How Riksha put Aberdeen’s Union Square woes behind it

When Riksha, the only independent restaurant in Aberdeen’s Union Square, closed down last month, its family owners made sure one thing came with them – their rickshaw.

After all, what difference does another mile or so make to a vehicle that – for Riksha’s opening in 2019 – journeyed all the way from Bangladesh to Aberdeen?

Now, as the Miah family starts a new venture in Rose Street fixture Shahbaaz Tandoori, the three-wheeler rickshaw is set to add some more mileage to the clock.

Co-owner Anis Miah plans to use it to ferry customers from the restaurant to their cars.

The rickshaw represents continuity at Shahbaaz Tandoori.

“My rickshaw is redundant right now,” says Anis, who is in touch with the council for permission to drive the passenger cart on the road. “Within the next year, we’ll be looking for a rickshaw driver.”

If the plan goes ahead, it’ll be a significant moment for the rickshaw, which last carried paying customers on the busy streets of Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital.

Compared to that, Union Street might be a slight change of pace.

The challenges of Union Square

But the rickshaw is also a symbol of continuity for the Miah family, who is moving to Shahbaaz Tandoori on Rose Street after a tumultuous three years in Union Square.

The family, which previously owned Cinnamon on Union Street, opened Riksha in the Aberdeen shopping mall in August 2019.

Riksha on Union Square closed down last month.

Taking the lead on the new venture were the three Miah brothers – Anis, Khalis and Jab.

Under their leadership, Riksha was a continuation of Cinnamon’s mission to bring nouvelle Indian fine dining to the north-east. Union Square, with its on-site parking, well-known shops and high-profile chain diners, seemed like the perfect fit.

Within months of opening, however, Covid restrictions hit, forcing restaurants across the city to turn to home delivery to turn a profit. But, even as customers returned, Union Square proved a challenging place to operate an independent, family-owned restaurant.

“Union Square, it’s a cracking place for business, but in terms of footfall it’s very restricted,” Anis says. “There are no passersby.”

Khalis Miah.

The Miahs found that Union Square visitors were there to go shopping or watch a movie, not for a sit-down Indian meal. Anis calls the mall more of a “fast-food type of food court”.

Another issue was Union Square’s requirements that restaurants must be open for the “core” hours of noon to 9pm every day.

For a family-run establishment, this put extra pressure on staffing, and demanded a lot from Khalis and Jab, the restaurant’s main chefs.

Union Square’s ground rents – five times what the Miahs now shoulder on Rose Street – were also a factor.

“Union Square was fantastic to us, especially through the Covid period,” says Anis. “But on the other hand, they’ve got bosses higher up that have expectations. The business that we were doing wasn’t feasible, so it’s kind of downsizing from what we had.”

Union Square owners Hammerson did not respond to a request for a comment. The property group this week announced the sale of Union Square for £140 million.

A modern touch to Indian dining in Aberdeen

For the Miah family, the focus is now on bringing the modern dining ethos of Cinnamon and Riksha to Shahbaaz Tandoori.

One point of difference is that while the old Shahbaaz Tandoori focused on Pakistani cooking, which uses vegetable oil, the Miah family, with its Bangladeshi background, tends to use ghee.

The new owners of Shahbaaz Tandoori say they are making home-style Indian food.

The Miahs also cook rice differently, favoring more puffed up rice, where every strand is given attention.

“It is authentic home-style cooking,” says Anis when asked to describe the style at the new Shahbaaz.

Homemade Samosa’s with Green Chutney.

“We’re moving away from commercialized Indian food such as your batch-cooked chicken tikka masalas, gravies and sauces. We’re adding more of an authentic home flavor to it – the way my mum does it.”

The 33-year-old Aberdonian remains confident of shaking up the city’s Indian restaurant scene.

Anis Miah, co-owner of Shahbaaz Tandoori.

He highlights the recent popularity of Indian street food and incorporating them into Shahbaaz as a further way to attract diners looking for something different.

“You have customers that come in and they just want a korma, which is fine, because that’s what the international market has been offering,” Anis explains.

“But why don’t you try the korma that we eat at home, instead of the korma that you’ve been told is the real deal? It’s not [the real deal]. There is a difference.”

Shahbaaz Tandoori’s Basmati Pilau Rice.

Aberdeen’s vegan explosion

Anis has also taken a few lessons from his time in Union Square, including the emerging demand for vegan dishes.

Indian cooking lends itself well to plant-based cooking, but Anis says Riksha’s vegan menu expanded a lot during its time in the mall, from just three or four dishes to including a dedicated vegan section.

Shahbaaz Tandoori is all set for a dedicated vegan menu.

The plan is to do the same at Shahbaaz.

“We’re not looking to come in here and turn everything upside down,” Anis explains. “What we’re looking to do is replace what we have and improve on it. That way we will just keep getting better.”

Shahbaaz Tandoori is open every day except Monday from 4.30pm to 10.30pm. The address is 19 Rose Street, Aberdeen, AB10 1TX.

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