A run for your honey

By Patrick Robinson, factory manager, Rowse Honey

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Honey

A run for your honey
I left school with O- and A-levels and got a job in a microbiology lab at a bakery, which funded a Higher National Certificate in food technology at South Bank Polytechnic.

That enabled me to become a quality assurance supervisor working on frozen meals, then a technical manager on chilled meals. Then I reached a point where I wanted to do something non-technical. I was able to realise that Through the Wellness Foods group, which bought Rowse Honey in 2006.

I joined the group's Orchard House Foods division, working on fruit salads. That got me into a sector that was fresh and natural. I have always liked the idea of people understanding what they eat, that food ebbs and flows with the seasons and the need to be more connected with it. Rowse offered me the opportunity to become factory manager and I relocated to Oxfordshire.

Among the latest changes on site, the biggest story is the updating of our brand image. Historically, Rowse hasn't stood out on retail fixtures, but from May we developed our image. We switched to honeycomb-shaped jars with an embossed logo. Each speciality honey now carries a sidebar on the label describing the flavour. If you saw jars of Marmite without labels, you would know what they were. That's where we're aiming to get to.

We want to get a younger and more varied demographic buying honey. We had a meeting and opted to challenge ourselves with the hexagonal rather than cylindrical jar. We invested in new labelling equipment to get labels on the front and back. We also changed the shape of labels on our squeezy bottles to look like those on the jars.

We have also gone from 38 to 45 stock keeping units (SKUs), introducing new honeys, one of which is Light & Mild, targeted at younger mums and their children. And we have blended Manuka honey, from New Zealand, with clear honey to deliver a range of Supahoneys retailing at £3.99 a jar. Pure Manuka, which we already produced, has anecdotal anti-microbial properties. We have launched Rowse Supahoney Original, Rowse Supahoney Lemon and Rowse Supahoney Cranberry flavours.

There are 34 countries approved for importing honey into the EU. We have a supplies director whose job is to make contact with people in all countries and decide what to buy. You can only get organic certified honey farms in parts of the world with large expanses of unmolested land and no nearby habitation.

Our products include speciality honeys of a single type and one of the challenges is if there's a crop failure, you don't get that type of honey. When Greece was hit by bad weather two years ago, we went several months without Greek Hill Honey. Another issue is biodiversity. South America is growing a lot of maize for biofuel. For a bee, maize [which is pollinated by wind] is like a desert. Rich bee crops are scarce, so sourcing is harder. Honeybees need to fly to 2M flowers to make 500g of honey and the average worker bee produces just one twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime.

Demand is rising for honey, because it's pure, natural and versatile, but the volume available is reducing for various reasons, one of which is poor bee health. Rowse has pledged £100,000 for Sussex University to look into breeding stronger bees. Bees have been bred to be tame, so they can produce more honey, but the new bees are more susceptible to diseases. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has pledged to invest £10M in research into Colony Collapse Disorder, which is harming many bees. There's a three-year research plan and this is year one.

We have seen real raw material cost inflation. Demand tends to go up during autumn and winter, when people take more honey as a cold remedy and you get Christmas gift packs including slabs of cut honeycomb.

We grade our retail honeys from light to rich flavours, starting with, say, Acacia at grade one, through grade two Orange Blossom, grade three Australian and grade four Manuka, Greek or Tasmanian. We don't pack any grade five. Some Greek Pine would be a five as would some New Zealand Forest or Italian Forest. We have launched a Rowse brand limited edition flavour (Greek Hill, grade four) to allow us to flex the SKU based on availability. This is likely to be replaced with Italian Forest early next year if sufficient raw material can be procured.

Honey arrives here in 300kg steel drums and we hold up to two months' stock. We buy from some bee farmers, but generally from agents who weed out endemic issues. However, we still test samples for physical and chemical properties, such as pesticide residues, colour, flavour, taste, moisture, viscosity and sugar content. We employ tasters with sensitive palates. We have an internal laboratory to test things such as colour and moisture content and send tests to external labs.

The honey crystallises over time in storage, so the first complication is getting it out of the drum. We raise the temperature to saturation point in warm cabinets and the crystals dissolve. We punch a hole in the bottom of the drums and there are tanks under the cabinets to catch the honey as it flows out. We strain it to remove extraneous matter, then it's pumped to tanks that can hold up to 10t where it is treated further. By law, honey has to be the unaltered product of bees, so where you add something to it, you have to call it 'honey and lemon' or 'honey and cranberry'.

Once it has passed through the tanks, it's deposited into jars and squeezy bottles on the production line. Jars are inverted and blown with air to ensure nothing is in them before being filled. Products pass through metal detectors before the caps go on.

Our volume sales have gone up by 50% since 2002, when our market share also took a step up. The Chinese honey crisis was part of the reason. Chinese honey was banned in 2002 as it contained the antibiotic chloramphenicol [prohibited in Europe because it is believed to contribute to contracting cancer]. Rowse was the first to tackle the slump in supplies with non-Chinese honey. Our competitors were unable to respond so quickly, so we stole some market share. The UK honey market is growing in value by 5.2% and Rowse is growing ahead of that at 6.6%.

Rowse Honey was set up in 1954. Prior to that, the founder Tony Rowse had been selling honey since 1938.

Our longest serving employee has been with us for 40 years. A large proportion of people have worked for us for more than 20 years and our staff turnover is in single figures. We employ a lot of families and half the workforce walk to work from Wallingford.

Interview by Rod Addy

Factory Facts

Location​: Rowse Honey, Moreton Avenue, Wallingford, Oxfordshire, OX10 9DE

Staff​: 175, including agency staff

Size​: 2,787m²

Operating hours​: 6am-10pm Monday to Friday, with Saturday overtime, according to demand.

Products​: A total of 45 stock keeping units, mostly speciality and blended honeys. But we also make curds, the Rowse Signature range of premium toffee, chocolate and fruit dessert sauces and Canadian maple syrup. We supply multiple retailers, foodservice and other manufacturers with everything from 28g jars to tanker loads of product. We offer Soil Association accredited organic lines, plus Fairtrade and kosher certified products.

Annual turnover​: £47.6m


Name​: Patrick Robinson

Age​: 44

Career Highlights​: "One of the things I feel most pride about is seeing some of the people I gave a first chance to doing well​."

Domestics​: "I am married, with two girls, aged 11 and 14."

Outside Work:​ "I used to live in Cumbria, where I went rock climbing, walking and mountain biking. Now my main hobby is restoring and riding motorbikes. I find it an antidote to the strict health and safety culture at work. I used to race motorbikes years ago, but gave up when I started a family."

Related topics: Ambient foods, People & Skills