Fruit of their labour

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Fruit

Fruit of their labour
Machines are out and the human touch is in at Daniels Chilled Foods in Leeds, but between learning Russian and tending orchids, Alex Faulkner finds time to keep the hands-on, high-speed operation running smoothly

Alex Faulkner, regional operations manager, Daniels Chilled Foods

There's something really special about working in the chilled food production business. It's such a dynamic and fast-moving industry that it does seem to take a certain kind of person to cope with it without going insane.

We're dealing with fresh prepared fruit, which is a short shelf-life product with such short order lead times that the stress factor can be pretty high.

You just have to learn how to deal with it. I remember one occasion when a customer's order came in that was 30% ahead of forecast, and we were wondering what the hell we were going to do about it.

After a call to the customer, it became clear that it was a mistake, thank God, but it might not have been. In this kind of business you have to be able to deal with the unexpected, which means you have to be flexible.

And that, for me, is the beauty of this factory - it's very, very different from some of the automated 'super-factories' I've worked at in the past.

With the exception of the packing lines that put lids on pots and seal containers and one machine that cores apples, it's all manual. We've just got a lot of very skilled people with a lot of incredibly sharp knives cutting fruit into small pieces, which can make life very interesting ...

Because fruit is not uniform, it's actually quicker and more efficient to cut it by hand. Our people can cut a pineapple more quickly than a machine, and with a far better yield. We manage the process so that giveaway is less than 2%. Automating it just isn't viable. A machine will not give you the accuracy and speed that you need.

I'd say we've got another two to three years' life in this plant if we continue to grow at this pace - 50% year-on-year - and then we are going to have to look at expansion options.

I started my career at Heinz after studying food technology at the University of Reading. I then had spells at Northern Foods, a seafood business and then Albert Fisher, which is now defunct of course, before joining Daniels Chilled Foods about five years ago. The fruit side of the business started in Seacroft in Leeds 20 years ago with 20 staff and two products: orange and grapefruit segments for the foodservice sector.

By 2004, we'd outgrown the factory and I was put in charge of transferring everything to this site in 16 weeks. I still can't believe we did it! We closed the Seacroft site at 8pm on the Friday and opened up here at Waterside Park on the Saturday at 8am.

We've never looked back. When we arrived we were turning over £5M. This calendar year we are on schedule to turn over £22M. The fresh prepared fruit market is growing like wildfire. I can't think of any product in supermarkets that's showing the kind of growth that we're demonstrating.

We handle more than 100 stock keeping units for retail and foodservice: from 100g bags that you'd see in a convenience store for lunchboxes or a snack with a coffee, to 4kg buckets for fruit salad for the catering sector. It all adds up to about 20M units a year, almost all of which is own-label.

Obviously, before the fruit arrives at the factory, there is a lot of work involved to ensure that we have the right product to work with. You have to get the sourcing right by developing long-term relationships with the growers, and then going through all the quality assurance.

We check for sweetness, acidity, freshness, flavour, aroma, colour, consistency and a host of other things. We also have to pay particular attention to quality at the start and the end of every fruit season, when you inevitably get a variation in the product.

Cut to the chase

Once you've got it here, the most important thing is to keep the fruit cold and cut it with an extremely sharp knife with a human on the other end for maximum yield. Then you have to pack it and get it to the customer as quickly as possible.

If you order today, then we'll send your product out today. If we have a power cut and we lose four hours, that's pretty disastrous in a business like this. We're dealing in hours as opposed to days, which is why there is so little margin for error.

As with any chilled product, demand can be fairly volatile in prepared fruit. We might get an uplift of 20% if the sun comes out, so we have to be flexible enough to manage that.

Running with knives

It goes without saying that because we've got hundreds of knives in here, staff training is absolutely critical. All our employees wear protective gloves on one hand, and hold the knife with the other.

Because what we do is so labour intensive, we do have a lot of people working here at any one time compared to many other factories, so good people management is crucial, not least because they are all carrying extremely sharp knives!

I know I would say this, but there is a good working atmosphere in here. We must be doing something right because the staff turnover is less than 3%. People take such pride in what they do.

Considering that we have such a manual process, it's particularly impressive that we get fewer than five complaints per million units. The quality that they produce is really amazing.

Melons versus mangoes

When it comes to new product development, it could be in the form of new fruits and combinations of fruits or new packaging. The market is changing all the time. Six years ago, for example, 75% of fruit salad had melon in it. Today it is less than 30%.

People want kiwis, mangoes and pomegranates, hand-cut orange, blueberries as well as melon and grapefruits. We get through 35t of mangoes a week!

As for the future of this site, I am very confident about our prospects, because we're selling a product that ticks every box on the list of the average consumer or supermarket buyer. It's convenient, healthy, enjoyed by all age groups and it looks and tastes fantastic. Who doesn't like fruit?

INTERVIEW BY ELAINE WATSON

FACTORY FACTS

Location:​ Daniels Chilled Foods, Unit 4, Waterside Road, Waterside Industrial Park, Leeds, LS10 1RW. Tel: 0113 202 5160

Size:​ 2,787m2

Employees:​ 460 over three shifts, seven days a week; plus 50 to 60 extra staff during busy times

Output:​ 20M units a year

Growth:​ 50% year-on-year

Turnover:​ forecast for 2007: £22M

Products:​ fresh prepared fruit for retail and foodservice

PERSONAL

Name:​ Alex Faulkner

Age:​ 47

Career highlights:​ "Setting up this site in 16 weeks. I've commissioned factories before, but never this fast!"

Domestics:​ lives in Upwell near Peterborough; married with two children: daughter (aged 16), son (aged 20)

Outside work:​ "I'm learning Russian. I haven't learned a language since I was at school, and I thought, what the hell, I like a challenge! I also grow orchids."

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