He was a school dropout who slept in his car while working on a factory conveyor belt after coming to Australia to pursue his dream of starting a business.
Despite learning English quickly, Narinder never completed secondary school and became a picker in a kiwi fruit orchard, saving money to move to Australia at the age of 19.
He worked as a labourer, in a petrol station, on a South Australian farm and loading the conveyor belt in an electronics factory, all the while sleeping in his Holden Camira to conserve his meagre funds.
He struggled to find any landlord that would trust a teenager with no experience to be able to run a business and pay the rent.
But this week – 20 years later – Narinder has just opened the 11th store in the QE quality food empire he built worth $50 million in annual revenue, with a goal to have 50 shops across Sydney by 2030.
Narinder and his wife Rajwinder (second left), their three children Garrick, Gurmilli and Reeva and his mother Jaswinder Kaur who with his father arranged the couple’s marriage between India, New Zealand and Australia
Narinder arrived as a 19-year-old (above) in Australia and slept in his car while doing menial jobs before renting his first store with the dream of turning it into a business
The supermarket mogul credits his mother Jaswinder (above, mother and son this week) for ‘pushing me harder than anyone else I know’ to building his $50m empire of 11 supermarkets across Sydney
Narinder has built a loyal following of tens of thousands of customers in ten Sydney suburbs, some of whom told Daily Mail Australia they prefer to shop at QE instead of Coles and Woolworths because of the owner’s ‘attitude and habit of stocking items requested’ by them.
He has a code of five values for the operation of his stores and the people he hires.
They are: ‘We hold no grudges, respect for others, we are passionate, we are responsive and fast moving, and we are learners, curious and not afraid to try new things and make mistakes’.
With the motto ‘quality food shopping made easy’ and his aim ‘to improve people’s health, lifestyle and save quality time’, Narinder says his greatest driver has been his Sikh mum, Jaswinder Kaur.
Narinder’s family fled India after the infamous genocide following Indian PM Indira Gandhi’s 1984 assault on the Sikh holiest temple in Amritsar, and her assassination which triggered killings around the country.
Frenzied mobs of young Hindu men burned Sikh-owned stores to the ground, dragged Sikhs from their homes, cars and trains, and clubbed them to death or set them alight.
Narinder (pink shirt) and his younger brother Balwinder during their childhood in the Punjab region of northern India which the Singh family fled after a campaign of genocide against Sikh people in the late 1980s
Narinder (right) and Balwinder after he made the leap to come to Australia, work menial jobs while living in his car and eventually opening their first shop where they worked 16 hour days
Narinder’s father Amrik, whose family had farmed northern India for centuries, left for New Zealand in 1987, and his mother Jaswinder followed with her three children, settling in Tauranga on the North Island.
Amrik Singh worked in Kiwi fruit orchards and his parents paid for their son to learn English as quickly as possible.
But the teenager dropped out of school and joined his father picking fruit.
He saved up enough money to come to Australia on his own and decided sleeping in his car was the best way to save more while he worked a succession of jobs.
Narinder considered starting a carpet cleaning business, a restaurant, a convenience store or small supermarket, but found no landlord willing to trust a teen with zero experience.
In 2001, Narinder found a rundown shop in Darlinghurst, in inner city Sydney, owned by a young migrant from Greece, Bill Anton, who was willing to sign him up.
He opened the food store and worked 16 hour days, seven days a week to the point he was so exhausted he couldn’t think straight.
Narinder (right), father Amrik, his younger brother Balwinder (left) and sister and two other young relatives back in Punjabi India where the Singh family lived before religious violence forced them to flee
Narinder gets up at 3am every day to buy fresh produce at the Sydney markets and based his stores on high quality products which shows like MasterChef popularised just as his QE stores were on the rise
Back in New Zealand, his parents sold their house to raise $180,000 to invest in a business launched by Narinder.
But they became concerned about him, and sent his 16-year-old brother Balwinder over to help.
‘I remember one Wednesday evening when the street outside was busy and our store was only making enough to keep our heads above water, I felt so depressed, I was ready to give it all away,’ he said.
‘It wasn’t a lack of hard work I realised something else was clearly missing.’
Desperate and tired, Narinder took a few days off, and had ‘a lightbulb moment’ to start stocking not only the essentials but sourcing quality foods customers couldn’t find in the big supermarkets.
‘I know I was naive but I believed I could give shoppers something the bigger chains couldn’t offer,’ he said.
‘Personal service, and really high quality food and groceries that ordinary families could afford, and premium products like Maggie Beer patés, and gourmet dips and cheeses.
Eleven QE Food Stores across Sydney form Narinder’s empire and he hopes to have 50 by the year 2030, frequented by customers who prefer them to shopping at Woolies or Coles
Narinder dropped out of school, picked fruit, came to Australia and worked in factories before opening a shop as a teenager (above) and then getting the bright idea for selling gourmet produce
One of Narinder’s QE stores, of which he now has 11 across Sydney, with plans to take his philosophy of quality food at reasonable prices to a total of 50 locations by 2030
‘I thought, then customers would come, and they did and we haven’t looked back.’
With the advent of TV shows like Master Chef, which launched in 2009, followed by My Kitchen Rules encouraging viewers to cook and ‘plate up’ gastronomic creations, shoppers began flocking to QE Food Stores for exotic ingredients.
Narinder launched his own QE kitchen and started making cooking videos for the company’s website, and selling handmade products like pizza under his QE brand.
‘It was so important to me that even as we expanded our ranges and our stores, we kept the same family and personal touch,’ Narinder said.
‘I choose my team members not for their qualifications but because their personalities and work ethic fit the QE Food Stores philosophy.
‘We are here to help our customers find the quality food they want at a price they can afford.
‘We know our customers, we know what they are looking for and if they’re unsure, we are there to help them.’
Narinder’s day still starts at 3am, when he kisses his wife goodbye and sets off to personally oversee fruit and vegetable purchases.
Narinder’s younger brother Balwinder and their father Amrik now live in Australia having followed Narinder here after the family fled strife-torn northern India in the late 1980s
Narinder’s parents arranged his marriage to his Punjabi-born wife, Rajwinder, and the couple have three children, including their nine-month-old daughter (above)
Narinder with two QE staff members, who he hires ‘not for their qualifications but because of their personalities and work ethic … to help our customers’
‘I love really fresh food and going to the Sydney markets is something I will never stop doing, he said.
‘It’s my passion to pick the best and freshest produce and I love to see our customers delight in the taste, freshness, and price.
‘And if you’re not a great home cook, we have ready-made gourmet meals with high quality ingredients at a budget price so cheeky customers can easily impress at dinner parties and get-togethers.’
Narinder steadily opened more shops and now has two at Darlinghurst, and others at Newtown, Camperdown, Randwick, Waterloo, Waverley, Paddington, Charing Cross, St Leonards and hia new store at Crows Nest.
Customers queueing up this week for the opening of the new QE store at Crows Nest, Narinder Singh’s eleventh supermarket
Nutritionist Kathleen Alleaume (above) and QE stores have partnered in a healthy living blog on which Narinder promotes fresh produce and recipes for home cooking
QE stores staff values include ‘respect, passion, hold no grudges, move fast, keep learning’
He sponsors schools with fresh produce, a charity for homeless children, a youth mentoring movement, asylum seekers’ groups and various disaster funds.
He also started a healthy living blog with a nutritionist, Kathleen Alleaume.
In the interim, his parents organised an arranged marriage for Narinder to a bride from the Punjab, his now wife Rajwindah and the mother of their three children, son Garrick, 11, and daughters Gurmilli and Reeva, aged nine, and nine months.
Narinder’s parents moved from New Zealand recently to live in Sydney and divide their time with their grandchildren in his household and his brother Balwinder’s.
He offered to pay back the money his parents put up for the business after selling their house 20 years ago, but they ‘wouldn’t take it back – it’s a cultural thing’.
‘My mum Jaswinder Kaur pushed me harder than anyone else I know,’ he said.
‘I’ll never forget the belief my parents showed in me way back when I started this journey.’