Raising standards

Operating in a competitive market place, East End Foods’ values of quality, innovation and social engagement are marking it out as an example to the rest of the food industry

It can be difficult to cram 40 years of history and family values into a short 20-minute interview, but talking to Tony Deep Wouhra MBE, Chairman of East End Foods, it quickly becomes clear that underpinning the company at every stage of its history is a committed attention to quality. Founded in 1972, the wholly family owned and run West Bromwich business today operates four cash-and-carry branches, stocking major FMCG brands, and imports spices, rice and lentils from all over the world to the UK and European markets. It’s by no means alone in its ambitions in importing food, but its approach to providing the best quality ingredients certainly goes some way to distinguishing East End Foods from the competition.

“Our father taught us not to sell anything that we wouldn’t eat ourselves, and to this day that very value informs the way we do business,” Tony explains. “Unlike many of our competitors in the UK we clean and grind all of our spices here in Birmingham and ensure that we have full control of the ingredients right from the source. We also clean and pack all dry beans, peas, rice, lentils and spices before distributing them to customers.” By engaging with suppliers around the world through farming co-operatives, East End Foods secures contracts that ensure local growers meet the exact specifications and quality standards required by the firm in the UK. Ultimately, the approach ensures that the company has full control of the supply chain. This maintains the quality aspect.

“For instance, once the spice crops have been harvested they are cleaned at source and tested to ensure they meet the UK legislation around toxins, artificial preservatives, additives and pesticide residues,” Tony continues. “Then, once they reach us, we test them again in our in-house laboratory and the product undergoes our own cleaning and crushing processes. We use a very sophisticated cleaning plant to remove any excess stalks, stones and other impurities that may have slipped through the initial cleaning procedure, and then use a slow and ‘cool’ grinding process to retain the volatile oils and pungent flavours that are essential to good quality spices. By doing this we believe our ground spices are the purest you will find.”

Focus on CSR
Such a commitment means that from a range of over 1400 products, East End Foods currently supplies into some of the UK’s biggest superstores including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Morrison’s, Asda, the Co-operative and Aldi.

However, it is not just the company’s focus on quality that marks it out as a pioneer in the industry. Beyond this, East End Foods’ Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programme is exemplary. At its headquarters in West Bromwich, for example, a third of the roof space is covered in 80,000 sq. ft. of photovoltaic (PV) film, and its newest branch in Aston Cross, has an additional 25,000 sq. ft. with photovoltaic panels creating enough energy to power 145 homes for a year. Rainwater harvesting systems have also been installed to help improve the environmental footprint of its sites.

Yet it is perhaps the firm’s most recent undertaking that really demonstrates its solid commitment to environmental and social engagement, with the installation of a state-of-the-art hydroponic Urban Farm system at its Aston office. Reaching the height of the building’s three-storey atrium, this hydroponic installation is currently growing a variety of organic produce such as lettuce, spinach, rocket, dill, coriander and tomatoes. “We want to demonstrate that we are an innovative, forward-thinking company,” Tony explains. “It’s not something that’s going to make us money, instead it’s showcasing a possible solution to ensure food security, which is going to become more and more of an issue as global population rises over the coming decades.”

Healthy future
Inspired by Japanese urban farming systems, the vertical system is made up of multiple layers of plants to maximise space for cultivation and offers full control of nutrients and water to optimise the quality and speed of growth. Whilst the company’s own installation will be a one-off demonstration of the concept, rather than a commercial enterprise, the business does have plans to produce and sell simple, non-mechanical hydroponic systems, which can introduce the technology into the homes of people around our country and later worldwide.

East End Foods’ £1.3m investment – which is currently the biggest of its kind in the UK – will also be the centrepiece of the company’s vision of a healthy future as it invites young people to learn about healthy eating.

The visitors will include school and university students so that they can learn about the importance of purity in food without chemicals and pesticide residues. The leafy crops like lettuce, spinach and fenugreek leaves will reach the harvesting stage in 30 days. “Our guides will take the visitors round the atrium to understand how the hydroponic Urban Farm works. The outcome of eating excessive meat in our diets is often responsible for high cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and heart trouble. The visitors will hear the evolution of human food consumption as they go round the colourful vegetable growing area. On the top floor, our chefs will welcome them to the food auditorium.

“The chefs talk about how simple it is to grow vegetables without the use of chemicals and pesticides. They will demonstrate how to cook the freshly harvested vegetables using pure spices and flavours which makes them tastier and flavoursome. Children should be encouraged to eat vegetables and quality organic ingredients.

“We’re by no means telling people to become vegetarians,” Tony adds. “Birmingham in particular has historically been labelled the obese capital of Britain so we felt it our moral duty to help educate people how important healthy eating habits are to adopt, and how just a small reduction in meat intake can have great health benefits.”

Continuing this focus on CSR and environmental sustainability will undoubtedly remain central to East End Foods as it moves forward. “It is these values that make us a strong business,” Tony emphasises. “Our customers recognise the quality of our products and therefore come back and it’s from this that our business is able to grow. This sector is tough at the moment with lots of competition and price pressures changing all the time. However, we firmly believe that the way forward is to keep on the road of initiatives and innovation and we know that when we do come up with good ideas, the consumer responds positively.”

Putting this into practice, Tony highlights that over the coming months a number of other initiatives designed to enhance East End Foods’ reputation and profitability within the market are in the pipeline. He also discusses the company’s ambition to expand both nationally, by opening up more cash-and-carry branches in cities outside of Birmingham, and internationally. “At the moment we’re supplying into European markets like Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, but there is no reason why we cannot take our quality products to the US, Australia, the Middle East or the Far East,” he says. “So that will also be a focus moving forward.”