FEATURE: Chef Middle East launches hi-tech food hub

Chef Middle East, despite a wobbly logistics market, have made a powerful statement about the future of their operations in the UAE with a new state-of-the-art distribution facility in DIP.
Food, Food logistics, Logistics, Middle east, Warehouse, ANALYSIS

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Chef Middle East launched its new distribution centre in Dubai Investments Park in late May, part of a logistics surge for the area driven by a need for more modern and purpose-built warehousing. For Chef Middle East it was no different.

“Our business for the last 20 years has been growing quite significantly and over the year’s we’ve bolted on bits of infrastructure as we needed them,” explains Steve Pyle, CEO, Chef Middle East. “We reached a stage in our development where the level of complexity had become such that we needed to consolidate and build something that would allow us to better leverage our expertise.”

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To that end the supplier of foods to the hotel, dining and airline industries developed its new AED 75-million DC, complete with the latest tracking, picking and storage technologies available on the market. “We wanted to introduce more technology into our operation, because we’d grown to such an extent that our existing infrastructure was bursting at the seams and we weren’t getting the flexibility and efficiency that we wanted,” says Pyle. “So this development was an opportunity to optimise efficiency and build ourselves a platform that is future-engineered and suited to growth.”

The 10,000 square meter facility is a fully integrated, technology enabled logistics hub, allowing Chef Middle East to offer an efficient and reliable end-to-end cold chain solution. It’s triple the size of its predecessor and includes over 7,000 square meters of temperature-controlled storage areas that can accommodate up to 8,000 pallets of chilled, frozen, and ambient food and food related products.

Within it, Chef Middle East stores 4,000 global food products with a combination of premium quality ingredients for its rapidly growing regional client base within the region’s hotel and restaurant community. “We work across several categories supplying anything from a cut of tenderloin to chocolate powder for a pastry chef to dry Japanese items, seafood and rare herbs and spices,” says Pyle. “We deal with all the big hotel groups in the region. Jumeirah Group, Emaar, Marriot etc, we also work with the Rotana Group, Hyatt Group, Hilton, Atlantis.”

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But Pyle adds that this client base is changing, which is one of the reasons that new distribution centre was necessary. “Those guys have been long-term clients of ours and one of the things that we’ve seen over the years and especially in the last 18 months is the explosion of standalone, independent restaurant businesses,” he says. “Our client base was traditionally the hotels and the premium restaurants, but now we’re seeing a lot more casual dining operations coming to the market and becoming a larger share of our activities. We’ve had to adapt the way we approach the market and our portfolio of products to ensure that we get a share of that market while retaining the clients we have traditionally served.”

This change to its client base has necessitated a change in the way it distributes as well. The company operates a fleet of 50 multi-temperature distribution vehicles and has invested in new fleet tracking technology and route planning software to optimise operations. “The software also helps us load our vehicles in such a way that the last item in is the first out on the delivery route. This saves time and it reduces emissions because the doors are open for shorter periods of time, which also protects the produce being delivered.”

They’ve also started doing more night-time deliveries to cope with customer demand. “What we’re seeing is a definite trend of clients dedicating less space to on-site storage,” says Pyle. “It’s a tough economy, so when investors open new restaurants they want to maximise the front-of-house space and the back space, the storage areas in particular, have become squeezed.” To deal with this Chef Middle East is having to do a much higher frequency of deliveries. “We’re doing a lot of deliveries through the night now, which we never did before, we’re also doing consignment stock for some of our bigger clients.”

What would typically happen in this kind of operation is that trucks leave the warehouse early in the morning at around 7am and everything is delivered before 2 or 3 in the afternoon, Pyle tells Logistics Middle East. “But some clients don’t want deliveries after 10am in the morning, malls don’t allow deliveries after 1pm, so we have to use the route planning technology to ensure that we meet these windows,” he explains. “But we’ve also spoken to come clients to find out if they’d be interested in having us do deliveries later in the evening or in the very early hours of the morning, which could present a cost benefit.”

Strategically situated between Abu Dhabi, Dubai and the Northern Emirates, DIP was chosen as the right location because of it road networks that enable connectivity to regional and international transport linkages, including Jebel Ali Port, Al Maktoum Airport, Expo 2020 site, and other strategic developments. “The substantial investment by Chef Middle East in this outstanding, state-of-the-art facility is a good example of one of the region’s respected companies investing in Dubai Investments Park and reaffirms the status of DIP as one of the leading and most sought after business parks in the Middle East,” said Omar Al Mesmar, general manager of DIP.

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 “This new distribution centre is a perfect example of the world-class facilities and services that Dubai has to offer and raises the bar for food sector logistics in the region. It will help redefine the regional food distribution services, with a world-class platform and a dedicated team within DIP,” he adds.

Chef Middle East is also among the first in the region to change, not just its delivery schedules, but also its picking operations to support efficiency. “One of the new technologies we’ve deployed here is voice-to-pick, which works alongside the RFID in the WMS,” says Pyle. “. It’s a technology that will enable us to minimise error at a pick level across the 4,000 SKUs that we’re storing. It also reduces the orientation time for new employees coming into the warehouse because it speeds up the rate of efficiency at which they learn the ropes.”

Pyle’s admission that this is a touch market in which to be operating a logistics company is refreshing, but Logistics Middle East wondered why they decided to go live now, given the current regional political and economic environment. “In terms of timing there’s never a great time to invest because if you invest when the market is high, you risk opening during a trough and if you invest during a downturn, you risk opening when the market is still flat,” he says. “We wanted to introduce new elements to our product offering, so that was what mattered most for us. There’s no crystal ball here, but we knew that we had to do this or we would hit this impenetrable ceiling in terms of critical mass.”