In a surreal race between naan breads and tortillas, Dunstable-based Honeytop Speciality Foods is backing tortillas to win, by a nose.
The firm, which makes flat breads and recently ventured into crumpets and pancakes, launched into tortillas 18 months ago. They are catching up fast with the mainstay of its product portfolio, naan breads. In percentage terms tortilla sales are rising in the strong double digits.
“The business was founded on naan bread,” says Honeytop joint md Charles Eid. “Naans are still growing steadily for us, but tortillas are growing very fast. In two or three years the lines will cross. It’s the rate at which they are attracting new customers that’s so attractive and interesting. We’re seeing a huge conversion to tortillas, even from customers in the US.”
Founded in 1984, Honeytop commands 65% of the UK own label naan bread market and almost half the own label tortilla sector, serving major retailers and brands such as Sharwoods.
There’s a beautiful symmetry to the peak seasons of these two products, says Eid. “When it’s warm, tortilla sales are up and when it’s cold, naan sales are up.” This is because naans often accompany Indian meals, which are in general more popular in the winter as consumers look for warming food.
By contrast, tortillas’ versatility is a major reason for their growing popularity. “You see them being used more in retail as sandwiches and they are now in foodservice in places such as McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken,” says Eid. “People use them with barbecues. Huge volumes are sold as meal kits.” He also thinks Mexican food will increase in popularity, offering further potential in chilled food.
While all this is going on, Eid still has one eye on naans. So lucrative is the area for Honeytop, it’s building a naan processing facility in India. The factory will have the same specifications as the firm’s Dunstable naan site, producing the same product, which was “well-received in the research we did over there”, says Eid.
Aside from India, Honeytop has also started shipping product to the US, Canada and European markets and expects more growth in these regions, buoyed by the weak pound. Nevertheless, there are challenges. “One of them is the cyclical movement in raw material prices, in particular flour,” says Eid. “We were also hit a few years ago with vegetable oil prices when a lot of the crops were being diverted for biofuels.”
All very well, but the real question for competitors is where the firm goes next in terms of its products. Eid is tight-lipped but says there’s room for more growth in ethnic foods, particularly low fat options. “But our short-term objective is to consolidate and excel in the new areas we have gone into.” Meantime, growth has demanded considerable investment in kit. Honeytop opened a swanky ABB Robotics picking and stacking line for pancakes last year.
This was swiftly followed by the announcement of the installation of four flow wrapping lines, speeding up crumpet processing, then a doubling of bakery capacity, creating 140 jobs, taking the tally to 400. The growth entailed the acquisition of an extra 12,077m2 of production space at its HQ.
In all, £7M has been invested in automation during the latest expansion, with £3M more earmarked for the coming months. “As long as you take the long term view, we expect to recover our investment,” says Eid. “We have three new units on site. The first has been fully converted to production and is linked to further space for processing. At the moment this is a warehouse. The third is a goods-in area, but effectively it’s all one factory.
“We’ve expanded capacity to a stage where we can cope with orders and promotions. We have put down eight lines in nine months. We’ll be adding to that a line at a time.”
Eid is a big proponent of automation. “We have started automating ingredients handling for bakery and optical inspection. For some of the plant we even have remote access to plant parameters. We try to automate wherever we possibly can.”
The business has rolled out Microsoft Vision software, managing everything from purchasing to production, he says. “We have a fully-qualified Microsoft software writer, who writes bespoke programmes. We can look at the efficiencies of all the lines live.”
One of the latest installations is a stainless steel conveyor system for transferring naan bread from ovens to spiral coolers, designed by Astec Conveyors.
Much of the kit has been built and designed in-house, though Eid adds: “For tortillas we bought the biggest, fastest line in the world, made tweaks and made it 10% more efficient.”
However, this wouldn’t work everywhere, he says. “It’s straightforward for crumpets and pancakes, because their sizes and shapes don’t vary. We’re fully automated on crumpets from beginning to end, from ingredients mixing to flow wrapping. But to automate naan production would be very difficult. There are different recipes, sizes, shapes and garnishes.”
In fact, hand-shaping for the tandoori oven-baked naans has a certain caché with customers, he says. “There’s still value in it, because it gives them that authentic look.”