Interview | Mohammed Ishaq

An Entrepreneur Interview With

Issue 39

Tell us about your background in business?

I attended John Marlay School in the Westerhope area of Newcastle but left during my first year of ‘A’ levels to help my father with his business. He had just bought a shop and was unable to cope on his own so I had to cut short my education. After a good few years I got married to Yasmine and we set up our own retail business which we ran for

20 years until 1996.

I had a good grounding in business, firstly helping my father, then establishing my own business. Although this knowledge was very important, Punjab Kitchen was a whole new concept and I again had to learn as I went along. We already had premises in the Team Valley Trading Estate fitted out for food production and at the time wondered how best we could use it.

What was the inspiration for Punjab Kitchen?

I used to play a lot of badminton and after hurting my back had to undergo an operation. As a Muslim, it was impossible to get any Halal food in hospital so Yasmine cooked my meals at home and brought them in. As I lay in my hospital bed, I realised I had the right premises and could supply Halal food to hospitals in the area. At the time, it was a pioneering move. It was a long process to earn the necessary NHS approvals but we got the go- ahead and then made up samples after researching how best we could

improve hospital food. I then went from hospital to hospital to generate interest.

We established Punjab Kitchen in 1996 and initially had no customers and 10 staff. It was only through the good will of the bank that we were able to keep going. My wife cooked the meals using recipes handed down from my mother. We began winning orders from hospitals around the North East and I was then able to travel further afield, to cities like Leeds and Manchester, to win more business. It was then that Punjab Kitchen began to make a little money.

In your own words describe what it is Punjab Kitchen does?

We have created a range of breakfasts, dinners and deserts catering for all dietary requirements. We began supplying Halal and ethnic meals but now produce a range of more than 600 meals to satisfy a wide variety of tastes and dietary requirements. We cater for vegetarian and vegans and we also provide Kosher, gluten free, allergen aware and renal suitable meals together with energy dense and calorie restricted diets.

Punjab Kitchen also produces a range of texture modified meals for patients living with Dyspragia, or difficulty in swallowing. The natural ingredients are pureed and reshaped to look like the real thing while remaining appetising and delicious. As well as hospitals, we also supply meals to care homes, prisons, schools and a home delivery service for those unable to cook for themselves.

How has the firm grown and what do you attribute this to?

We have grown steadily year on year from the start in a competitive market place. We can attribute our growth to ‘providing meals suitable for purpose’ as well as being tasty and healthy. As the business grew we moved to our present site in South Shields in 2001, investing over £800,000 in its refurbishment and expanding the production facility.

At the time we had 24 employees in a 35,000 sq ft production area. We now employ 100 people and have 85 per cent of the market supplying diet specific meals to the NHS.

We sell around 130,000 meals a week into the NHS.

We are constantly listening to hospitals and patients and meeting any new gaps in the market whenever they arise. My son Yaqoob, who has a degree in medical microbiology, leads the New Product Development team and is always looking to develop fresh lines. We now supply meals to the whole of the United Kingdom and Ireland. I was lucky enough to spot a niche in the market at the right time and we were able to come up with the right products.

What is Punjab Kitchen’s USP?

We are a family company and the go-to firm for the public sector when it comes to the provision of meals for specialist diets. We provide the right nutrition in the appropriate form and are dedicated to providing a range of delicious, nourishing and wholesome meals to the very highest of standards. Our standards were used by The British Dietetic Association to set the benchmark for other companies within the sector. We have a dedicated and talented team building data profiles for diet specific meal solutions in NHS Hospitals. The data is used to implement and replace costly labour intensive processes in hospitals, enabling them to make savings.

What is the most important part of your business?

I’m very proud of creating our range of pureed food. I was visiting a hospital one day when I saw a patient being served ‘gloop’ on a ward while other neighbouring patients were eating ‘normal’ meals. I asked about it and I was told that they blended meals for patients who had difficulty in swallowing. It looked awful, smelt awful and probably tasted awful. Following six months of research we came up with our own version where the ingredients were pureed and reshaped to look like the real thing. We took our ideas back to the hospitals and we quickly won orders and that range has grown phenomenally. It allows such patients to eat something suitable for their condition while still maintaining their dignity. For many patients, mealtimes are the highlight of their day and it is important they receive food appropriate dietary needs which are tasty and inviting. Food plays such a vital part on the road to recovery and it is important to me that people enjoy their food while in hospital.

What are your proudest moments with Punjab Kitchen?

I think it has to be receiving an MBE in the Queen’s Honours List for services to innovation and the economy in Tyne and Wear. I dedicated it to my mother because I have never forgotten that it was her recipes which made all this possible. I’m also very proud to have blazed a trail in hospital catering and to have contributed to improving the lives and wellbeing of patients.

Do you live by a certain motto?

It’s an old cliché but it must be ‘The impossible we do at once, but miracles take a little longer’. That’s how we run the business. We can turn an idea into reality in a matter of weeks rather than the months or years which it can take a corporate company to respond.

Is there a particular mistake you have made while in business?

Being in business for over 20 years, I certainly have made some mistakes but thankfully I haven’t made any big mistakes. I always learn from my mistakes and am very careful not to repeat them. I’m an old school businessman who secures new business first, beds it in before moving on to the next stage of expansion.

What are your future plans?

Our special diet section is our fastest growing line as there are many more elderly people requiring these types of products. Over the last couple of years we have introduced many new products such as pureed breakfasts and desserts we also do pureed fish and chips, cheese on toast and beans on toast. We continue to develop new meal ideas and new ranges and Punjab Kitchen always seeks to respondto fresh demands. It’s been a lot of hard work but a very enjoyable journey.

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