Bradford in West Yorkshire has been named the UK’s curry capital for six successive years. Houston, Texas, is the home of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Two cities, famous for two very different reasons, but linked by one enterprising wholesaler – Lubna Foods.
So how did a cash & carry in the north of England come to have a booming business in the US?
Purchasing director Nasser Ali is the third generation of the family to work in Lubna Foods, which posted a turnover of £20m last year. It was founded in 1970 by his grandfather, Ebrahim Patel, who had came to the UK from India in 1953.
After working in the mills for more than a decade, Patel opened up a string of shops and bakeries, before setting up a cash & carry that supplied retailers.
Patel’s sons Ashraf and Abdul – Ali’s father and uncle – joined the cash & carry in the 1980s. Over time, they experimented with buying in spices and pulses from India and Canada, but worked out that it would be worthwhile for Lubna to source such products itself.
Ali says: “In 1992, they made the decision to shift away from being solely a cash & carry and to move more into sourcing and providing food ingredients. They developed Lubna’s own-brand range, Supreme. Since then, the business has never really looked back, and we now have strategic distributors in most of the major European countries.”
The business hasn’t stopped at Europe. Ali notes: “My uncle, Ali Patel, who’s also a director, moved to Houston in 2001. After starting off with a small leasehold site, he’s now moved into a purpose-built 50,000 sq ft site and is even doing business with the major supermarkets out there. Business is flourishing.”
As it stands, 70% of Lubna’s trade comes from its food ingredients operation, the other 30% coming from cash & carry sales. Ali and the head office team work from a 60,000 sq ft site in Bradford, which also hosts the cash & carry, and the business has three units in Bradford Wholesale Market as well.
Lubna carries around 2,500 SKUs, selling products such as rices, pulses, dried fruits and nuts, and ground and whole spices. 70% of its customers are retailers, primarily of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin.
Around 75 members of staff and six trucks help the business serve customers across the UK. But why do retailers and foodservice operators as far afield as Cardiff and Edinburgh turn to a business based in Yorkshire for their goods?
Ali says: “Because they get a great service, a consistent product, transparency and a good price. We have five sales reps based strategically across the UK. Building relationships with our customers is fundamental to what we do, and as a result, they trust us, which is absolutely vital.”
He adds: “At least one member of the buying team is always out in Asia. Having a rapport with our suppliers overseas is so important. And that means visiting not just the supplier, but the actual farmer, too, to build a traceable chain.”
Lubna has been a member of the Today’s Group buying group for nearly 30 years, and this allows it to be competitive in its pricing thanks to Today’s national promotions. Lubna has been increasing its standing in the Today’s Group in recent years and is aiming to become a Today’s Group Retail Club member.
As for Ali, he went straight into the family business after graduating from the University of Manchester in 2006. He notes: “My finishing of university coincided with the downturn in the financial market. But even before that, I had decided to give back to the family once I had graduated, rather than going into, say, banking, because I was in a privileged position thanks to my family.”
All three generations of the family still work for Lubna, with grandfather (now aged 85), father and son all putting in six-day weeks.
“A hard work ethic has been instilled in me. Without it, our business wouldn’t be here and it wouldn’t be growing,” Ali says. “I don’t regret the decision to come and work here one bit and it’s an honour that I have managed to improve aspects of it.”
One of the aspects of Lubna that Ali has influenced has been to refocus on the cash & carry business.
“I spent time on the floor, and found that customers wanted to come in, shop and get back to their business in as short a time as possible,” he says. “Unfortunately, if they had items missing on their list – primarily mainstream English grocery items like soft drinks and confectionery – they then had to go to another wholesaler.
“In response, we developed an area of the cash & carry that created room for an extra 1,000 pallets. This has made us a one-stop-shop and has allowed us to win new customers, as well as boosting the spend of existing customers.”
Last year, Lubna invested in new packaging technology and a makeover for the Supreme brand. Other investments aimed at keeping the business with the times and ahead of the competition include an overhaul of the IT system and the purchase earlier this year of iPads for the sales reps, complete with bespoke ordering software.
An online ordering tool is some way off, though: “We have a website, but only about 10% of our customer base would be receptive to ordering online,” admits Ali. “Most tend to come to the cash & carry with a paper list, for example. We do have a WhatsApp facility whereby customers send over pictures of their list, though, and a strong telesales team.”
Ali lists the increase in the National Living Wage, the weakness of the pound, global warming and Brexit as the biggest challenges facing Lubna going forward. But he is more focused on the opportunities that lie in wait.
“We’d hope for about 50% increase in turnover growth in five to 10 years,” Ali says. “We are looking at the Middle East and see real potential there. But the biggest growth will come from our operation in the States and we are looking at opening another site there.”
Long live Lubna’s American Dream.