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Me and My Factory: Bon Apetito

By Paul Jerram, factory manager, apetito, Trowbridge, 28-Jan-2011

Related topics: People, Frozen

Apetito is part of a larger German company and is still privately owned. We are the biggest provider of food and services to the elderly, through Meals on Wheels (partnering with 150 local authorities), care homes and our Wiltshire Farm Foods franchise, which delivers direct to people's houses. We also supply 75 NHS Trusts.

In the past 10 years, we have had an unbroken record of profit and sales growth. We are proud of our results, which put us in the top 10% of food businesses by return of sales, according to Plimsoll.

However, we are also extremely motivated by improving the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in our society, making frozen food for the elderly and infirm. The average age of a community meals customer is 83 and we recognise the critical importance of a nutritionally balanced diet.

The elderly have specific needs so, since 2008, as part of our customer focus strategy all meals introduced into the Wiltshire Farm Foods and Community Meals range must be approved by consumer taste panels, which are held around the UK. We collect consumers from their homes and invite them to comment on all aspects of proposed products, such as name, appearance, taste and texture.

I joined in January 2000 from Hygrade Foods, which made chilled ready meals for retailers such as Sainsbury and Waitrose.

There has been significant investment in the factory since I joined. We opened a factory extension in 2002 to house two more production lines and a new spiral freezer.

We have spent £6M in the past three years, including £2M refurbishing our low-risk kitchens and butcheries in 2008. We invested in mincing and dicing and updated allergen control and meat preparation, including metal detection. Kitchen investment included better drainage and extraction. At the end of 2009 we invested in our cold store, installing a new floor and fridge plant. When I started, we had four meal assembly lines and two assembly lines in desserts. Now we have six meal lines and three dessert lines. We have sufficient space to add more lines as and when required.

This year we have commissioned two Double D rotary ovens worth £150,000 for baking pastries and sponges. They have touchscreen controls and probes that monitor internal heat. We are establishing a remote link for the manufacturer in Scotland to help us overcome and monitor maintenance issues. During February we'll be installing two new high-speed mixers worth £110,000.

These are significant outlays, but it's on things we'll use for the next 1015 years. We have also spent £160,000 on a new tray and rack washer. It offers better chemical control and cleaning and can clean 200 trays an hour.

We're looking at X-ray machines and how they can further reduce the likelihood of any contamination passing through to our customers. We have a couple of units on trial, which we're currently working with to assess their suitability within our business.

In 2010, we launched our new range of 55 soft and puréed meals suitable for people with dysphagia and other swallowing difficulties.

Customer focus is central to the success of this new range its launch was the result of two years of research and development and, in particular, gaining an intense understanding of the needs of consumers with a range of specific medical conditions. We also carried out research on products in Europe and North America and can now say with pride that our products are truly world leading.

Not only do customers experience new dining choices, with the many energy-dense and high-protein options, they can also consume nutritious meals created to enhance their health. Our meals provide a superior level of nutrition and we've also reduced the saturated fats and sodium in them.

As an individual's dysphagic condition changes they may require a different category. That's why we have created puréed and soft choices. It's widely recognised that we eat with our eyes, so puréed products are shaped to look like the real thing, even after cooking, enhancing appeal, encouraging recovery and aiding wellbeing. Our range of soft and puréed hot desserts is unparalleled, with worldwide competition only providing cold offerings such as mousses, yogurts and ice cream.

Without doubt we are in a growth market as average life expectancy increases. Although we are eating food from all over the world, our most popular meals have stayed the same for the past 1015 years: traditional comfort food such as roast beef or steak and kidney pie. Aside from avoiding things like sweetcorn and husks, which are hard to digest, we aren't using anything you wouldn't buy for your kitchen store cupboard.

We work no more than 24 hours ahead to accommodate product changes. We produce 160,000 main meals and 65,000 desserts each day. Many meal components are contract processed for us, for example roast potatoes arrive individually quick frozen and green beans are cut and ready to go. We just add these to the trays as part of the overall assembly process.

When feeding the vulnerable, consistent quality and food safety are paramount. We operate a positive release system and have regular online checks for appearance, taste and quality. In addition, every day there is a product tasting session at which staff from the production line taste and comment on the product they have produced. We also get our staff out to visit customers, whether in a hospital or out on a meals on wheels delivery round, as this really helps the team recognise the importance of what they are doing.

All our chefs pass through National Vocational Qualifications and we're putting a lot of our staff through a Chartered Institute of Environmental Health nutritional course to help them understand basic nutrition. There isn't a team leader in Apetito who hasn't attended a three- to five-day course in lean manufacturing.

In terms of sustainability, we are constantly looking for ways to improve. We have reduced packaging in all our raw materials. We have eliminated all cardboard boxes for our health care deliveries. We now use returnable plastic crates and have invested in 30,000 that can be stored at -28°C. In doing so, we have saved about 1M cardboard boxes a year.

We send no food waste to landfill. It all goes to anaerobic digesters. We also recycle all our cardboard, foil, shrink wrap, tin and other metals. We have worked on water and energy reduction, cutting water use by 32%.

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