The Interview - Wanis - Britain's biggest Afro-Caribbean specialists
Privately owned Wanis Ltd began importing fresh fruit and veg from Africa and the West Indies over 40 years ago, and has since then grown to become the largest supplier of Afro-Caribbean food and drink in the UK. Iconic brands the company supplies include Dragon Stout, Grace Tropical Rhythms, DG Malta, Irish Moss, Tropiway Fufu Flour and the Jamaican soft drink Bigga. In addition to over 1,000 Caribbean products, the company also markets a comprehensive range from Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa. And itÕs not just the ethnic audience thatÕs buying: many of these products are crossing over into the mainstream market as holiday makers recreate the tastes theyÕve enjoyed on their travels. The Grocery Trader spoke to Sanjay Wadhwani, Managing Director of Wanis Ltd.
The Grocery Trader - When was Wanis set up, and by whom?
Wanis was set up in 1964 by my father, Tulsidas Wadhwani.
GT - How did they get involved with Afro-Caribbean foods in the first place?
My father had spent some time in East Africa and the Caribbean before setting up Wanis in the UK. He was a great lover of food, and like many industrious immigrants he set up his own retail shop. After a while he carved out a niche by selling a small range of African and Caribbean foods to immigrants like himself.
GT - Who owns the company now, how many staff and operating locations are there?
Wanis is a family-owned business, and employs over 80 people from the sole 100,000 sq ft site in Stratford, East London.
GT - Do you have any plans to expand or relocate?
In 2007 we are relocating to a new building in Leyton, close to major road links, the new Eurostar terminal at Stratford and New Spitalfields Market. The custom-built premises will feature a high bay facility, with a 50% increase in size. A development kitchen will be added, which will assist with our strategy to increase our NPD offering.
GT - What are the benefits of being a family owned and run business?
It ensures continuity of service and customer care. On becoming MD, I took over a large number of already established relationships with both suppliers and customers. My brother, who was previously working in the City, joined us seven years ago, and together with the management team we continue to maintain, grow and build these relationships, responding quickly to requests or issues. There are times when you have to be flexible to customers' needs and go the extra mile for them, whether that means setting up a tasting session for them or giving the buyer an education in Afro-Caribbean foods. Family to us will always mean our suppliers, our customers and our employees - they are all part of our family. It is our relationships that give us the support to grow.
GT - How big is your UK sales force? Who are your trade customers - supermarkets / multiple retailers, catering, ethnic retailers? What proportion of your sales are to UK supermarkets? Is this proportion growing?
We have a national sales force of eight, headed by our sales director John Payne. Currently a small but growing percentage of our volume is mainstream grocery. The rest is national and regional wholesalers, facia brands, CTNs and independents. The more progressive supermarket chains are recognising the profit potential and are allocating more fixture space to Afro-Caribbean brands within the context of the total World Food fixture, which is translating into sales.
GT - How do you (Wanis) compare in size and product range with other UK-based importers/distributors of Afro-Caribbean products?
We are now the largest Afro-Caribbean supplier in the UK, with turnover expected to exceed £30 million this year. Our product list is very comprehensive. We don't just carry the high profit lines that we know are popular, but complement our portfolio with a number of less well known products, so we can provide our customers with a more complete and authentic offering.
GT - As importers, what is your relationship with the manufacturers you represent?
We work closely with our manufacturers to deliver authentic products that offer attractive margins to our customers and answer a consumer demand or need. Given that the UK market is often very different to the domestic market of overseas manufactures, it is critical to understand each other's expectations.
GT - Do you buy the goods outright in the country of origin and then import them, or do you act on their behalf and take a share of the profit?
Rather than act as an extended sales office of the manufacturer, we take the risk of investing in products we believe have wide appeal in the UK. We place great importance on communicating ideas, best practice, product enhancements and knowing our market, giving a competitive advantage both to us and to our partners. For brand owners that require more than a sales network, we offer to take control and project manage the public relations, marketing and promotional aspects for brands. We focus on the long term, and we only invest in activities that will add value and longevity to a brand, rather than for its own sake.
GT - What are the biggest brands you market? Do you act as brand managers in terms of marketing and advertising?
The biggest brands stocked by Wanis include Dragon Stout, DG Malta, Big Bamboo, Irish Moss, BaldwinÕs Sarsaparilla, Tropiway Fufu Flour and Bigga. Historically these brands have got where they are in the UK as a result of a loyal consumer base, so weÕre working to broaden their appeal over time, without alienating the core audience. We employ a wide range of consumer marketing strategies, from advertising to PR.
GT - Which are your latest new product launches across the board?
Under our 'Tropical Sun' brand, we have added to our range of hot sauces with Sweet Mango Chilli Sauce. Wanis has also won exclusive distribution deals for Dragon Stout, DG Malta and Baron products.
GT - Which of your products are strong sellers in supermarkets?
Our 'Jamaica Sun' products such as Callaloo and Ackee appeal most to Afro-Caribbean shoppers, who make up the core of that range's customer base, and do particularly well in areas with a large Afro-Caribbean population. Our 'Tropical Sun' products enjoy popularity across the total shopper profile, with our Hot Pepper Sauces and Coconut Water selling well in the multiples.
GT - How do you work with retailers to maximise sales in store?
We work with retailers to help maximise sales in-store by organising taste tests, merchandising fixtures and advising on pricing and 'draw' lines, as well as providing marketing materials.
GT - When it comes to merchandising these products in supermarkets, are you in favour of specific, signposted Afro-Caribbean sections in stores, or would you put like products with like? Or both?
Currently, our position in the World Food section is beneficial for both our company and the retailer. Our core ethnic market knows where to look for their stock items, and the more adventurous consumers know where to go for a taste of something different. With the growth of interest in Afro-Caribbean food I suspect we will see an expansion of World Food fixtures. Of course, a number of our Tropical Sun products can easily sit next to similar products, as is the case in Convenience. As time passes we feel that the divisions between ethnic and non-ethnic food will disappear. After all, all food is 'world' food!
GT - Can you tell us a bit more about the way in which Afro-Caribbean products are finding popularity amongst non-Afro-Caribbean consumers? Which products are Brits going for in particular?
I believe two factors are important here. Firstly, television cookery programmes have nurtured a trend in adventurous home cooking and people are more willing to try out exotic and new things. Secondly, the fact that British consumers have been bombarded with the same ethnic food for decades - Afro-Caribbean food offers consumers exciting new tastes and flavours.
Dragon Stout is also benefiting from the increased interest in foreign imported beer, particularly when drunk with food, and we are seeing take up from the non Afro-Caribbean community increasing. Our Tropical Sun range contains many of our best sellers, from Coconut Water and Coconut Milk to our range of seasonings and sauces, all of which are crossing over to the mainstream consumer.
GT - How authentic are the products you market? Are they 'Anglicised' in any way for the UK market, besides the packaging?
All our products are authentic and not 'Anglicised.' We supply a high percentage of the UK's Afro-Caribbean and African community, who demand brands and tastes available in their country of origin. That said, we are working on improving the packaging of our products, to give them a more mainstream feel.
GT - Do brand owners approach you, generally, or do you approach them?
Historically we have been viewed as primarily a specialist wholesale cash & carry, so smaller brand owners come directly to us. In the past few years we have evolved into a specialist distributor and have begun approaching the larger brand owners as our reach has become nationwide.
GT - What are your criteria for taking new brands on?
The most essential thing for us is that they are established as a quality product in their home country and have a certain heritage behind them. If the brands have a strong presence in their country of origin, it is a great base for building them within the UK market. Consistency of supply is also another pointer we take into consideration when taking on a new brand.
GT - Have you got room for more imported brands in your portfolio, and if so, what kinds of products are on your shopping list?
Yes, however, we are very selective in the new products that we offer. We have a fixed resource and capacity, and so we want products and brands that we believe have something unique to offer, including ultimately the staying power to make it to the mainstream in the UK.
GT - Do you market Afro-Caribbean products of your own in the UK?
Yes, we have launched two ranges with specific markets in mind. 'Jamaica Sun' offers products specific to the Jamaican kitchen, and 'Tropical Sun' is designed to deliver ingredients that can be used in a wide range of exotic dishes, not just Afro-Caribbean. Both ranges include herbs and spices, sauces, canned, traditional flours and powders, ackee, callaloo, guava jelly, molasses and chicken Vienna sausages.
GT - What current advertising and marketing are you doing for the brands you handle and your own ones, and where is it happening - the ethnic community media or mainstream, or both?
With the heritage brands, there is already a high level of customer awareness. We support our brands on a targeted basis. Considerable budget has been placed behind in-store support, promotions and advertising. We are also pro-actively supporting our brands via PR in the trade and consumer media, including ethnic and mainstream publications.
GT - Where do you see the overall Afro-Caribbean food and drink market in the UK going from here?
Afro-Caribbean produce is the up and coming star of the ethnic foods sector - more retailers are recognising the incremental profit contribution that Afro-Caribbean products can make to their business. It's only a matter of time before the taste of the Caribbean gives some of the more established ethnic meal choices some serious competition. We believe the future looks bright for the Caribbean food industry.
GT - Finally, what's the next step for Wanis?
The move to the new premises presents an opportunity to take the business to another level, and will facilitate our marketing campaign to raise awareness of our brands and our role as one of the premier Ethnic Food distributors. It will give us an opportunity to reorganise the layouts in the warehouse, re-evaluate our stock systems and change them if required. We are also in the process of updating our brand image, and look to raise our profile with a greater amount of PR and marketing activity. This will not only help us to increase brand awareness but also enable us to build greater brand loyalty.
Tel: 020 8986 1100
|About us - Find out a little bit more about us here.
Contact us - Click here for contact information. We are waiting to here from you.
Free issue - We are pleased to be giving away free voucher copies of the magazine to anybody who wants one. Please click the link above to recieve your FREE copy.
Advertising information - Find out about how to advertise on our website or magazine.