide operations,” Ball says with immense pride.
Ball began helping her family run the Southall restaurant from the age of ten, tasked with running the cold section and washing dishes, but focused her attention on building a career in law as she got older.
“My elder brother Sanjay was, and still is, very much the driving force behind the resilience of Madhu’s to get where we are today,” she says. “It was his innovation in service style which gave us the edge in the 1980s. Nobody really had a vision like his when it came to international cuisine in those days.”
And with dreams to enter the luxury market, that lack of vision proved to be a massive roadblock.
“Asian weddings and events were often confined to town halls and school halls, but Sanjay had an unwavering mission to bring them to five-star establishments with silver spoon service. He believed Asian cuisine was destined for more than modest public buildings.”
Initially, the management of the high-profile hotels they targeted would say that the smell of lingering curry was bad for business. It was rejection after rejection.
Only, just as the family thought their dreams would remain exactly that, they had a breakthrough.
During a meeting at Heathrow Park Hotel (a four-star hotel with a capacity of 500 guests), Sanjay said he would focus on selling dates in the summer—corporate business’ off season—thus bringing in extra revenue when the hotel’s business was at its lowest.
“This was a huge turning point in the journey. Figures and reports of revenue were the backbone of all other hotel proposals and soon we had a portfolio of hotels within the London area.”
At the time the company’s revenue stood at £3.5 million ($4.3 million), and it would grow by approximately half a million pounds a year as they added new hotels to their repertoire.
“The continuous rejections in the early years just made us stronger and more formidable. Today, it’s the other way round. Hotels and venues ask us to cater, and we are the ones who pick and choose which establishments we offer our services to.”
By 1997, the business had become so big Sanjay begged her to join full-time.
“He needed support in sales with high net worth clients and also in pitching and making proposals and. tenders for esteemed venues,” she says, though it didn’t stop there.
Whilst managing sales and marketing, she would often be asked to head into the kitchen to explain ingredients or techniques to the chefs from their family recipes. And it sparked something new.
“I learned and mastered the blends of each spice mixture for each dish from my father, just as he had done with my grandfather. This magic and know-how came from years of understanding varying palettes and how different flavours work and enhance others.”
As both parents passed, she found herself drawn to the kitchen to create and evolve new dishes.
Dishes that would not only result in Madhu’s being given rave reviews from renowned food critics like the late AA Gill, but countless ‘Best Indian Restaurant’ awards for many years to come.
And with a reputation like that, apparently, comes the Royal Family.
In addition to holding exclusive contracts with many five-star hotels (including The Grove, Savoy, and Landmark) for years, Ball has led Madhu’s to cater private events at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, 10 Downing Street, and more.
“It still feels magical when I walk into a venue leading a team that I have trained to deliver an event to perfection. I feel like a general with her army leading the troops to battle,” she says.
“My victory is only completed when my client is elated. That feeling of satisfaction when the client comes into the kitchen just to thank you or asks you to come out to the ballroom where you are applauded with a standing ovation is second to none.”
Of course, the pandemic posed incredible problems to this arm of the business.
Pre-Covid, Madhu’s consisted of two restaurants and a thriving events business with an annual turnover of approximately £12 million ($14.8 million).
“Then it was completely destroyed,” says Ball. “Events had totally ceased, and we had no idea when our catering would start up again.
“I remember making sandwiches for Covid hotels, but the business was on its knees and running on a takeaway operation from Southall alone.”
At the time, Madhu’s turnover suffered more than tenfold, taking in a mere £1 million ($1.3 million).
“But I am a firm believer in blessings from above,” she adds. “In our darkest hour we were approached by The Grove in Hertfordshire to have an Indian dining option at the hotel and—in the same week—we were asked by The Dilly hotel to set up Madhu’s of Mayfair.”
As events were strictly prohibited, Ball felt this was a sign to diversify and open more restaurants. At the very least, it would allow her to retain the highly-skilled team she would lose otherwise.
Madhu’s at The Grove opened in December 2020, followed by a new concept (Madhu’s Brasserie, offering quick upmarket meals) in Harvey Nichols in March 2021, Madhu’s of Mayfair in April 2021, and a second Madhu’s Brasserie in Richmond in April 2022.
“Our turnover is currently £9 million and our projections for next year are looking good at £15 million-plus,” she says.
Later this year, the family is even set to open their first overseas restaurant—Madhu’s Istanbul, at the esteemed Swissotel.
Since Covid, the catering and events form 46% of the company’s turnover and the restaurants and outlets form 54%—vastly different from pre-Covid times, when turnover was made up of 20% restaurants and 80% catering.
Now working with Arjun Anand, her nephew and current Madhu’s Director, Ball is excited to bring her her family’s culinary legacy to many more cities within the UK and beyond.
“I envisage Madhu’s being a household name where people can enjoy the legendary dishes and our culinary heritage.
“Put simply, the food industry is in our DNA”