“Take advantage of this crisis” – Mushtaque Ahmed

JJ Foodservice Chief Operating Officer, Mushtaque Ahmed, explains how the foodservice wholesaler set up its home delivery service and what’s next for the sector

When did you decide to go into home deliveries?

When the government announced that restaurants would need to close and only takeaways could remain open, it meant we were about to lose a huge amount of our business overnight.

At the same time, we quickly gained a new type of customer – the general public. When consumers couldn’t get what they needed from the supermarkets, they started coming to us. And when restaurants were told they couldn’t stay open anymore, they came to us too and we quickly had people lining up outside our gates.

It was a Saturday morning at 8am when I got the call from Mustafa [Kiamil], our CEO. That’s when we started planning how we will survive this crisis. We went through the different scenarios of what could be achieved quickly.

So what was the plan?

The first thing we did was to drop the minimum order from £125 to £79 to make our delivery business more accessible to consumers. We had to call in the IT department to write some quick scripts to cover this. It had to be applied to all 11 branches.

The next big thing was getting the right products in – products we felt consumers would benefit from. We were very clear from the beginning that we couldn’t compete with the Tescos of this world.

With the support of our purchasing team, we looked at food, non-food and quickly selected the obvious things that would be needed in every household, such as pasta, rice, bin bags, washing-up liquid, toilet rolls and chicken.

We compiled a list of essential household items. At that point we got marketing and communications involved – remember, this is still all happening on a Saturday – when most of these employees aren’t usually working.

Our design team put an email together in two hours showing all of the products we thought would be relevant to consumers.

By 2pm we had something ready to go out and at that point our IT department got involved. Our Chief Technology Officer and a team of developers were upgrading the front end of the website, with information around the new minimum order.

By 4pm everything was ready, the email went out shortly after announcing the new next-day home delivery service and the rest is history. People logged in that evening and immediately started putting orders in.

This is a classic example of how, with a flexible system, a hands-on approach and the right teams around you, anything is possible.

We managed to start a completely new business in the space of eight hours – from 8am to 4pm. We got in to home deliveries from a crisis – four weeks later and we have more than 24,000 live home customers.

Have you launched any additional services?

To support takeaway during this time, we’ve been offering free websites so their customers can safely pre-order for collection or delivery. We already have five takeaways up and running with sites we’ve built in the space of a week.

We started a VIP service for the NHS, police and fire brigades to ensure that when they visit a branch and show their ID, they’re served immediately.

Our purchasing department have been working tirelessly to bring in new products every day. Just this week we’ve announced a new home essentials range featuring more than 300 grocery items for homes, including individually portioned ribeye, sirloin and rump steaks, smaller pack sizes for fruits and vegetables.

Overnight, our team and our industry have quickly become one of the many heroes in this crisis – delivering food to millions of homes, including to self-isolating, vulnerable and shielding communities.

What’s next?

We’re currently trialling a same-day delivery service in London, so that when a customer places an order by 11am, we can deliver by 6pm in the evening on the same day – adding a totally new layer of convenience.

We’re hoping this will help with the many self-isolating or vulnerable people who can’t get out like everyone else.

What do you see happening further along in the future?

Under the circumstances it’s difficult to predict the future. One thing for sure is that recovery will be a very lengthy process. We’ve hit our lowest point, it can only get better.

Even though we have acquired a huge number of new customers, we’ve still lost our core restaurant and takeaway customers due to advice from the government to remain closed (unless they offer a pre-ordering service) and they represent a much higher order value.

We think foodservice outlets will begin to open again soon. If businesses are not running, the government can’t get the tax they need to keep paying everyone 80% of their salary.

How has JJ’s managed to adapt so quickly?

It was possible because the teams we have – marketing, purchasing, IT, operations – have an ‘anything is possible’ attitude. Roll up your sleeves and get on with it. If we didn’t have that attitude, if we didn’t have that culture, we wouldn’t have been able to make this happen during a crisis period.

We need to take advantage of this crisis to stress test our business. It’s always important to have a contingency plan for emergencies, but it’s extremely difficult to simulate a scenario like this which can convincingly test your system.

We’d never have been able to foresee this or simulate this [COVID-19]. No company in the world could predict this, but my philosophy is to use it as an opportunity.

Things like this happen once in a century; you will never get this opportunity again in your lifetime. Use it to test your weaknesses and prepare for the future.

How to redeploy your assets, to keep your workforce. To keep as many people as possible during your peril. Can you rearrange your product range to diversify?

Stress test your system and make it more resilient than ever before.

coronavirus covid-19 delivery Foodservice home delivery JJ Foodservice Mushtaque Ahmed wholesaler