Cook boosts output by 200% over five years

By Nicholas Robinson

- Last updated on GMT

The home-made feel of ready meals is lost with automation, says Dennis
The home-made feel of ready meals is lost with automation, says Dennis

Related tags Cooking Food

People are crucial to Cook’s business model, Mark Dennis tells Nicholas Robinson

Key points

A catastrophic event, like the kitchen burning down, would be my worst nightmare. It’s never happened, but it wouldn’t be good.

We do have a contingency plan in place, in case something like a fire devastated the factory. For instance, we always have enough stock frozen in storage to keep us going.

The factory, or the kitchen as we call it, has been on this site in Sittingbourne, Kent, since 2007. The company was founded by my boss Ed Perry in 1997. Cook is a ready meals business with a difference. It was born with one principle, which is to use the same ingredients and techniques to manufacture food as consumers would at home, which we believe makes it better quality than a product manufactured on mass by machines.

People are core to the process. We have increased our staff at Sittingbourne from 75 people in 2007 to 200 last year.

We needed more staff because output has risen by 200% since 2009, which equates to 250,000 units of product a week.

As a result, we have also outgrown the site, which is 3,251m². So, we are now investing £1M to create more space, which will allow us to double our output to 500,000 products a week.

Cook’s production line is quite similar to any other factory’s, but most of the work here is done by hand instead of machines, which gives all of our products a homemade look and taste.

The process (return to top)

Around 13t of ingredients are delivered to the site each day. After delivery, they move to the prep department, where a team of 30 chefs prepare them for cooking. The prep chefs chop meat, vegetables and mix spices. We use some machinery in the prep area, such as mincers for meat and vegetable peelers for potatoes, but the majority of the work is done by hand.

After the ingredients are prepared, they are cooked in 400l brat pans by a team of 20 chefs. The brat pans are like giant water troughs, which heat up and tilt so the food can be tipped out ready for the next stage.

The cooked food then moves onto the mix and weigh team. Most factories would use machines to do this job, but we use people instead of the 10 or 15 depositors we could use.

There are four dishing lines with 15 people on each. Products are dished out by hand to specified weights and any other ingredients are mixed into the final dish, such as cheese on a lasagne. Each team will dish out one batch at a time, which is around 1,500 portions.

When a batch has been dished into one, two or four portion trays, they are frozen in the blast freezer. After this they are sealed on one of our three tray sealing lines.

Everything that can be done by a person will be done by a person. Some might argue that we are leaving ourselves open to huge margins of error, but it's tiny and waste is less than 2%.

Efficiency (return to top)

While we rely on people to do the majority of the work, we are always looking to be more lean and efficient. For example, we have been able to reduce our labour costs by 10% in the past five years by using simple lean manufacturing techniques. We have increased line speed and changed shift patterns to maximise productivity too. We have also invested in machinery to help speed up some parts of the process line.

Each department has various shift patterns throughout the week. Prep runs from 6am until 8pm seven days a week. Cooking is carried out 24 hours-a-day from Sunday to Friday, the dishing lines run from 6am to 10pm seven days a week and the sealing lines run 24h/day too.

As well as efficiency, hygiene standards come into question when you have so many humans coming into contact with food products, but this criticism is unnecessary. Our HACCP [hazard analysis critical control point] plan is as stringent as any you would find in any other major ready meal businesses. We have standard hygiene equipment, such as gloves, hairnets and coats. But we've also got X-ray machines and metal detectors to ensure the final products are safe.

My career in the food industry started when I did Sainsbury’s management training scheme. I then moved on to Del Monte as a quality assurance manager, followed by a position with Asda's International Produce as a technical manager, where I was promoted to senior buyer. After International Produce I came to Cook as a buying manager.

Vertical integration (return to top)

I could have chosen to work anywhere, but Cook’s vertical integration appealed to me and I have worked my way up to operations director. The company manufactures, distributes and sells its own food through its own retail stores, franchises and concessions.

The only part of the business that wasn’t vertically integrated when I started was Cook’s distribution operation, which was managed by a third party. I changed that and we have been running our own distribution centre since 2011.

In the first couple of years of doing so we saved around £250,000 a year, that’s increased by another £100,000 to £150,000 a year and it’s a growing part of the business.

Our manufacturing team will also grow by another 100 staff in the next three years. And we’re in the middle of investing in our only other facility in Somerset, which is going to cost us £1M. The facility will be 929m² when it’s completed in April next year and will provide us with an extra 13,000 dessert products a week. Around 7,000 desserts are produced at the existing facility, which will be knocked down. Most of our desserts are made in Somerset, while the Sittingbourne site focuses on savoury.

Over the next five years, investment is going to be a big part of the business. We currently have 70 shops from as far up north as Edinburgh and as far south as Jersey. It’s a massive increase on the 14 or so we had in 2008. We will grow this number by up to eight a year.

Cook is testament to the growing premium ready meals market; the business has gone from turning over £36M last year to £42M this year. And, provided my nightmare doesn't become a reality, we’re set to see some major growth in the coming years.

Factory facts (return to top)

Location: The Cook Kitchen, Eurolink Way, Sittingbourne, Kent ME10 3HH

Staff: 500 including factory, head office, retail and logistics staff

Products: Handmade ready meals

Customers: Cook-owned, franchise and concession stores

Turnover: £42M


Name: Mark Dennis Age: 38

Domestic: I’m married with a daughter aged seven and a son aged four

Outside work: I play football, take the kids swimming and I do things like off road sporting events, such as Spartan challenges and Hell runs. I will also be doing a triathlon next year.

Biggest achievement: Definitely becoming the operations director at Cook. Growing capacity output here by 200% over five years and launching our operations academy so people can start off as a kitchen porter and move up.

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