From Chicken Cottage to Selekt Chicken, this founder wants history to repeat itself

From a part-time kitchen porter role alongside college studies to becoming the founder and brand advisor of Selekt Chicken, Tahir Jamil has climbed up steep hills on his journey across the fast food space

From Chicken Cottage to Selekt Chicken

Chicken has undoubtedly overtaken the meat market and won Brits’ hearts. Indeed, Kantar Worldpanel, the analysis firm, concluded the UK has consumed as much as 529 million kilograms of poultry over the last year. The insatiable love for chicken is also evident by the popularity of quick service restaurants occupying high streets, with the golden-brown, crispy, fried coating and the juicy prize beneath it is among the reasons it’s a national favourite.

But for Tahir Jamil, a seasoned entrepreneur and franchisor, his journey in the bird-based fast food market started decades ago having cut his teeth as co-founder spearheading the growth of Chicken Cottage, the fried chicken franchise. Pakistan-born Jamil came to the UK in the early 1980s and worked hard from the outset with a part-time job in tandem with his college studies. “I started working in the food industry in 1984, long ago,” he recalls. “I was working with one of the kitchen factories that used to supply Waitrose.” This “awfully busy period” proved pivotal to develop Jamil’s business acumen and allowed him to gain experience from a few companies on the inside, such as KFC and even an accounting company, the latter of which is where he picked up the nuts and bolts of bookkeeping. But climbing the ladder from kitchen porter to head chef to manager only gave him solid knowledge of the food industry and eventually planted the entrepreneurial seed that resulted in Chicken Cottage.

In his time at Chicken Cottage the firm grew to 140 stores worldwide. But he would eventually leave soon after it was acquired by Malaysia-based TI Global Food Holdings in March 2014. From there, another idea hatched as he came up with the concept for Selekt”Chicken. Although he admits his initial idea to create a fried-free chicken franchise wasn’t very successful. The team had put in a lot of effort with collaboration from a leading UK ingredient company and developed a grilled product with the same taste as a fried one – albeit healthier. “It took about two years to bring the first sampling,” he details. But despite their efforts and the elaborate nature of the task, the healthier version didn’t gain much recognition. “My intention was to start Fried Free because Fried Free was a complete, unique, individual, separate project not available in the market but we ended up with Selekt Chicken because of its higher demand.”

With such a transition, Jamil says “ambitions and dreams are often changing” and he doesn’t seem to regret his decision. Selekt Chicken opened its doors in 2017 and currently has eight functioning franchisees, with two under construction and another expected to open doors within the next three months. As a business catering to the varied needs of customers, the rising chain offers the opportunity to eat in or arrange delivery through Uber Eats and Deliveroo. As a franchisor though, the main company focus is to provide quality training to its franchisees and Jamil certainly doesn’t wing it as he keeps self-analysis and constructive criticism among his business priorities. “We are thinking about our problems so we don’t pass them to our franchisees,” he assures. For this reason, the franchisor has also put a training team in place and provides supporters “on the move” who are ready to help in any scenario of franchise difficulty. “Whatever the case, we are there to help each other and we can achieve beyond the written target,” he adds.

Jamil remembers the day when he found his first franchisee – a shop owner who was eager to take on a franchise but unfamiliar with the process. Despite the lack of understanding, he seemed like a promising candidate to Jamil because of his motivation. “We called a meeting in our office and I said: ‘Look, this is a perfect person for a franchise, why don’t we give him a chance?'” Jamil recalls. After seeing that franchisee running a successful store with numerous people working for him, the Selekt Chicken founder knew he made the right call. “Because of his commitment I was confident he was the right franchisee,” he adds.

Even if the people aren’t particularly wealthy or experienced, it’s no barrier as far as Jamil is concerned, as the personal qualities he always searches for in prospective franchisees are dedication and passion for development. “Everything can be sorted,” he says. “But you cannot buy the commitment of the person even if [they’re] fully loaded with money.”

Jamil also believes customer trust as well as an eagerness to constantly learn new things and development in business are invaluable. As such, he has his own approach to customer service and enjoys interaction with customers as he did in the days when he was the one behind the counter. Given that time at the coalface, it’s hardly surprising he’s eager to listen to the new fresh ideas and constructive feedback coming from the young employees in the stores. “I learn from the youngsters working there because they are the ones who highlight problems so quickly and precisely,” Jamil says. “So rather than putting so much money in just to find out what exactly the problem is, they’ll tell you straight away and that’s the best learning I’ve ever come across.”

Having experienced the fall at the first hurdle of Selekt Fried Free, Jamil didn’t lose heart on the innovative approach he had in the beginning. The first Selekt Chicken shop opened in Harrow, Northwest London, is the one to combine the best of both worlds. “We’ve got dual options available,” says Jamil. “You can go for a normal [fried] chicken, which has its own identity, unique colouring scheme and logo or Selekt Fried Free – perfectly accessible to the public.” Since the founder believes in making hay while the sun shines, he’s confident that now more than ever is “the right time” for another franchising model. Because of the growing attention and the amount of interested parties in the non-oil fried chicken, the company is currently preparing to embark on Fried Free franchising as a separate brand in 2019. Jamil is confident “the business is proven for success” and it’s a huge benefit that people are now more ambitious than ever. “They are not in a sit back, relaxed position as they were in the 80s,” he argues, noting they pursue innovation even more, while the market is very open.

The growing franchise isn’t only driven to send Selekt Fried Free out to the franchising market but the company has bigger ambitions. Despite the name, their horizons are not limited solely to the idea of chicken. Jamil reveals that currently, the team is working on the development of another non-fried product to add to the fried free revolution – grilled fish. The company aims to create fish with the same quality as the not-so-healthy fried alternative from classic fish and chips shops – a revelation he’s very optimistic about. “The success has no destination,” he says confidently. “We cannot limit ourselves.” With a sight eagerly pointed at the future of fast food business, it seems like Selekt Fried Free is destined to contribute to the growing concept of an indulgent but healthy diet.

Yoana Cholteeva
Yoana Cholteeva