National wholesaler JJ Foodservice is celebrating its 30th anniversary and continues to move forwards. As it looks to the future, the company believes that environmentally friendly menu items will drive growth in foodservice and the wholesale sector must play its part.
Group CEO Mustafa Kiamil set up the first JJ Foodservice branch in 1988 after being left frustrated by unreliable suppliers when he was running a chain of burger restaurants and seeing a clear business opportunity for someone prepared to offer the service that was lacking. Thirty years later, the wholesaler has 11 branches across the UK, more than 800 staff and 30,000 customers.
Group General Manager Terry Larkin has been with the business for the past 23 years. He spoke to Wholesale Manager.
“As Group General Manager I head up our sales team. Because I’ve been here so long, I am trusted by the CEO with a variety of duties – one minute I might be visiting a school or restaurant group, the next minute looking at where to open the next JJ Foodservice branch. One thing’s for sure, when I’m in our Enfield Head Quarters, I’m always spending lots of time supporting our team.”
The rest of JJ Foodservice’s senior management are Chief Operating Officer, Mushtaque Ahmed; Chief Product Officer, Sezer Ozkul; Head of Operations, Sedat Kaan Hendekli; Chief Technology Officer, Mick Dudley; and CEO and founder, Mustafa Kiamil.
JJ’s was named after a burger, says Terry: “Our CEO used to own the burger chain Jenny’s Burgers. The ‘Jenny Burger’ was one of the menu items and the double-patty version was called a ‘JJ Burger.’“
JJ’s first branch opened in Hornsey in 1988: “We were called JJ Fast Food Distribution back then, but after a few years I suggested we change the name to ‘foodservice,’ to reflect the fact we were moving away from just fast food and more into general restaurants and catering. These days, we supply almost every kind of caterer you can think of.”
JJ now have 11 branches across the UK, in Enfield, Sidcup, Basingstoke, Dagenham, Birmingham, Doncaster, Leicester, Newcastle, Leeds, Manchester and Bristol.
“We started out supplying fast food restaurants and takeaways, mainly trading in ambient and frozen foods and packaging products, but the quality of our products and the speed of our service quickly attracted other customer sectors.
“Over the years our product range has expanded rapidly to include fresh meats, fruit and vegetables, MSCcertified fish, vegetarian and vegan options, eco-packaging and more – we now cover all categories, fresh, chilled, ambient and frozen. Today we supply everyone, schools and universities, local authorities, sushi restaurants, mobile caterers and much more.
“We weren’t members of any buying groups to start with, but over the years as we grew, we developed a relationship with Landmark Wholesale, now Unitas, to support the confectionery side of the business. We are also supporters of the FWD and very much enjoy attending their events and Awards.
“A few years ago we entered the fish and chip sector and became members of the National Federation of Fish Friers, which helped raise our profile in this market. To support our presence with education and care caterers we are also members of the National Association of Care Catering and the Lead Association for Catering in Education (LACA).
“Thirty years ago there were just a few of us – today there are more than 800 JJ Foodservice employees. Our COO Mushtaque Ahmed is also one of the ‘old timers’ – our founder met him in a restaurant called Jashan in North London. He offered him a job on the spot, and the rest is history. Mushtaque has been behind much of the tech developments at JJ Foodservice, particularly the online ordering and App.”
The biggest trend in foodservice recently has been healthy eating, says Terry Larkin: “It’s no longer just general restaurants and caterers who are expected to have healthier, vegetarian and even vegan options. Takeaways and primary schools are expected to offer this level of diversity on their menu.”
JJ Foodservice was the first UK wholesaler to work with the Mayor of London on its Healthier Catering Commitment a few years back: “This is a large-scale voluntary programme, promoted by local authorities, to encourage and assist food businesses and caterers to implement healthier options into their services. It involves offering a discount to HCC-member businesses to encourage them to make healthier catering choices.”
One of the HCC’s missions is to help lower the problem of obesity in England and encourage London food outlets to make small changes that can make a big difference. Following the success of the HCC in London JJ Foodservice is now working with local authorities in Brighton and Luton to offer similar initiatives.
Reflecting the current trends for businesses to be environmentally friendly and consumers to live healthily, Terry says JJ have seen a lot of interest in the past year in their biodegradable and compostable packaging, MSC-certified fish products, fresh fruits and vegetables:
“In particular, we’ve seen increasing demand for vegan and vegetarian options, which we believe will continue to be popular in 2019 and beyond.”
In terms of products, the wholesaler’s JJ own-label Super Crisp Chips, which are made with sunflower oil and are gluten-free, still continue to be one of their best success stories, says Terry, last year selling a record of more than one million cases: “Our Super Crisp Chip video on YouTube has been viewed almost fifteen thousand times – it goes to show people really care about where their food has come from and that it has been sustainably sourced.”
The foodservice industry is going through a difficult time at the moment, says Terry: “The number of UK restaurants closing was at an all-time high last year. Caterers and their wholesale suppliers are under tremendous pressure from price hikes and staff costs. We have tried to deal with the challenges by absorbing food price increases to support customers to remain competitive.
“We care passionately about maintaining the highest levels of customer service and are always looking at new ways to improve the shopping experience. Speed of service and convenience are crucial to caterers.”
In 2018 JJ Foodservice launched an Amazon-style notification system to give customers an estimated time of arrival (ETA) based on real-time data. Terry Larkin says the innovation followed a review into caterers’ frustrations, which identified waiting for deliveries as their biggest bugbear.
“Previously, customers were given a four-hour window, which can be difficult to plan around. It often means waiting in the shop for hours, which is inconvenient to say the least, and can result in missed deliveries if the caterer is not available and orders have to be redelivered.”
JJ Foodservice’s development, the first of its kind in the UK foodservice and grocery wholesale sector, has helped to dramatically improve convenience for busy caterers.
Customers are notified when the order is dispatched and again when the delivery is a few minutes away. They are given the driver’s name and vehicle registration number. The unique technology calculates the positioning of the vehicle with local Google traffic conditions to calculate an estimated arrival time, down to the nearest minute.
“This enables customers to be prepared, have payment ready, and make space for the delivery, speeding up the process and improving fuel efficiency. The time saving means each driver can do an extra drop within the same driving hours. It’s the most significant way this year that JJ is using tech to add even more convenience.”
JJ Foodservice was the UK’s first wholesaler to introduce online ordering back in 2008. About 60% of their orders are now placed online and the JJ App has been downloaded more than 20,000 times.
“We still have a telesales department,” says Terry Larkin, “but it’s smaller than it used to be – it’s important to offer customers a choice. Not everyone is ready to totally embrace the digital revolution. While we are keen to support the next generation of caterers, at the same time, we acknowledge that many customers have been with us since the very beginning and they prefer to speak to someone. But ultimately, it’s online ordering that will continue to grow.”
JJ has won multiple Awards, including ‘Digital Innovation’ and ‘Service to Caterers’ at the Federation of Wholesale Distributors’ Gold Awards.
“We were delighted that the judges thought our Amazon-style delivery notifications and additional services like the JJ Foodservice Mastercard, and online ordering business FOODit, were worthy of Awards. The JJ Mastercard is supporting hundred of caterers with almost £5,000,000 worth of credit. We see ourselves as a ‘true business partner’ to the independent caterer and it’s these key additional services that make us more than just a wholesaler.”
Terry Larkin and his colleagues at JJ Foodservice believe environmentally friendly menu items will drive growth in the industry, going forward:
“It’s all about choice – so there will still be people that want their large portion of fish and chips, for instance, but there will also be people who go to a fish and chip shop and will ask for a vegan option. It’s true, we’ve seen people requesting this on our customers’ Facebook pages! We believe it will be important for caterers to offer clear choices, which accommodate healthier and animal-free options. The ones that do will ultimately help to attract more orders.
“The way we have been eating is simply not sustainable. The greenhouse gases released by agriculture and livestock are becoming increasingly well publicised in the media, together with the damaging effect of global warming on fish. The result is the need for a dramatic change in eating out habits. Caterers and wholesalers must adapt. We believe that environmentally friendly food options will drive growth in foodservice in 2019 and beyond.”
JJ Foodservice is committed to being environmentally friendly as a company. The business operates totally paperless warehouses, uses solar-powered energy and has MSC certification for all its branches. Vehicles are another area where JJ Foodservice takes a lead, reducing its transport fleet’s carbon emissions by 2% in the past year, following an investment in the use of telematics.
The project began in January 2018 and by August a 70% reduction in idling had been achieved, equivalent to a £14k saving on fuel.
Tracking driver behaviour has also resulted in improved road safety and reduced vehicle maintenance costs: “Keeping costs down like this has enabled us to continue passing on great savings to customers while improving environmental credentials.”
2019 is JJ Foodservice’s thirtieth anniversary and the company is marking the occasion by giving something back to its customers and its staff. To thank customers for their loyalty throughout the years, they have launched a bumper-edition of the Special Offers brochure, available from January 2019. A new 30th Anniversary edition of the Price Guide is downloadable now. As a thank you to staff, all 800 employees have received a £50 JJ Foodservice gift voucher plus free membership to a new employee loyalty scheme which offers great savings on popular high street retailers, including restaurants, holidays and more. They have also launched a new thirtieth Anniversary video.
Looking back, Terry says the real turning point for JJ Foodservice was launching online ordering back in 2008:
“It was the beginning of the future. Since then online orders have continued to grow and drive our business forward and that of our customers. We all joke and say that our CEO has a crystal ball where he can see into the future. Well, I really believe he has – his forecasts have never been wrong. Right now, we are all gearing up for the next big change – it’s going to be an exciting year.”