Heinz Frozen & Chilled Foods: Never a frown, spuds golden brown

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Meet the manager of Aunt Bessie's busy potato processing factory in Norfolk.

Mike Etherington, factory manager

Aunt Bessie’s potato products are produced by Heinz under licence from Aunt Bessie’s Limited, owner of the Aunt Bessie’s brand and registered trade marks.unt Bessie's Roast Potatoes were launched in 1999 and growth in the market led to Heinz's acquisition of North Walsham in 2000. Frozen potatoes are very big in Heinz North America it's the number one frozen potato brand in the US, but it was a new category for Heinz UK.

For a few years after the acquisition there was a period of uncertainty and a strategic review, followed by major capital investment from Heinz of £10.8m here from 2007 under Project Trafalgar.

I originally started work for Heinz in 1988, working at the Harlesden site until its closure in 2000. Then I spent three years at Kitt Green as manufacturing manager, then transferred to the Linda McCartney vegetarian foods factory.

I left Heinz when it sold its frozen ready meals to Hain Celestial in 2006, after which I spent two years as general manager at Bernard Matthews' HQ in Suffolk.

I became factory manager at North Walsham in January 2009. During that year we installed a new high process and packing line here.

Last year we made some upgrades in the areas of odour management, our fridge plant, noise attenuation, soft water plant and traffic management. Over the years, we were acutely aware of noise and odour and we made the changes to improve external relations with domestic neighbours and the local authorities. We always need to remember we are part of a rural community here.

This year we made further efficiency improvements, in addition to the £10.8m previously invested, bringing in new potato cutting equipment and direct packing equipment. Our system enables us to produce directly into the packing area, reducing forklift truck movements and use of consumables. We also installed a new blancher, replacing kit that had been with us for some time. It was more hygienic, user-friendly and up to date.

In terms of lean techniques, we use root cause analysis and one minute risk assessments, but the one I have found most helpful is 5S, which is about making sure everything is in place, neat and tidy and then standardising that. There's an awful lot more we could do there. We haven't been involved yet with the Heinz Global Performance System, our continuous improvement roadmap, but we embark on that in January/February next year. Meantime we have our own continuous improvement plan, which will feed into that.

We work very closely with Aunt Bessie's to make sure initiatives are in place to tackle consumer complaints and the current rate is the lowest we have ever had.

The short- to medium-term is about consolidating what we do and optimising our formed product range, such as croquettes, which are made using the off-cuts of chips or roast potatoes. There may be more products we can add to the range.

We have just launched Mid Week Mini Roasties: smaller roast potatoes with the convenience of a short, 20 minute, cooking time, which can be eaten as a snack or a side dish. However, this didn't involve any rejigging of packaging lines or cooking processes.

Crinkle Cut Chips, which we launched in 2007, were the most successful of our previous product launches. The recession forced people away from roast potatoes to chips and our chip volume is now greater than our roasts. That swing happened in the past two or three years. But we have high hopes for the Minis.

We have three processing lines: one each for chips, roast potatoes and formed products, and three high-speed packing lines. All our potatoes are UK-grown, mostly in East Anglia or Lincolnshire, although we get some from Yorkshire as well. We use a variety called Premiere, from Cornwall, for the first two or three weeks of the new crop season, then switch to Maris Piper and Desiree.

Last summer was hot, a high dry-matter year. I think this year may be similar, so potatoes may develop internal bruising towards the year end, which you have to watch out for. By contrast, during rainy summers, you can't get potatoes out of the ground and two years ago we had to use some potatoes from elsewhere in Europe. Ideally you want growing weather to be equal bursts of rain and sun.

Potatoes are unloaded and graded into sizes. They are de-stoned, delivered to the wash area and from there to the automated peeler, where they are steam peeled, brushed, then washed again. We have a starch recovery plant that runs in tandem with United Utilities.

The potatoes are cut into shape, depending on whether they will be chips, roasts or wedges. They go to the inspection belt, are size-graded and optically sorted for blemishes. We have an indication of what's coming in, but we never really know, so we have to be flexible.

From there, they are blanched, dried, passed through batter application, fried, quick frozen and direct packed into one-tonne containers. Weigh fillers drop them down to the bagging machines. They are then cartoned (usually 12 bags per case), palletised and either go into cold storage or straight on to frozen transport to the store or distribution centre.

We have made a significant change in the way we distribute products. Until last year, everything went through central distribution, which is now in Grimsby. Then we began direct deliveries to a major retailer, cutting road miles and fuel emissions.

We have increased capacity to our on-site cold store by about 25%, so it now stores about 1,600 pallets, which will enable us to do even more of that over the course of this year. I'm not sure we will be able to deliver directly to all major retailers, given our capacity at the cold store, but we're working hard to optimise things. We deliver directly to one retailer, with capability for supplying two others.

Our national target for customer service levels is 98.5%. We achieved 99.8% last year, which is way in excess of anything the site achieved previously.

In terms of environmental initiatives, year-on-year we have reduced water use by half, slashed electricity use by 22%, water by 20%, heavy fuel oil by 19%, solid waste down 20%. We are committed to 20% solid waste reduction by 2015. We do recycle part of our water and we have become much more efficient in our processing, having carried out a study on water use as well.

We switched to sustainable palm oil two months ago. At 3,000t a year we are the only user of frying oil in Heinz UK. The company has been a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil for about five years.

Interview by Rod Addy


Location​: HJ Heinz Frozen & Chilled Foods, Station Road, North Walsham, Norfolk NR28 9RY

Staff​: 200 full-time employees, in addition to drafting in some agency workers where they are required

Size​: 45,527m2

Operating hours:​ 24 hours a day, seven days a week

Products​: Aunt Bessie's branded Roast Potatoes, in addition to Aunt Bessie's branded Chips, Wedges, Croquettes and the new Mid Week Mini Roasties

Output​: 52,000t a year

Capacity​: 60,000t a year

Annual turnover:​ £60M


Name​: Mike Etherington

Age​: 48

Career highlights​: "Achieving the factory manager position here and at Heinz's Telford foodservice operation in July. Also, surpassing all annual key performance indicators for North Walsham last year. I don't think I have ever achieved everything across the board in a year, so I'm fairly proud of that. Certainly it's way up among the achievements I have experienced as a site manager."

Domestics​: "I'm married, with two children."

Outside work:"More than anything, I enjoy spending time with my family."

Related topics: People, Frozen

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