As garlic consumption in the UK looks set to continue rising, Pan United – the UK and Europe’s largest supplier of Chinese garlic – is embarking on a new strategy to cement its position of leadership as the go-to brand for year-round quality and consistency. PBUK speaks with the company’s Nilay Kamdar about Pan United’s mission to truly understand both its products and customers.
Pan United specialises in garlic, ginger, sweet potato and a range of exotic produce, sourcing from accredited growers worldwide.
Over the past 30 years, the London-based company has kept a relatively low profile; preferring to focus on its quality-driven Apollo brand and relationships with current customers in the restaurant, catering, wholesale and local/independent retail trades in the UK and Europe.
Going forward, the importer-distributor aims to shore up its position in the marketplace by offering a deepened knowledge of the products it sources, including their culinary applications, as well as the end users that the company supplies.
“We want to be known as the experts of each product that we supply,” reveals Kamdar, Pan United’s business development manager.
“Our reputation has always been to understand what our customers want and where we can add value, and to be flexible with what they require without impacting on product quality.
“As a forward-looking company that’s quite innovative in its approach, we’d now like to gain a much more technical understanding of our products in terms envisioning and developing new ways of providing fresh garlic, as well as offering good quality. In doing so, we expect more people to come to us to get that consistency [of supply].”
Equally, Pan United is eager to add value by truly understanding what is important to its customers when buying and using the company’s core products – garlic, ginger and sweet potatoes.
“Already, we spend a lot of time with growers on a daily basis to understand the market, the season and the risks to be expected. We’ve developed a very keen understanding of when to buy, from which regions, and which varieties or formats are right for which customers. That is our focus and that is manifested in our Apollo brand.
“Now, we want to be more connected to the end user,” he explains. “We’re doing a considerable amount of consumer research with universities, and we’re really spending time with customers to expand our understanding of how people use garlic, ginger etc.
“We want to know where most of their time is going, what is holding them up and when things become a challenge. This will enable us to offer a value-added product that truly adds value.”
One response Pan United already has taken is to introduce vacuum-packed peeled garlic. “This format adds significant value for our customers because it really speeds things up,” notes Kamdar.
By deepening the connection to its products and customers, ultimately Pan United is striving to protect its reputation and to raise its company profile.
“It’s a way for us to improve our profile, and in relation to our Apollo brand,” Kamdar explains. “The brand is already well-known but it’s not always openly associated with Pan United. And still there are some customers and end users who are not aware of Apollo.”
To help boost awareness, Pan United is also focusing increasingly on improving its communication around the best practises it employs across the supply chain for its entire product basket.
“We work with people who are committed to growing good quality products, and we inspect all of our products prior to export to the UK,” says Kamdar. “We want to show more customers and end users that we have a full technical set-up and that we can provide full documentation for the products we offer.”
Raising brand awareness
Of course, Kamdar recognises that only the most agile businesses will survive the challenging conditions that lie ahead for the fresh produce trade in the UK.
“If you don’t understand where the market is going, you’re going to miss out on what will happen and you won’t be able to innovate in the right way or understand what your customer wants,” he notes.
To help gain that insight, Pan United is exhibiting for the first time at The London Produce Show and Conference 2018 (LPS18) on 6-8 June, after attending the event every year since its inception.
“It will give us that platform from which to engage with and develop relationships with companies that are committed to growing the fresh produce industry, as well as to get an understanding of the major consumer trends that are evolving,” points out Kamdar.
Exhibiting at LPS18 will give Pan United an opportunity to explore future avenues for its expanding product basket.
“We have a few new products in the pipeline that are similar to garlic, ginger and sweet potato to some extent,” reveals Kamdar.
To date, Pan United has been heavily focused on garlic, but already the firm has used its fine-tuned experience and expertise as a starting point to develop other products such as ginger and, most recently, sweet potato.
Kamdar believes these two new product lines hold great promise, particularly sweet potato, which has garnered a lot of interest in the UK where consumers now expect it to be available year-round.
“It will be interesting to see how sweet potatoes develop,” Kamdar says. “We’re taking the same approach [as with garlic] in terms of our consumer research, grower relationships and product knowledge.
“Already, we’ve gained a clear understanding of sweet potato production and the supply regions that might be at risk of the weather. In previous seasons, there have been issues with sweet potatoes coming out of North Carolina due to floods, but in the future we can manage any difficulties in the supply chain.”
As the largest importer of Chinese garlic into UK and Europe and a substantial supplier of Spanish garlic, Pan United is witnessing a growth in the consumption of both conventional and organic garlic in the UK.
It’s a trend that looks set to continue for the foreseeable future as the general public strives increasingly towards consuming fresh food, according to Kamdar.
“People want to have as much fresh product [in their diet] and to prepare more meals from fresh, so we expect demand to increase,” he says.
“Garlic is fundamental to various dishes. Italian food, for example, uses a lot of garlic, and everyone loves pizza in the UK. Also, there are a lot of different ethnicities living in the UK, as well as chefs experimenting with different multinational cuisines.”
Variety-wise, Kamdar says demand depends on the customer, but overall white and violet garlic remain the biggest sellers, while black garlic has emerged as an interesting option.
“Some chefs love Spanish garlic because it has a lot of flavour which it brings into dishes, while some prefer Chinese garlic because it doesn’t burn as easily or diffuse its flavour as easily,” he explains.
“Black garlic requires a lot of technical understanding to develop the flavour correctly. The process is quite simple, but some preparations can result in quite a dry flavour, while others, if successful, result in a sweeter taste.”
Pan United sources a broad range of garlic varieties, as well as formats, including bulk, braids, pre-packed, solo and peeled. In general, demand has been fairly consistent across the board, although Kamdar notes stable demand for peeled garlic and a growing preference for pre-packed garlic.
“Pre-packed is a ready-made format whereby users can gauge how much they need,” he says. “It’s a quick, elegant solution.”
In terms of expectations this season, Pan United is anticipating a good quality garlic crop from both China, the world’s largest exporter, and Spain, the leading supplier in Europe.
Harvesting in both countries will begin in a few weeks’ time depending on the weather, with volume set to arrive in the UK between two and four weeks later.
This past season, meanwhile, has seen a global overproduction of garlic to the tune of 20-25 per cent, which has led to a major drop in prices and supply outpacing demand, according to Kamdar.
“We’ve had two seasons with phenomenally high prices because production was a lot lower [than normal],” he explains. “In the current year, we’ve seen prices vary, and even go down to US$900 a tonne, whereas in previous years prices have been as high as US$2,200-2,300 a tonne.”
Although it remains too early to tell what volume will be reached during this coming season, Kamdar is positive on the whole. “It will be interesting to see how the new harvest turns out,” he says. “Generally, weather conditions have been good and quite stable. We don’t expect any major problems. We will have year-round availability.”
Pan United is exhibiting at The London Produce Show and Conference 2018.
Register here to attend the three-day event.
Join us on 6-8 June at the Grosvenor House on Park Lane.