It's bread, Jim, but not as we know it ...

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Bread Naan Butt foods

It's bread, Jim, but not as we know it ...
It's a devastatingly simple, but brilliant idea: edible bread bowls sturdy enough to hold soup or a curry but soft enough to eat. So when did the eureka moment come for Butt Foods?

Keith Lacey, factory manager, Butt Foods

I'd actually set my heart on being an electrician when I was at school, but events took over as I was desperate to earn enough money for a season ticket for Nottingham Forest and started working in a butchery to make some cash. To cut a long story short I ended up staying in butchery for the next 21 years! After that, I tried my hand at pub management, which I had always imagined as being my dream job - until I actually did it and realised it definitely wasn't ...

Finally, in 2000, I applied for the hygiene manager's job here at Butt Foods. About three years later, I was offered the role of assistant production manager, and within six months, I became joint production manager. It was then that I was really able to make some changes.

My top priority was changing the mentality of people on the lines from one of getting the product out to getting the quality right. There was also a lot of change as we had introduced automation and stopped doing things by hand. We went from 120 people making naan breads by hand to running two automated production lines producing a range of products, and it was hard for people to adjust.

It's not a great premise for a new product, but we first started thinking about bread bowls because we had too much volume for one production line but not enough for two, so we had to think of something!

Bread bowls - in the sense of hollowed out bread - have been around for years, but if you pour a curry or soup into them, you get a soggy mess. We wanted to make a bowl that was an effective carrier for wet ingredients but was also soft and tasty, so we experimented for months.

Bowled over ...

We always knew we could do it, although there were times when I felt like throwing in the towel. After about six months, and by complete fluke, we hit that eureka moment when we changed one thing and everything suddenly fell into place. Unfortunately, I can't tell you what that was, because it's the secret of our success!

The basic process for manufacturing bread bowls is the same as for standard naan bread at the beginning. We mix the ingredients in 160kg batches to make a dough, and then put this into 250l tote bins for proving for two to two-and-a-half hours. It's then hoisted into a hopper and feeds the production line. After that, it's different. The naans go down the line, get cooked in a travelling oven for 60 seconds and they are done. The bread bowls have a second proofing stage in the trays for a further hour before being baked for several minutes in a rack oven, so the whole process takes much longer.

When I first saw our bread bowls [with fillings] on the menu at the Hungry Horse pub chain [owned by Greene King], it was a great moment. Two years of hair pulling and hard labour had finally paid off!

The next milestone for us will be in January when we launch 'Breadies' - bread bowls that come with their own filling: spicy Mexican chilli in a garlic bread bowl and chicken tikka masala in a naan bread bowl. We'll buy in the filling and pack them here, so that customers just have to heat them up and they have a complete meal concept ready to go.

We're also working with a leading manufacturer that supplies the supermarkets to develop a similar branded ready meal concept that can be sold through the retail channel.

The big challenge at the moment is making mini bread bowls, which are proving a bit of a nightmare to produce as there is too much waste. We haven't got them right yet, but we're working on it! There is so much you can do, from sweet brioche bowls to a cookie bowl concept. Bread bowls would also work brilliantly with chips; you'd just serve them up and eat the whole thing - there's no packaging, so it's even good for the environment!

There is always more we could do to reduce waste, although a lot of it is about discipline and making people aware of how waste impacts the business. But we've also done simple things such as introducing containers that carry exactly the right amount of egg so people don't have to measure it out.

As for energy reduction, we're working with Nottingham University on exploring ways to recycle heat from our ovens. This could theoretically run our heating system in future.

We've also incorporated cleaning into the working day so that when the hygiene team arrives at the end of the shift, they just have to clean the production lines and the floors, and they don't have to spend half the time emptying bins and picking up waste dough and flour.

What is great about working here is that everyone has to do a bit of everything because we're still pretty small. There's just David [Williams, the md], myself, the production manager, the line supervisors and the operatives. It takes time to change a culture, but we've got to the point now that people are willing to give anything a try.

David will have a conversation with a potential customer about a new concept and come back to me and say 'can you do a bread bowl the size of an egg cup?' I'll go down to production and we'll put some dough down the line and see what happens.

Making bespoke trays with new shapes and sizes can cost £300-£400 a time, however, so you need to have a fair idea of whether something will work before you cough up for one of those!

Innovate or die

We bring in dough consultants from time to time, but pretty much everything else in done in-house. It's trial and error. The most important person in the factory is probably the oven operator. He gets the bake and the bubbles in a naan exactly right, he can slow or speed up the line because everything depends on getting the bake right!

We used to have a new product development technologist who made great products in the kitchen as samples, but we couldn't replicate them in the factory. Today we only send out samples from the production line, as that is what customers will actually get.

We know we can't get complacent, despite the enormous interest there has been in the bread bowls, so we're constantly thinking about the next big innovation. That's the only way we can compete. We're not chasing volume at any price; it's all about developing high quality products that make a profit.

Our sales are growing, but we're more focused on the bottom line. We've gone from being basically a commodity manufacturer to a company really driving innovation. If you just do what everyone else does, and you're the size we are, you won't stay in business.

As for protecting our intellectual property, you can't patent a bread bowl; it's not as if we have invented completely new equipment to produce them, it's more a case of modifying what we have. So technically, yes, another manufacturer could copy us, but we reckon we've got a pretty good head start over the competition.

It took us the best part of two years to perfect the process. In the meantime, we are going to keep driving the concept forward so that we totally dominate this niche in the market.

Interview by Elaine Watson


Location:​ Butt Foods, The Midway, Lenton Industrial Estate, Nottingham, NG7 2TS. Tel: 0115 985 0009

History:​ Family-owned Butt Foods was founded by restaurateur Mazhar Butt in 1990 to supply Indian snacks to local companies. It moved to its current site in 1995

Factory size:​ 4,645m2

Products: naan bread, bread bowls, bread boats, 'Breadies' (meals in bread bowls), folded sandwich breads

Employees:​ 50 altogether; 42 in the factory

Output:​ 60M units a year

Customers:​ foodservice, sandwich and ready meal manufacturers, retail


Name:​ Keith Lacey

Age:​ 45

Career highlights:​ "Seeing our bread bowls on the Hungry Horse menu - it was like two years of hard labour had finally paid off!"

Domestics:​ married to Tracy with three children: two sons aged nine and seven and a daughter aged 15

Outside work:​ "I'm a passionate Nottingham Forest supporter."

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