Food-to-go specialist Wrap It Up! made it its mission to source the best equipment around when it set up a central production unit four years ago. FEJ returned to its HQ to hear how the faith it placed in that kit is now paying off as the business diversifies into a new area of the market.
Natural fast food chain Wrap It Up! made an investment of £1.5m four years ago when it set up a state-of-the-art production kitchen in East London to serve its growing network of high street stores.
At the time, FEJ was one of the first visitors to be given a tour of the site to discover how the infrastructure would support its ambitious growth plans. So when we return for a second time, expecting to see a kitchen bearing all the scars of a busy few years of service, we’re in for a pleasant surprise.
“We spend a lot of time and effort maintaining it — daily deep cleans, daily washdowns, which is why it looks like nothing has changed and everything is so pristine,” explains the company’s managing director Tayub Mushtaq.
“That’s one of the things I feel strongly about: that when you go into a kitchen the cleanliness needs to be like a hospital. It’s good to have that clinical look — customers come in to see the facility and they are sold on it, they don’t even question the fact that the premises are fit for purpose. It’s been a big selling point for us.”
The ‘customers’, if you’re wondering, are actually other foodservice chains that use Wrap It Up! to produce bespoke menu items or components of menus, such as sauces, soups, cooked protein products and marinated meats.
While the production kitchen was originally built with Wrap It Up!’s own portfolio of stores in mind, the company always knew it would be left with excess capacity that it could tap into. And with market conditions and trends appearing to play firmly into its hands, the business has seized the opportunity to expand into food manufacturing.
“More than 50% of the revenue now comes from third party manufacturing,” reveals Mushtaq. “And that is going to increase to almost 80% over the next two years. So in two years’ time, only 20% will come from servicing Wrap It Up! It has all been made possible by the investments that we have made in the kitchen and the equipment — the Rational ovens and Frimas, the vac-pack machines, the chillers. Four years in they are still working hard.”
The majority of products are cooked, chilled, packed and consumed within 10 days”
Mushtaq describes the equipment he bought as the best investment he has ever made. “It has allowed us to get into food manufacturing, which is now resulting in front-end operators reducing their overheads and capex because they don’t need to invest heavily in equipment — they are pretty much getting a finished product from us, which they just regenerate.”
Although Mushtaq prefers not to state which brands are using its services, they largely all do so because it is more economic on every level.
“Say they had to make a sauce and they needed 10 ingredients, they would have had to deal with four or five suppliers to buy the ingredients for that sauce and then they would need the labour to make it, the space to make it and the storage to put it in. It is amazing what you can do with shelf life and packaging and without really using preservatives and additives. You can prolong product quality and shelf life merely by using the cook-chill-pack solution. You cook to temperature, you chill correctly, you vacuum-pack and you are getting a good 15, 20, 30 days on products, sometimes more.”
As a general rule, Wrap It Up! doesn’t freeze any of the products it produces, unless customers demand it.
“The majority of products are cooked, chilled, packed and consumed within 10 days,” he says. “If a customer comes on board with new products, we’ll go through a nutritional test, a shelf life test, we’ll get all the numbers and quantities determined, and we will then go into production. We were not food manufacturers originally, we were a wrap chain but we have built systems and diversified the business.”
As far as its retail business goes, Wrap It Up! now operates around 20 stores having expanded internationally into markets such as India and Pakistan. The majority of its outlets are franchised, which is the way it intends to keep it.
Mustaq says the income it generates from some of its food manufacturing contracts is the equivalent to opening a couple of stores — only those would demand an outlay of up to £400,000 to fit out.
“Given the current climate with the retail high street, rents are expensive, rates are expensive, the Living Wage is high and food costs are generally higher than they were. We want to avoid being another casualty on the high street,” he insists.
It is hard to argue with that logic, especially when the company’s main asset — its kitchen — is close to being repaid.
“The total investment in this kitchen will be paid off by year five, so three years in we’ve only got another two years to go. When we began we were producing four to five tonnes of food a week. We’re now producing 10 to 12 tonnes but the capacity is 40 to 50. Labour has increased in proportion to the growth, but generally it is one of those situations where as our sales increase everything else decreases.”
Arguably the most important development for the business came recently when it was awarded SALSA accreditation.
The approval is only granted to food suppliers who are able to demonstrate to an inspector that they are able to produce safe and legal food and are committed to continually meeting the requirements of the SALSA standard. The auditing process is notoriously robust, but Wrap It Up! sailed through the assessment, scoring 93 marks out of a possible 98.
“There was only a few little things that they said we had to change, such as putting a line down on the floor to make the segregation of areas clearer and adding a couple of curtains within coldrooms to segregate vegetables. Other than that they loved the structure and they could see the investment that has been made. Very few people get 93 on their first audit so that was a big achievement. Now we will go live on their website and be advertised as a manufacturer, so hopefully that will bring in more clients.”
The mainstays of Wrap It Up!’s production kitchen include Rational combi ovens and multifunctional cooking systems, Foster chillers and Sammic vacuum-packers. Robot Coupe food preparation equipment, meat dicers, mincers and marinating equipment have dramatically reduced the level of manual labour required.
Whereas hand-dicing chicken used to take three people 120 hours a week, it is now done by one person in 20 hours. But there is no question which piece of kit Mushtaq cherishes the most. “The Viessmann coldrooms were the best investment, purely because of their reliability,” he says. “The service level of Viessmann is great — if anything goes wrong they are here within two hours.”
Unsurprisingly for someone who clearly remains content with his kitchen, Mushtaq is not contemplating any huge structural changes. If anything, his next step is to purchase an additional bratt pan, cooker and chiller to serve as a back-up in the event of an unforeseen disaster striking. With clients to appease, the importance of having a contingency plan in place is that bit more pressing these days.
In the meantime, he is eager to ensure the company is getting the most out of its existing estate. He regularly sends his staff on Rational training courses, for example, to ensure the business is using its equipment in the most efficient way. It is already benefitting from Connected Cooking in terms of being able to centrally set up menus and programme its ovens.
“What that does is eliminate the need for anybody in the kitchen to mess about with settings and programmes. They just go in, choose their dish, press it and it takes them through the steps.
“At the moment, the recipes that we do for customers are all bespoke, but we will get customers saying ‘can you cook us a beef bolognaise?’ without giving us a recipe. With Connected Cooking we could choose the bolognaise recipe, give it to the customer as a sample and if they like we just have to press the button on it,” he adds.
With casual dining and restaurant chains looking to reduce costs and make their back-of-house operations as lean as possible, Wrap It Up! is perfectly placed to put its excess production capacity to good use.