Founded in 1898, the family-owned firm currently turns over £1.3m and produces traditional-style mint balls for independent retailers and leading supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s and Morrisons, while new lines include pear drops and sarsaparilla drops
Great nephew of the company founder, joint md John Winnard, told FoodManufacure.co.uk that despite “pretty static” sales in recent years due to problems faced by independent newsagents, Uncle Joe’s had seen “solid overall demand” throughout the recession.
He said: “People are eating more sweets during the recession, and cut down on things like white goods. Comfort foods do particularly well – it’s similar to the booming market for take-home booze just now.”
Winnard said that Uncle Joe’s recently invited the Manufacturing Institute into its factory – which employs 25 staff – in order to maximise use of space, and was keen to expand further, depending on whether new orders were forthcoming.
Organic growth central
He said this depended on achieving new listings that Uncle Joe's was working hard to win: “We’re stocked in Dean & DeLuca delicatessens in the US, and all we need is another similar major contract to add, say, £300,000 to our turnover.
“But we want to grow organically – we hit a sticky patch in the 1990s, in one particular year where, perhaps ironically, we grew too fast.”
Winnard explained that rapid increases in turnover often entailed plant investments, increased raw ingredient costs and staff wages; even standard payment windows to small firms by retailers (30 days after delivery) could cause difficulties if the former over-reached themselves.
Endeavouring to fulfil new contracts, small companies risked falling victim to their own success in the event that bank funding suddenly dried-up, he said.
Accordingly, Winnard stresses that Uncle Joe’s is keen on the right sort of “supermarket penetration” that preserves its nicheappeal, where the fact its sweets are handmade means it can’t “hit, say, every Asda or Tesco in the country".
“Nonetheless, the supermarkets’ increased focus on food miles has helped small firms like us, because we have secured more local listings. It’s really good to test the market with them.
“The only minor problem we have had with major supermarkets is communication, where you fire off an email to them and don’t get an immediate reply. It’s easy to overestimate your importance as a small company in the scheme of things!”
Old meets new
While Uncle Joe’s is keen to ramp-up production, Winnard said the firm was constrained by the speed at which it produces sweets by hand, boiling up sweet mixtures over open-gas fires as opposed to using modern vacuum-cooking methods.
“It’s a real case of old meets new – we have modern machinery that can fill 70 bags of sweets a minute, but we don’t usually run it until 11am because we don’t produce enough sweets until then, due to traditional production methods!
“We’re trying to raise our presence in the market, because we believe our products possess broader appeal. It’s similar to the 1930s, when our management said that people would love Uncle Joe’s mint balls if only they could taste them once.”