With consumers demanding fast-paced and quality-rich options for food, it is not surprising that restaurants, along with other retail segments, are in a tug of war with their competitors to offer the best consumer experience and maintain consumer loyalty. In order to do so, along with providing the right ambience and a unique dining experience, restaurants constantly try to up their game by innovating and creating new menu items. To aid restaurant owners and chefs in this area, Unilever Food Solutions (UFS), which was established in Pakistan in 2001, works to simplify their lives by providing them with time-saving ingredients, innovative recipes, tools for operating sustainable kitchens and overall training and support.
Sajjad Akbar, Country Manager, UFS Pakistan, explains that if a restaurant uses a five-step recipe to make chicken strips, UFS will simplify the recipe into a three-step one with the help of a UFS product, such as readymade bread crumbs. Along with their products, UFS run an online academy which chefs can use as a culinary resource and for understanding modules such as health and safety and waste management. There are basic trainings that are open to the public and others for verified chefs and other kitchen staff and come with official certifications.
Although UFS has been in existence for almost 18 years, today, more than before, there is a need for their services due to increased competition in Pakistan’s food industry. According to Aurora’s March-April 2018 cover story For the Love of Food, Pakistanis spend more than Rs 114 billion annually on eating out, spending almost 40% of their income on readymade food.
Akbar concurs: “There is a specialised need for this channel of communication between an entity like UFS and restaurants and chefs... We try to offer services that can make their lives easier so that they can spend more time on innovation and creativity.”
As they cater to thousands of restaurants, UFS categorises their audience into different segments, including casual dining and fine dining restaurants and hotels (such as PC and Marriott). UFS caters to over 6,000 clients locally (including Hardee’s, Hot ‘N Spicy, KFC, OPTP and Subway) and have a global presence in 70 plus countries.
In terms of products, Unilever’s most successful brand is Best Foods Real Mayo – a flagship product which major fast-food chains use as a base to make their sauces. For instance, a renowned local restaurant in Karachi uses it by adding their own ingredients to it to make a garlic mayo sauce used in their paratha rolls. UFS also creates products which are exclusive to a single restaurant.
Akbar says Unilever realised the need for a specialised department for food solutions because “restaurant owners, managers and chefs do not want to talk to salesmen or retailers about food solutions. They want to discuss ideas with like-minded people, preferably other chefs who have the same skill sets and understanding as they do.”
In addition to their products, UFS have a global network of 250 chefs who draw on their extensive experience in professional food services. Among the chefs catering to the Pakistan market is Joanne Limoanco-Gendrano (responsible for the Middle East, Pakistan and Sri Lanka). She has 19 years of experience and was the first Filipina Executive sous-chef at the Dusit Thani in Manila. She also headed the UFS Chefmanship Academy for the Southeast Asia region. Another chef, Mukrram Ali, was awarded the AA Rosette Certification at Landmark Hotel in London and has previously worked with Michelin starred chefs Thomas Keller, Gary Rhodes and Michael Sandoval. All these chefs make it a point to interact with each other in order to better cater to their local clients. For instance, chefs from UFS Pakistan frequently communicate with those from other Muslim countries as their food markets are relatable to Pakistan’s in terms of consumer needs and preferences.
UFS have two ways to meet a client’s needs. One way is working with an existing restaurant and in this case, UFS employees will analyse the menu to see which items can be modified with the help of UFS products or custom training sessions. The other way is when an upcoming restaurant is about to launch, UFS will work with them to research, experiment and develop new recipes. Akbar gives the example of one of UFS’s latest projects: “A popular American chain is opening soon in Pakistan and UFS have worked with them to develop localised recipes, keeping their original menu in mind.” According to Akbar, all UFS employees, be they in sales or at director level, have to go through a basic cooking skills training upon joining.
Currently, UFS are working on a research-based technology which will allow restaurants to understand consumer behaviour while reading a menu. “We are working on an eyeball tracking technology. A person’s eye movements are tracked when they read a menu to ascertain where the eyes linger longer and where they do not. However, it is primarily for research purposes and not available to everyone.”
Akbar concludes that catering to a restaurant with UFS is a far different and unique experience than creating and selling a product for general retail.