Sector trends

The food innovators: agile manufacturers

In this series, we speak to food manufacturers that have had to adjust to disrupted supply chains, changing consumer habits, workplace safety and an economic slowdown. 

“We’ve innovated with a focus on nostalgia”

Josh Boydell-Smith is head of brand and marketing at Bells of Lazonby, an artisanal bakery in Penrith, Cumbria

“Bells of Lazonby was founded in 1946 by John Bell, who set up a family bakery in Cumbria after returning from the war, where his aircraft had been shot down.

“Innovation has been a massive part of why the company has survived, and we supply high-street food chains, major supermarket retailers and food service, and have great brands as well as private label.

“There has been a huge switch in shopper behaviour, so we’ve been looking to strengthen our retail business because food service has been quite volatile with the opening and shutting of lockdown. Our purpose is to focus on our brand image within retail, as we see retail staying fairly stable for the next few years.

“With our brands We Love Cake and Bells & Whistles [vegan cakes and slices], we’re looking at repositioning to give better value to our customers as consumers focus more on value for money. I think the way in which people are shopping – buying more from one place – will remain the case.

“People are looking at how they can add that little bit of joy into their lives and it’s up to food manufacturers to recognise that. Trending data over the last few years showed a need for immediate food – eating on the go – and that has in some ways switched now that people are at home. Cooking from scratch has been on the rise – everyone’s been cooking banana bread – and that time at the family table has been re-examined.

“We’ve had a real focus on nostalgia, which has been one of our innovations, so within We Love Cake, we have created ‘rip-roaring raspberry ripple’ and ‘totally toffee sticky toffee’ – nostalgic flavours, where people are almost regressed and want a little bit of normality and stability within their food and their routine.

“With Bells & Whistles, we’re also swapping our four-pack to a two-pack. It’s a premium brand but we’re keen to meet a price point to make it accessible. We know we’re going to have to change our models quickly and those little pleasures you can get for £1 or £1.25 will become key. We’re going to have a ‘lipstick effect’, where consumers want something premium and indulgent, but which doesn’t break the bank. It’s all about balance.”

“We got a robust website up and running in a week”

Mandira Sarkar is director of Mandira’s Kitchen, a catering and events firm in Guildford, Surrey

“The main focus of our business is freezer meals, which we create in exactly the way food is cooked in a typical Indian kitchen. Everything we make is from scratch – we don’t open jars or use preservatives – and apart from things like rice, everything is sourced from within a 50-mile radius.

“We supply around 40 farm shops. We also offer cooking classes and catering. When I started out, I had a little kitchen at the bottom of the garden, and last year we moved to a beautiful restored cowshed in Silent Pool, Surrey. 

“At the beginning of the year, we had a full order book in terms of events and then lockdown happened. All our events disappeared overnight and there was pure, blind panic. I remember walking around thinking: ‘I’m damned if I’m going to go down without a fight,’ and after my 24-hour panic we did a couple of things. 

“I realised I needed 500 people to buy eight meals a month. A lot of locals said: ‘You know what, we’ll buy a monthly subscription box for however many months you want us to.’ So that happened straight away and took some pressure off. The other thing was to immediately push as much as we could online. We invested quite a lot in a robust website that was up and running within a week.

“Lockdown was announced on 23 March, and on 1 April we sold more online than we had in the past nine months put together. We pack the food in insulated boxes at -18°C and it’s delivered overnight by courier to arrive around midday. It can be frozen for six months or refrigerated for two days.

“We’ve been working 16-hour shifts – production has gone up, but because of social distancing you can’t simply put more people in the kitchen. Our community has been incredibly generous, donating money so we were able to make 500 free meals for half-term, which the council distributed. 

“We’ve also expanded into making ice creams and chutneys, which have won Great Taste awards. In September we won South East Great British Food & Drink Entrepreneur of the Year. We just haven’t stopped.” 

“There’s been a shift towards larger pack sizes”

James O’Neill is principal consultant at Proxima, a procurement and supply chain consulting firm in London

“We advise a number of FTSE 100 food manufacturers on procurement and logistics strategy to see how they can improve productivity, be more innovative, meet customer needs better and be more sustainable while keeping an eye on their cost base. These things don’t stop because of Covid-19.

“For instance, a major bakery manufacturer we work with has seen a significant shift towards larger pack sizes as consumers combine fewer trips, larger basket sizes and consumption in the home. 

“And, in the cake market, we’ve seen retailers pivot towards whole cakes, which has seen a sharp increase in sales as customers have moved away from single pieces that are typically consumed in packed lunches or on the go.  

“Like many market segments, the retail sector is going through a turbulent time with footfall significantly down for many retailers. In response, we’ve seen some of our food manufacturing clients streamlining their ranges to minimise costs.

“We’ve looked at how food manufacturers can reconfigure their ordering strategy and run multiple products as part of a single batch, which enables a supplier to achieve economies of scale in their production process and in turn pass that back to the customer. 

“We’ve also started to drive greater levels of automation on food manufacturers’ packing lines because it helps with social distancing and greater efficiency, consistency of output, and process optimisation. You get some downsides in terms of the impact on people but there’s an element of freeing employees up to do the right kind of work. An organisation has to remain fit for the future and you have to take in these improvements where you see them.”

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