As the Brexit uncertainty goes on and on, one region which is impacted more than most is Northern Ireland. The threat of a hard border between it and the Republic of Ireland is casting a long shadow over many industries there, and the catering equipment sector is no different.
With this in the background, Cookstown-based dealer JD Catering is trying to navigate through these trying times by broadening the scope of its offer. MD Jason Currie told Catering Insight: “For Northern Ireland it is a very tough time, with the Brexit border issue and the fact that we currently don’t have a devolved government. People around the border areas don’t want to expand because they don’t know what’s happening.
“In general I think we’ve had a few good years in Ireland, but that’s slowly coming to an end with a lot of businesses now going bust.”
Nevertheless, last year saw JD Catering Supplies have one of its best years, and in the first 10 months of this year it was only 3% behind 2018’s takings. “We’re moving to suit the environment,” Currie explained. “We’re selling more second hand or reconditioned equipment, along with price-conscious appliances for the Northern Irish economy.”
Ahead of each of the now-passed Brexit deadlines, the dealer saw an uptick in orders from the other side of the border. “They wanted to make sure they bought the equipment before Brexit,” said Currie. “But what happens after that? How are we going to service these machines? How are we going to get across the border – are there going to be fees or taxes? It’s just so up in the air at the minute.”
One of the ways the distributor has kept its head above water is by offering storage facilities. Currie explained: “A lot of people have been laid off on the island of Ireland, so now the entrepreneurial spirit has kicked in. A lot of one-man-bands are starting up their own businesses and they need storage.
“It’s expanding for us – we are building more storage units every year. We feel that storage is going to be the future, so that’s the direction we are going in.”
Another iron in the fire is Posh and Pans, the firm’s kitchenware and giftware sideline. Over the last decade the online portal has supplied tableware to customers including Chelsea Football Club. “Posh and Pans is about different and unusual brands that are hard to find,” said Currie. “That channel is pretty much recession-proof, it keeps ticking over.”
JD Catering Supplies did also try out producing its own pizza oven bricks a couple of years ago, but Currie reported this did not work out, recalling: “Trying to transport the bricks was a nightmare – they often broke, so we called it a day.”
However, its motor repair and maintenance venture, Cookstown Rewinds, is still going strong, after JD Catering took over the business in 2017. Plus the distributor is also starting to rent out office space for those who need to hotdesk.
Having fingers in so many pies is proving vital, as there is no kitchen project work forthcoming for the business. “Instead we are selling one-off items, which we are doing well with,” said Currie. “We have a lot of stock and we can meet people’s requirements with same day or next day delivery. Northern Irish operators are quite impatient, so if you have an appliance you’ll sell it – and that’s what’s kept us afloat.”
The company has 5,000ft2 of warehousing to keep stock, including a new warehouse constructed last year as an overflow.
The service and maintenance side of the business is another leading light, with JD Catering Supplies about to bring onboard an eighth engineer. “The service side is still very buoyant and because we offer a same or next day service with friendly, well-trained staff, word has quickly spread,” reported Currie. “We cover quite a lot of the country, so we are able to carry out same day repairs in around 95% of cases.
“But things have changed from last year, in that end users will wait until they have three or four items broken before they phone you, rather than just one, and get them all fixed at the same time. That’s the same with government contracts, because they have no money.”
Overall the dealer employs 17 staff, including the new engineer. According to Currie: “We must be a good company to work for – we don’t have many staff leave, and there are some who have been with us for 15-20 years. Even my father, who founded the company and is now 76, is still in the office every day.”
Currie’s father Dennis first established the company in 1972. Beginning by selling cash registers out of the boot of his car, he slowly moved into butchery equipment. Currie detailed: “He went to villages and the back roads where other salesmen wouldn’t be bothered to go. Because of that, he built up a good customer base and repeat clients. Even today they are still phoning him and asking him to do bits and pieces.”
Recent investments in the business include refreshing the van fleet, which is a process which JD Catering Supplies undertakes every 3 years. “This time we upgraded the logo, which looks very sharp now – you could nearly see them from space!” Currie joked. “That has helped to promote the business because the vans are now a lot more recognisable and people are spotting them.” Other measures the firm is taking to promote the business are through its website and social media.
When asked about his hopes for the future, Currie concluded: “To progress and grow the business my father started and be here for at least another 10 years.”