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If you haven't tried any of the Ieat Foods range yet - where have you been?! Entrepreneur Shazia Saleem introduced a range of delicious ready made meals earlier this year and has intertwined culinary convenience and exceptional taste together...and the best bit is, they're all 100% halal! We had a chat with Shazia to discuss halal integrity, tayyab food and her plans for the future. Have a read!
How did the name ‘Ieat Foods’ come about? Did the apple products aid you in any way?!
We get asked this a lot! I first had the idea for a British Halal food brand in late 2006. At the time the few halal brands around had an overtly Muslim feel to it and I wanted to do something different. I came up with the name ieat - where the 'i' stands for Islamically - as I felt it's quite catchy, but also modern and had a good balance. Over the 8 years of development work, the name kinda stuck - it was during this time that the birth of the 'i-era' came about, so frustratingly our name could be interpreted as having been influenced by Apple, but I promise it wasn't!
You clearly have an entrepreneurial spirit – when did you decide you want to work for yourself?
When I was trading at school, I started around 7 or 8 years old, I didn't realise what I was doing was 'entrepreneurial'. No one said those words to me and that notion didn't really exist or seem cool until things like the Apprentice and Dragons' Den was born when I was at university. At the time I was just spotting opportunities, taking risks, bettering my gut instinct and making some money along the way! I've always looked up to my beloved role model Khadijah (RA) so that played a major part I'm sure. I do remember one day in high school when we were being talked through prep for our work placements and our teacher said 'you should dress for the job you want, not the job you have' meaning we should be suited and booted even though we were just work experience teenagers. I remember thinking 'I want a job where I can wear jeans to work! I want to be able to go into work wearing trackies and a hoodie if I want to, but people know who I am and respect me for it regardless of what I wear" - being your own boss certainly allows that!
You say the Ieat range came about because there wasn’t choice for you in ready-meals when you were at Uni – what feedback have you received from young Muslims?
Overwhelmingly positive! Our sales from students are brilliant and we get lots of positive messages about making a difference in their lives. I remember all too well the frustrations I had at university, and the temptation for non-halal food that many of my friends succumbed to, and so I'm really happy that we can provide a way for students to stick to halal and have tasty, convenient food too - and give the guys from the fried chicken shop an occasional break too!
What is your favourite meal from the range and why?
I love the shepherd's pie and the pesto chicken tagliatelle in particular - I've always wanted a shepherd's pie right from primary school age and so developing this has been a real dream come true. I lived off pesto pasta when I at university and so having this (cooked much better than I ever did) with chicken chunks is really satisfying. The Italian Meat Feast is my favourite pizza - it's really hard to find a HMC approved salami/pastrami so I'm really glad we could make that happen.
Though you like the shepherd's pie the most, what is your best-selling product?
The lasagne does exceptionally well in every store, every week - we're spending some time tweaking the recipe slightly so it's more accessible to a range of palettes and I really love the outcome - will be announcing this soon!
Any plans to introduce other cuisines into the range? You have Italian and English... any chance of Thai, Chinese, Burgers etc?
Absolutely - one of the great things about being a start up is that we're always looking to respond to feedback, innovate and grow. We purposefully said that our range encompasses the 'British favourites' and so this gives us permission to branch out into a whole array of exciting areas - more to come very soon inshaAllah!
Do you keep a stock of the range at home for those ‘I can’t be bothered to cook tonight’ days?
Yes! The staff at my local Sainsbury's know me well now - and yes, I have to go to Sainsbury's to buy them like everyone else, no special treatment!
How important is it for you to be HMC certified when so many other products in the market are self-certified?
We take our halal integrity very, very seriously. If I tell someone that something is halal, and it isn't, that sin is upon me and not on the person who ate it. That's a massive responsibility for any believer and so we go to great lengths to ensure what we're saying is true. We buy our meat exclusively from HMC certified abattoirs - it's a great way to ensure standards are met and the meat is unstunned and hand slaughtered. We make all of our meals in a dedicated non-stun halal unit, and we use the European Halal Development Agency to certify our meals halal, by checking our ingredients (vegetarian cheese, butter, pastry etc, and removal of vinegar for avoidance of doubt) our systems and processes (for example - all of our hand-sanitisers are alcohol free). With this multi-layer approach we hope we can offer a range of food that can be trusted by our customers.
Did you develop each of the recipes yourself? Which was most challenging to perfect?
With my guidance and several rounds of focus group input, we used a professional product development agency who are used to designing the very best ready meals for the likes of M&S and Waitrose. However, it's not been easy at all - we've had a few ingredient issues (for e.g. having to take Worcester sauce out at the last minute due to vinegar-halal issues and making up a substitute!) and production issues that have restricted us. We're always learning and so recently launched a survey to get feedback on the range, following which we went into a 5 week development round where we're working on improving some of our dishes. The difficulty we have is the variance in palettes as Muslims are such a diverse group - what's great for one demographic is too spicy/too bland for another and so it's good fun trying to get something that will please the masses.
At the moment Ieat products are only available in selected Sainsburys stores – will they feature in any other supermarkets soon or in ALL Sainsburys?
We're hoping to roll out into more Sainsbury's stores over the next few months - they have big plans for us and we're very excited to be working with them as closely as we are. They have been very supportive and I think have introduced some great halal brands to make Muslims' lives easier. We're also due to launch in another one of the big 4 very, very soon - please do keep eyes on our facebook page for our exciting announcement!
A large selection of the meals are below 500 calories – how important is it for you to tie together both ‘healthy’ and ‘halal’? Was it easy to do so?
What was very important to me was ensuring our foods were 'tayyab' (wholesome/pure) - this is 50% of the Qur'anic instruction and covers a wide spectrum of now 'trendy' principles - good animal welfare, environmental protection, good for the community etc. We also took it to cover our ingredients and types of dishes we offered. All of our dishes are made with kitchen cupboard ingredients - that's to say, everything that goes inside could have been bought yourself from a supermarket and made much like how you would have done at home, just on a larger scale! In trying to ensure that, the healthy angle which we intended has come about naturally and it's something we always now look into when refining our current range and looking into new product extensions.
What are your plans for the future?
Onwards and upwards inshaAllah! We're very keen to build on the great start we've had by rolling out into more stores, more retailers and with a range that's well received by our consumers. My motivation for setting up the business has always been to do charitable good and so I'm looking forward to being able to map out what that looks like inshaAllah over the coming year too.
And lastly, do you have any advice for others with an entrepreneurial flair?
For anyone that has even a hint of entrepreneurial flair - my advice would the same as what someone once told me. In order to really strengthen your skill, you need to train - kind of like how an athlete trains. Opportunity spotting, risk taking, gut instinct... it takes constant practise,you'll get hurt and bruised, and you'll learn the hard way about resilience and inner belief. It can be very lonely too, so be prepared to deal with that, it's not for everyone. Waiting on the other side though is the opportunity to live life on your terms. to enjoy every day by feeling the rewards of your efforts, and hopefully to feel good about the life you're building and value you're creating for society. I'm still in training and I wouldn't change it for anything! :)