Being small fry in a pond of giant sharks keeps you on your toes, says the boss of one snack brand that likes to punch above its weight
Ken Brook-Chrispin, chief executive and chairman, Seabrook Crisps
I took a couple of years out trying to decide what I wanted to do before I went to university. You name it, I tried it: accountancy, law, insurance, architecture. In the end I became a chartered surveyor and then spent the next 20-odd years in property development.
My first major dealings with Seabrook Crisps were not until summer 2000 when my wife Jane's father [Colin Brook - son of Seabrook's founder, Charles Brook] died and I started working for the company on a consultancy basis, troubleshooting mainly.
They were having a difficult time with the bakery unions and while the business was profitable, it was also incredibly overstaffed. They had five people sweeping the yard, just to keep them in a job! It was just the kind of place it was. Colin was a very philanthropic person: if there was any spare money, he'd just create a job! When I first arrived there, they had something like 380 staff over two sites.
Today we have about 120 permanent staff at one site and we still make more crisps than when we had three times as many people. We use agency staff as well, but that's because we don't want to lay off permanent staff when we add new automation.
I didn't go there and sack everyone. It was more a case of natural wastage, although we did have to make 33 people redundant in 2004 when the Allerton site closed.
Our hand was forced. One of the walls was starting to collapse into the car park, and attached to that wall were two tonnes of boiling oil and 100 workers, so we were advised to get out of the building and transfer over here. We never went back.
I started working for Seabrook full time in 2005 and became chief executive and chairman last June. We've got a great management team in the factory now with Andy Yates, our improvements manager, and Sean Kirby, our operations manager, who has extensive operational experience at major food manufacturers such as Heinz and Nestlé. He has only been here four months but he has already transformed the place. He's incredibly enthusiastic. We're getting more efficient all the time, both through changes in working practices and some new equipment. Sean has also made small changes that make a big difference. For example, some boxes were being palletised, taken to another line and then un-palletised, coded, and re-palletised again, a huge waste of time - so he put a coder on the line. Elsewhere, we were counting single packs into 48s, only for them to be unpacked and counted again to go into six packs. Not any more!
The perfect crisp
The hardest thing is keeping the factory running efficiently as we make fairly major changes, such as cutting a huge hole in the factory floor. It was pointless lifting crisps up to the weigh heads and then taking them back down into the baggers and down again into the warehouse. So we took the floor out and the crisps now go in a straight line into the weigh heads and then straight to the baggers and on to the warehouse. We're also building a completely new potato reception room and installing a planned preventative maintenance system.
To make great crisps you need the right size and quality of potato - we process about 16,000t of them a year, from farms in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Norfolk. We used to have regular sourcing arrangements until last year when there was a massive potato shortage and we had to buy on the spot market. They were horrendously expensive and we also ended up with potatoes that weren't up to our standards and had to be thrown out. There was a lot of wastage.
Now we're back dealing with three suppliers and have regular supplies again. Our favourite potatoes are Lady Claire and Lady Jo, but we also use varieties such as Hermes and Rosetta, which no one has heard of, but they have the right shape, colour, solids and taste.
The potatoes arrive washed. We then take out the bad ones and grade them by size. Then they are de-stoned before going through the separator, which picks out any with rotten centres. After that they are washed and peeled, before going into the halver/grader and on into the slicer. This then takes them through into a wash system or a blanching system, depending on the potato. Sometimes you just need to wash off the surface starch to get the right colour. Sometimes, if there is too much sugar in the potato, you have to blanch it. That's the difference between our crisps and, say, Kettle crisps. They keep the surface starch and sugar and it caramelises, which is what makes them darker in colour. Our method gives you a lighter crisp. We work on the basis of two bites and a melt in the mouth!
They then go into sunflower oil, which we've been using for 25 years. It's funny that Walkers is now making this big thing about using sunseed oil, which is just a type of sunflower oil, as if it was the first to discover it!
The continuous fryer has a belt that keeps the crisps under for a precise time in a zoned temperature of just under 180°C. The cooking time and temperature depends on the potato variety, the starch, sugar and water levels.
As for edible oil prices, they are definitely impacted by the biofuels market, but that's something our competitors are facing as well, so we're all on a level playing field.
After that they are hand inspected and sent into a tumble flavouring system with electrostatics, which gives the crisps a positive charge and the drum with flavourings a negative charge. This means that the flavours are attracted to the crisps, which gives a very even coating of flavouring to each one. Other companies don't do this, so you get some crisps that don't taste of anything and some absolutely saturated with flavouring!
Finally the crisps are weighed, bagged, packed and taken to the warehouse next door, which is run for us by Bibby Distribution. We're currently in the process of renewing our weighing and bagging systems so there is a lot of upheaval. We're putting in the latest Ishida weigh heads and TNA baggers, which are faster and much more accurate. The new kit can get to 0.1g under and 0.1g over [the target weight per bag], which is pretty impressive.
The unavoidable waste in crisp production is water, as potatoes are only about 20% solid. Peelings are one of the main areas of waste we can do something about. Sometimes you generate 10-15% waste in peelings. At other times you only create 2%. It depends on the potato. Slicer heads also generate waste - you get tiny little chips of potato that fall off, but you can minimise this by keeping the blades sharp. After that, there is always a certain percentage of product that is removed after the frying process because the crisps are too dark or green when we hand inspect them.
When it comes to waste in the flavouring process, we've been searching for utopia, but we haven't found it yet! The electrostatic drums give us better coverage, but it's still not perfect. On weighing, we are definitely getting there with the new weigh heads. The packing process is still slow, but it will speed up when we install tumble packers.
We have really led the way when it comes to clean-label crisps without monosodium glutamate or any other artificial ingredients. We've also looked carefully at our salt levels. But you can go a bridge too far with reformulation. Crisps are a treat. You can do so much to make them 'healthier', but at some point you have to ask yourself what you are trying to achieve. If you take the cocoa butter, the sugar and the milk out of chocolate, it might be healthier, but it's no longer chocolate. The same applies to crisps.
INTERVIEW BY ELAINE WATSON
Location: Seabrook Crisps, Seabrook House, Duncombe Street, Bradford, BD8 9AJ
Tel: 01274 546 405
Employees: About 120 in the factory, plus extra agency staff at busy times
Output: More than 2M cases a year
Size: 7,432m2 - 8,361m2
Customers: All of the leading supermarkets, plus independent retailers
Products: 18 standard flavours plus four new premium ranges. Single packs and packs of six
Name: Ken Brook-Chrispin
Career highlights: "Creating a state-of-the-art head office block at Seabrook from a derelict weaving shed at less than £400 a square metre, which is approximately 25% of new build cost ... and planning a £2M ad campaign to make the less fortunate people in other parts of the country aware of our great crisps!"
Domestics: "Married with two daughters. One is doing A-levels, one is at university."
Outside work: "Tennis, squash, table-tennis, golf, mountain-biking - any kind of sport."