What's the big idea?

By Rod Addy

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: New product development, Snowbird foods, Sausage

As part of the Vion Group, Snowbird Foods is brimming over with new concepts for a host of meat products, from sausages to meatballs. We grill the man behind production

Philip Paul, md, Snowbird Foods

John Drage set up this business back in the 1970s in Plumtree, Essex. It was originally a hot dog franchise. He sold it in 1999 and his family thought he was going to retire then. He didn't sell this site, but he wasn't allowed to sell or process raw or frozen sausages [according to the sales contract]. However, no one said he wasn't allowed to cook them. That's how Snowbird was born.

A lot of people have worked with me a long time. I have known our engineering manager James Rumble for 14 years. James serviced the tricycles that delivered the hot dogs. That's how he got into engineering. A lot of our factory floor staff have been with us since the early 1990s, with an average employment period of 1015 years.

Momentum really started in 2002. We recruited Roy Anderson as sales director. Roy focused on pubs, hotels, leisure facilities and catering suppliers such as Brakes and 3663. Helen Swann became national accounts development manager in 2003 for ready meals and sandwich manufacturers. We took Glenn Hitchings on as technical manager in 2008.

From 20032007 we were working towards an exit strategy for John and in 2007 we undertook an exit sale of Snowbird to [sausage manufacturer] J&J Tranfield. Then in December 2007 it was taken over by Vion, which bought several UK businesses at the same time, the biggest being Grampian.

We have gone from batch cooking to in-line production. We produce 25t30t of finished product a day. Most of the meat we start with is fresh, although we get a little frozen. We operate with high traceability. For beef, for example, we can go back to the ear tags of every animal.

We have won 16 awards for new products in the past four years. We quickly realised that to sustain our business we needed to keep coming up with fresh ideas. We are part of a larger Vion project in Holland and another with Sheffield Hallam University looking at product development both on the top secret list.

A new Snowbird Foods project, which consitutes a major step forward on the sausage side and is something nobody has done before, has just gone live. We are launching breed specific sausages dedicated to single pig breeds.

We have just launched the breakfast sausage, composed of baked beans, bacon, mushrooms, pork and cherry tomatoes. We recently launched pork and mustard and curry sausages and we launched five varieties of flavour filled Poppers meat balls for the foodservice and ready meals market in March. Further Poppers will follow, including a vegetarian option.

Choppy seas

The split between our premium and standard products is about 50/50. We don't make economy products. Almost all products are tailor-made for the customer. For example, we make sausages for the canning industry that have to go through a canning system without getting mushy.

We also designed sausages that can be cooked in microwaves for ferry operators. Try frying traditional sausages on choppy seas the fat goes everywhere!

We continually think of ideas, so we have always got to be out looking at new kit to deliver them. 35% of SKUs (stock keeping units) fall off and have to be replaced by others every year. This is becoming an ever greater issue.

Vion's investment has focused on comprehensive process improvements, capacity increases and more versatile equipment to expand the product line.

We have tried to create a mini-factory in our new product development room. We can weigh, mix, mince and fill and have a range of cooking methods from combi-therm microwaves to grills. We can steam, fry, roast or microwave.

In the factory we are looking at travelling ovens [in which products are cooked as they pass along a belt]. We currently have frying lines and combi-cooker capability for direct heat injection and direct steam injection cooking and we have the ability to flash fry. In-line cooking has quadrupled capacity.

The combi-cooking line can bar mark products. This has significantly increased the scope for new product development, allowing more combinations of size, shape, weight, texture, nutritional composition and flavour of ground meat and stuffing products.

We are looking at installing another new line with a bit of jiggery pokery.

We recently installed a multi-head weigher and free flowing form, fill and seal (pouch) packing equipment. We had no way of getting this in intact, so chief engineer James Rumble worked with Ishida to invent a way in which we could get it into the factory in pieces and then rebuild it. There was only 5mm clearance, so he managed to get a quart into a pint pot. James redesigned the way it fits together.

We had to raise the ceiling to get the multihead weigher in. This has given us greater flexibility and improved accuracy and released 15% capacity improvement. The payback is less than 20 months.

Scramble-style plastic bags

We have invested in bowl cutters and eventually we want to move to fully automated packing. In 2009 a specially commissioned bag printer was installed which can handle four and six kilo scramble-style plastic bags. We are gradually investing in better kit and better facilities. In the high care sector we are replacing walls and ceilings to make them fire retardant and have rewired the factory in the past 18 months.

We have increased positive air filtration capacity and improved product conveyors to reduce waste, improve efficiency and further enhance hygiene. End-to-end SAP [an enterprise resource planning system] is on our wish list, but it's a year or two away. We are looking at an in-line slicing machine for sandwich meat and pizzas. At the moment this is done manually.

The new factory is looking to use as many green technologies as possible, such as heat exchangers, which convert heat from ammonia freezers. We can get 60,000 litres of hot water a day as a byproduct of the freezers to maximise cleaning efficiency and there has been a 30% reduction in chemical requirements. Heat from the freezers is also used to heat buildings, reducing gas and electricity off-take.

Vion is enhancing its corporate social responsibility agenda. Used oil is sent off to be turned into biodiesel and we use low energy bulbs and are looking at LED (light emitting diode) lighting.

As a group, we are looking to consolidate and reduce food miles while giving a better service to our customers. Packaging is high on our agenda. We send cardboard and plastic to recycling and we are hoping to be free of all cardboard packaging by 2015. We are there with a lot of our customers already. Ultimately our target is zero waste to landfill.

In terms of new markets, the biggest prize for us in terms of volume would be retail, although while the volumes are greater, margins are pinched. We haven't got a single customer who, if we lost them, would cause us real problems. No one represents more than 10% of our business. The fact that we don't supply retailers directly can be a strength. Customers don't have to worry about us not being able to supply them because we have been hit by a retailer with a major promotion.

FACTORY FACTS

Location: Snowbird Foods, Ponders End, Middlesex, EN3 4TD

Staff: Just shy of 100. No agency.

Factory size: 2,044m2

Operating hours: Two shifts: 6am2pm and 2pm10pm, plus 10pm6am hygiene, Monday to Friday

Products: Fully cooked and ready to eat sausages, meatballs and stuffings, 95% branded under the Snowbird label, half for foodservice channels (pubs, leisure, airlines and ferries) and half for ready meal and sandwich manufacturers. We currently have 165 live products.

Output: 7,000t a year

Annual turnover: £14m

PERSONAL

Name: Philip Paul

Age: 47

Career highlights: "Returning to Snowbird and building up the business that we have today."

Domestics: "I am married with four children."

Outside work: "Aside from spending time with my family and my job, my other great passion is golf."

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