IN DEPTH: How can a more diverse workforce benefit the UK catering equipment sector?

One of the effects of the coronavirus crisis was to throw into stark relief the systemic inequalities that members of the BAME (black and minority ethnic – essentially anyone non-white) community face in their everyday lives.

And with the increasing prominence of movements like Black Lives Matter, Catering Insight firstly commissioned Gratte Brothers Catering Equipment’s engineering operations manager, Leroy Fearon, to discuss the subject of our own industry’s diversity in an opinion piece, and now we are focusing on it more in depth in this special feature.

Catering Insight is painfully aware that the typical demographic of the UK catering equipment supply chain is, as the saying goes: ‘male, stale and pale’. In previous years we have examined the impact of the male category of that adage, and the industry is at least collectively aiming to reduce the ‘stale’ nature of the sector’s workforce, with apprentice training and initiatives such as the CEDA Academy.

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But as yet there does not seem to be an overall push to widen the ethnic backgrounds of those welcomed into the sector. So, should there be?

According to Amjad Alikhan, the MD of Doncaster-based dealer, General Catering Solutions: “Typically, those of Indian or Pakistani heritage go into the food business, owning restaurants, takeaways or cash and carries. There’s a certain amount of catering equipment supply extension to cash and carry businesses, such as tandoori pots, but their core business is still perishables.

“It’s rare to see these types of people as catering equipment dealers; they already make money in what they do and may see the equipment side of things as not worth the investment.”

He also emphasised that South Asian culture prioritises professions such as civil engineering, medicine or law, and particularly family businesses. “Traditionally, an Asian family might think ‘if you’re going to go into sales, then work for yourself,” he added.

The cultural predominance of those careers is perhaps a contributing factor as to why there are not many candidates of an Indian or Pakistani background typically applying for jobs in the UK catering equipment sector. Alikhan believes: “As an industry we need to create a larger awareness of our engineering courses, so Indo-Pak people can find skills there and then get into management or consultancy. We need to be a bit less niche – over the years the catering equipment game has become a bit of an old boys’ club.”

General Catering Solutions MD Amjad Alikhan says that Asian culture prioritises professions such as civil engineering, medicine and law.

Citing factors such as the South Asian community’s entrepreneurial tradition in looking for quick returns, which may conflict with catering equipment businesses’ models, and the relative technological lag of the sector, Alikhan commented: “If we want to change the industry as a whole, then we have to look at it holistically. That includes bringing in that diversity and finding out why they’re successful or not. With time, things will change, but there have to be bodies in place that actually support that change.”

But what benefits would a more diverse workforce bring to the sector? “A better understanding of diverse culture,” according to Alikhan. “There needs to be more acceptance of differing culture. For instance, I don’t drink alcohol, but many times people in the industry have tried to persuade me to. I don’t really enjoy being asked these questions, because I have made my own conscious decision.

“There’s a difference between overt and covert prejudice. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t noticed covert prejudice in this industry, but it doesn’t bother me. I’ve visited many foodservice sites over the years and I would say at only 1%, if not less, someone looked at me in a funny way.

“But I’m not going to waste my time trying to dissect it because I don’t want to perpetuate that thinking or create a negative attitude towards anyone else in my community.”

He also thinks that British traits in certain aspects of catering equipment are overly fussy. “For example, many sites want bespoke fabrication, but those in Europe and elsewhere successfully use standard sizes. We are particular perhaps in the wrong areas. Maybe bringing in more diversity with a fresh perspective will change people’s attitudes and enable us to question whether we really need some elements.”

So why does Alikhan think that there are not many BAME senior executives within the sector? “Some don’t stay in the industry long enough to get promoted, and others may leave to start their own business.”

One who has stayed in the industry since 1994 is Ajaz Ahktar, the MD of second hand equipment distributor Caterfix since 2017, and previously on the other side of the supplier fence with Foster. “Having visited lots of distributors, suppliers, conferences and exhibitions over the years, there are hardly any women or ethnic people, it tends to be middle aged white men,” he analysed.

Caterfix MD Ajaz Akhtar believes that BAME people can bring different values to a corporation.

“It always amazed me because if you look at the industry, a lot of end users are from different ethnic backgrounds. At Caterfix we deal with every kind of nationality there is, but it seems to me that the industry itself has got into a cycle of not looking past their noses.

“I think Asian people especially make good sales executives, because if you can speak end users’ native language and understand their culture, it gives you such an advantage. I’ve definitely had orders that have come my way from end users, just by being Asian and speaking the language.”

Ahktar cited additional benefits of employing more diverse staff too: “BAME people bring different values to a corporation. Their culture and work ethic could be a little bit different, and they can interact with people differently, so it can be quite refreshing and enlightening for a company.”

He feels that his ethnicity has definitely been an advantage in his career: “Certainly when I was at Foster, people were fascinated by my culture and it gives you a good starting point for building long-term relationships. I never suffered any racism, it was all positive.”

As for the dearth of senior BAME representatives in the industry, he feels that this is due to the small pool available overall, rather than a lack of internal promotion.

On the other side of the supply fence is Mark Cooke, national account manager at Meiko UK. He also believes there is not enough diversity in the sector, for two reasons: “The industry needs more BAME representatives if it is to truly reflect the catering industry in the UK.

“If we take a look at the workplace (kitchens, front of house, restaurant to name just a few areas) we see a plethora of ethnicities providing the daily operations and services which are the heartbeat of our industry. I started as a commis chef in Manchester, quickly working my way up through the brigade to junior sous chef and head chef positions in both hotel and contract catering.

Meiko UK national account manager Mark Cooke thinks there is a visible disconnect between career progression in catering and its associated equipment supply chain.

“The progression route from the kitchen/restaurant to catering equipment supply chain has not been reflective and there is a quite visible disconnect. Somewhere along the line progression seems to stagnate for many, and the kitchen, restaurant and front of house remains the attainable level.”

Secondly, he emphasised: “If we take a look at the catering establishments we frequent in the UK then we also see here an industry that is heavily reliant on a BAME workforce within restaurants specialising in cuisine from around the world.

“The UK could not be more diverse in this respect. The question has to be asked therefore why the UK catering industry has such a diverse range of options for us all to choose from when dining, but that this is not reflected in the catering equipment supply chain?”

However, he also underlined that Meiko itself is putting in the effort to try and change this: “Meiko fully embraces diversity within all sectors of the business. This has been the case prior to my joining almost 2 years ago.

“Candidates are judged solely on their ability and experience, as it should be for any business. There are no barriers and there is no quota system in place. It is not my first supply chain employer, therefore it’s clear to see that there are other like-minded companies embracing diversity.”

As Cooke’s career route took him from the kitchen to the equipment supply chain, he commented: “I feel able to discuss this rich source of potential as there are many more like me, better than me I dare say, who have been lost to the industry.

“Having a more diverse workforce in the industry would benefit the industry immensely for a number of reasons, not least by providing the BAME workforce with something to aim towards, a route out of the day-to-day catering operation and into the supply chain with an accrued knowledge of the industry and its workings.”

However, he acknowledged: “There are of course other routes. Not all catering equipment supply chain professionals cut their teeth in the hustle and bustle of the commercial kitchen or restaurant. For me it definitely helped, it felt like a natural progression.

“Put simply, any industry that does not have a reflective workforce is missing something and by addressing this it can only benefit the industry going forward. Seeing access to opportunities is key to encouraging diversity, both from within the industry and from outside.”

Cooke feels that his Carribbean heritage has been a huge positive to his career: “Coming from a household where everything was prepared fresh daily and where the children had to contribute towards the preparation, it made sense to me to pursue a career in catering.

“Whilst working, I could see that there were other opportunities within the industry that I could explore and I decided early on that I was going to do just that. My route to the catering supply chain came after first teaching food preparation and then via foodservice supply of specialty foods. Passing on knowledge to the next generation of budding chefs seemed like the natural thing to do, as did supplying the finest foods chefs demanded.

“The same routes and opportunities need to be made available to those currently working in the industry and if there are fewer BAME candidates either coming forward and ultimately being successful then surely there is a breakdown somewhere which deserves to be investigated.”

With catering itself having a healthy representation of BAME workers, albeit at mid-level and below, Cooke analysed: “This is clearly not represented to the same degree the higher up the ladder you look. As such the catering supply chain then becomes devoid of BAME representation, as this would be a logical next step, be it a sideways or upward career move.

“The diversity is there within the industry, we can all see that when we dine and drink out; equally we can also see the lack of representation at senior level and it is here that I feel we are losing individuals through a lack of clear and obvious career progression avenues.”

He concluded: “It’s understandable that if you cannot see a route to the top in your current environment or at least evidence of previous successes that disheartenment can, and often does, set in.”

Valera’s Kurran Gadhvi (left) reported there is a large mix of ethnicity and gender at the supplier.

The sharp contrast between end users’ ethnic background and that of the supply chain was also a point picked up on by Kurran Gadhvi, marketing and sales manager at cooking equipment supplier Valera. “Having been born and brought up in the UK, I see myself as British and no different to anyone else. However, seeing the lack of diversity in our industry is very strange and can definitely be improved.

“But I think there is a lack of BAME/females and a strong young generation coming through in general, which is something we at Valera are definitely trying to change with a real great mix of genders, ages and races, making it a real fun environment to work in.”

He also sees advantages to increasing the sector’s ethnic mix: “They would understand a diverse range of cuisine to ensure the correct equipment is provided to the clients.

“Different skill sets and special attributes found in many ethnic groups would help in all different elements of the industry, from purchasing (haggling!) and selling to many ethnic end user clients who feel comfortable working with people of similar background. Plus there is a strong work ethic from generations of immigrants coming to the country after WWII.

“Many BAME representatives have strong ambition and drive, and would definitely move up the ladder fast into senior roles if given the opportunity to shine within companies in our sector.”

Gadhvi also recalled: “I have even been to industry events where speakers or members of the industry have been knowingly or unknowingly racist or racially stereotypical in speeches or conversations. If there were more BAME members present, this would definitely not take place.”

He feels his ethnicity has assisted with sales to clients of different ethnic backgrounds, as they can feel more at ease with him. He added: “At industry events with literally 1 in 150 (approximately) being of a BAME community, we tend to stand out. I use this as a chance to help break barriers, have interesting conversations with people of different backgrounds who probably don’t get opportunities to talk to people of different BAME backgrounds due to location, upbringing and culture.”

The same industry events experience is shared by Rag Hulait, UK director of sales at food safety monitoring specialist, Monika. “I don’t see many people of ethnicity when I attend various industry events. That said, I believe it’s probably more to do with the fact that the industry is not necessarily seen as very appealing, nor is there an obvious route into a good career within it, rather than that the opportunities do not exist for ethnic minorities.

“Many BAME people will be involved in the hospitality industry either as workers in kitchens, production or customer service positions rather than in the supply chain for catering equipment.”

Monika UK director of sales Rag Hulait has worked his way up through the company from marketing executive.

He feels: “I think it’s important to ensure that opportunities are there for everyone to be a success within the industry. I firmly believe they do exist and it’s a great industry to work in. It has certainly allowed me to meet some fantastic people and visit some unbelievable customer sites. Being from a BAME background has not held me back at all.”

Hulait’s own career has been a success story: “At Monika I have always been supported and encouraged to achieve the best I can, which is the same for all our company employees regardless of race. I have been successively promoted within the company from a marketing executive in the early days to now being the UK director of sales. The pathways certainly did exist for me at Monika.

“The lack of senior BAME industry figures could just be down to the lack of numbers who see the industry as a viable career path compared to others that are better understood or promoted, rather than being prevented due to their ethnicity or background.”

Whatever the reasons for our sector’s ethnic homogeneity, it is definitely an issue that more companies need to focus on. After all, in straitened times such as these, gaining any competitive advantage possible is surely every business’ top priority.

Solution suggestions

It’s fair to say that there is not much ethnic diversity in the UK catering equipment supply chain, so what can we do to change that composition? Amjad Alikhan, MD of dealer, General Catering Solutions, had a suggestion: “We need to focus on a sales and marketing approach, but our industry typically doesn’t have the same budget to spend as other sectors.”

Ajaz Akhtar, MD of fellow dealer, Caterfix, thought along the same lines: “Suppliers and distributors need to open up the way they recruit. People from my background, they don’t naturally fall into these jobs. They’re often attracted by high tech industries or professions like doctors, accountants or lawyers.

“Asian or black people either have to fall into our industry by accident. I think sometimes where recruiters go looking for salespeople, they are not naturally looking in areas where Asian people would be looking for jobs.”

He continued: “Asian people are entrepreneurs and start their own businesses, often in the food trade. But the problem is, by that time they don’t then tend to go and work for suppliers or distributors, they have then gone past that stage.

“We need a bit of lateral thinking. We should try to capture university graduates before they get into their line of business. Firms should go to university fairs – I’ve never seen any catering equipment company there. They could introduce candidates to our sector and emphasise they could actually do really well because of the qualities they have and the languages they speak.”

Akhtar concluded: “If you really want to target these kind of people to come and work for you – and there can be a lot of benefits – you have to think about how to attract them into the business. I’m not sure many suppliers and distributors go to the lengths of trying to identify these people at that level, whereas other professions do. You tend to do a bit more investigation before you start putting in the adverts to attract these people, but the rewards for those suppliers and distributors could really be quite big if they did put the effort in.”

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