A pioneering South Shields food supplier which has developed a unique range of products used in every hospital in the country, is about to start the next phase of its development.

Punjab Kitchen, a North East England Chamber of Commerce member, supplies NHS hospitals and care homes with pureed replicas of meals for patients who have difficulty swallowing. Its food production process is so innovative the business is the only one globally able to produce pureed meals which look and taste exactly like fully-formed food.

Managing director and founder Mohammed Ishaq said: “We started the refurbishment work in April and we aim to complete it by the end of August (2017). We are carrying out the changes to our production facility to increase our capacity and meet new contracts.  It’s a big job but if you’ve got to do it, you’ve got to do it.”

It’s a far cry from when they purchased the then-disused and derelict site on Rekendyke Industrial Estate in 2000, which used to be a fashion manufacturing factory that supplied clothes to Marks and Spencer.

“We started our business in the Team Valley, but after a few years, we ran out of space so we looked around to find a place that had potential to expand,” said Mohammed. “When I first came across our current site, there were horses tied up in the car parks, the roof was half-missing.  We now have a fantastic operation which will be even more state-of-the-art when the current investment is completed.”

Chamber chief executive James Ramsbotham said: “Punjab Kitchen is a perfect example of a great, family-run business in the North East thanks to the tireless work of Mohammed, Yasmine, their son Yaqoob (the national sales director) and their dedicated, loyal long serving and much appreciated management and production team.  They offer an invaluable service for people who need the right nutrition in the appropriate form and really blaze a trail in hospital catering.”

Founded in 1996, Punjab Kitchen initially supplied halal and ethnic meals to Asian communities that couldn’t get those foods in hospitals, a venture that Mohammed Ishaq said was inspired by his own hospital stay where his wife, and business partner, Yasmine had to bring in those meals from home.

This eventually led to him leaving his retail job and researching ways to improve hospital food. Along the way, he saw how patients with dysphagia were served a liquidised “gloop” which consisted of ingredients that were blended together by catering staff.

Mohammed Ishaq said: “Patients look forward to one thing while they’re staying in hospital and that’s their meal. I invested quite a lot of money into the manufacturing process to see how we could provide a meal that looked appetising, smelled good and tasted good.”

“The obvious fact of the matter is that if people are looked after well with their food and nutrition, they get better quicker.”

Punjab Kitchen’s largest sales come from their “Special Diet” section, which provides Gluten-free and Allergen-free meals as well as catering for those who require low-potassium and low-sodium food due to kidney problems.

They also provide a home delivery service for those who have just come out of hospital and still require their meals, particularly those who are unable to cook themselves or don’t have relatives to cook for them, often due to the specialised nature of those meals.

Testimonials include “My father is 85 and recently diagnosed with dysphagia during a hospital visit for pneumonia. He lives with my mother who is also 85 and as a family we were really struggling to get him to eat our meals which we were blending for him. Since we started using the pureed meals from the Punjab Kitchen, he now looks forward to his meal times, his strength and alertness has improved, as he is getting the nutrition he needs and I feel I have my dad back. Thank you so very much”. Tracy Walters, daughter of Eric Backhouse.

These services coupled with high levels of demand constantly keep the 90-strong workforce busy.

Mohammed Ishaq said: “We’re feeding 120,000 patients a week and storage space is at a premium as we have numerous pallets of raw ingredients coming in every day. We have an organised delivery intake structure which includes storing, cooking, packing, freezing and distribution. He also praised all his employees and said that ‘a company is only good as its employees’ and we take pride in being very good at our job.”