Soup's on the menu

Related tags New covent garden Covent garden Manufacturing

Soup's on the menu
There's been a significant change here in the last few weeks because for the first time in 18 years we're filling New Covent Garden (NCG) products...

There's been a significant change here in the last few weeks because for the first time in 18 years we're filling New Covent Garden (NCG) products into pots as well as cartons.

NCG effectively invented fresh chilled soups in 1987, and from the outset they were sold in milk-style cartons. To the consumer, a carton means 'freshness'.

When we launched a range of sauces last year we debated long and hard about how to package them, but it was felt cartons were synonymous with the brand. So that's what we went with.

It's clear now, though, that consumers expect sauces to be in pots. So over the winter we installed a new pot filler -- a 60-per-minute Packaging Automation machine -- and in March we relaunched the sauces. We're doing five varieties with flavours such as smoked mozzarella carbonara and wild mushroom & mascarpone. They are in 300g and 350g sizes, and we can also also fill into 600g.

Moving into fresh sauces has been a big step because it's a fundamentally different process. Our soup-making is very automated. All the equipment is under programmable logic control (PLC) and the whole plant is run by a supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) process management system. The operators pretty much follow the instructions they are given by the system -- how much of each ingredient to weigh out for each batch, and so on -- and the process is completely closed.

Sauce-making is more like a kitchen operation, in open pans, and it's more variable. For example, the seasonality of onions means that sweating-off or caramelising could take five minutes or it could take 10. The chef-operators work within guidelines but they still have to make that call, and they're constantly sampling while they're cooking.

We've bought two bespoke steam-jacket cooking vessels from the US, which allow us to cook via steam jacket or direct steam injection. With the steam jacket they give us a surface temperature up to 180°C -- hot enough to fry off ingredients -- so we can pretty much replicate anything a chef might do on a hob, like making a roux-based sauce or a wine reduction or butter sauce. The vessels have also got full-contact scrapers, which means we can fry onions or crisp up bacon lardons without them sticking or burning to the sides.

I've got a full complement of sauce chefs now, but recruitment was difficult at first -- finding people who understood food and cooking but didn't want to be all-out chefs. In our favour was the fact we're not doing split shifts as the catering industry often demands. On the other hand, the sauce chefs haven't really got the scope to be too creative because our products have to be absolutely consistent.

We have quality manuals for every product, which cover the physical characteristics of the finished pack and the properties of the product itself, like colour, flavour, viscosity and particulate distribution. There are photos of the product and a series of tasting notes: initial flavours, mouthfeel, flavours that linger on the palate. We have people who are trained organoleptically and the new product development (NPD) team also do daily random tastings.

Historically, all the soup quality testing was done off-line, with samples taken at the beginning, middle and end of the batch. Now, with the sauces, the chef-operators are providing on-line quality assurance (QA) as well.

We have a core range of soup that includes flavours such as carrot and coriander, leek and potato, and smoked haddock chowder. Then we have summer and winter ranges that change over in April/May and again in September. And we also have our Soups of the Month (SOM), which are really popular. The last one was lentil, bean and oak-smoked garlic.

Some of these monthly specials have sold more than you would ever dream of. A few have bombed out, and others people either love or hate -- what you'd call 'the Marmite effect'. SOM fits nicely into the innovative ethos at NCG and allows the NPD team to be as whacky as they can get away with. If we get it right, like last month's flavour, then the sales can go ballistic. If we get it wrong the reverse can be true. But hey, that's life.

We've sourced some exotic ingredients, such as black trompette mushrooms, truffles and casalinga tomatoes. I often play devil's advocate in terms of making sure product ideas are manufacturable, that we can actually procure the ingredients and that the price is not too variable. We don't want to be buying larks' tongues from Peru.

New recipes created by our chef are put through a development process that scales them up from the kitchen trial through to a full size factory trial: usually a 1,200kg batch in the case of soups.

We can be susceptible to poor seasons on specific commodities. An example was when we planned an 'Italian plum tomato' soup, pre-ordered 100t of fresh tomatoes in 220kg drums, bought the cartons ... then only actually received 10t because the Italian harvest failed. We then had the challenge of sourcing the shortfall from alternative suppliers. We managed to wear out a few can openers on that one!

All our ingredients come in pre-prepared. They're pretty much bespoke. An example would be the fresh, torn basil we buy from Fresh Washed Herbs. That's something you'd think would have to be freshly prepared in the kitchen, but we buy it in modified-atmosphere bags and it stays fresh for a couple of days.

Fresh veg is delivered every day. The supply chain team have to get their orders in by 10.30am for delivery by 7.00-8.00pm, with production starting at 10.00pm. We run on a 24h batch operation with the schedule based on stock-check information, predictive sales data and known sales.

We use a manufacturing resource planning (MRP) system called Movex, which manages everything from the raising of purchase orders to stock checks. The guys on the line are reporting production at each stage of the process. From the production data they input to that system we can generate management reports for every stock-keeping unit (SKU) to track usage variance, yield losses, direct costs, etc.

Waste is a big issue in short shelf-life manufacturing and a number of initiatives are currently underway to reduce waste and improve finished good yield. For example, we have to minimise the carton failures in the process. Just a splash of soup on the carton can prevent it sealing, so filling and line speed control are vital given the variation in the products we produce.

This site in Peterborough handles about two-thirds of NCG's soups. We've still got our original factory in London -- the factory manager there is Steve Johnson -- but the company leased this one about 10 years ago when the volumes started to increase.

The cardinal sin for us is if we short our customers. We have to keep finished goods stock to a minimum but maintain the ability to ramp up volume when we need to. In that sense I've almost got two jobs because demand is so cyclical. For six months, across the winter, I'm chasing volumes. For the other six months controlling costs becomes the priority.

If we have any process failures we're very systematic about getting to the root causes. In the three years or so since I joined, we've reduced batch failure rates from 1.5% waste of total volume produced to 0.5%. It's a subject everyone wants to get right because the last thing we need when we're busy is to have to produce something twice.

For each product that fails in QA there's a 'rejection log' that is completed by production, technical and engineering in which all the historical trends of the batch are analysed. The SCADA system provides detailed data from the weighing of ingredients through to the temperature curves during the process.

Some issues are easy to rectify. If human error is the problem, then that's


Name: Tim Thompson

Age: 44

Career highlights: "Shakespeare's old school" in Stratford upon Avon to train, initially, as a chef. Joined Stratford upon Avon Foods in the technical department and "switched codes" to operations when the company was purchased by Campbell's, taking an HNC in Business and Finance. Accepted redundancy rather than relocate to Kings Lynn, but later moved to Dairy Crest in Fenstanton, Cambs. Joined NCG in 2001 as factory manager

Domestics: Married to Susan, a nurse at the Edith Cavell hospital, close to NCG's factory. They have one son, Sam (11)

Outside work: "I'm a golf nut -- unfortunately for my wife. Luckily I have an ally in Sam, who is old enough to caddy for me now. Hopefully he'll get his handicap this year"

factory facts

Location: New Covent Garden Fresh Foods, Westwood Farm, Westwood, Peterborough, PE3 9UP

Ownership: Part of Daniels Chilled Foods, a £63m business owned by Singapore Food Industries. DCF also produces chilled drinks, fresh fruit, salads and fillings

Main products: NCG soups and sauces, own-label foodservice soups and babyfood

Employees: 150 on three shifts, including group marketing and product developmen

Factory size: 4,000m2

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