Me and My Factory

In Allied Bakeries’ new bakehouse

By Nicholas Robinson

- Last updated on GMT

The £31M investment is the biggest the site has seen in its 40 year history
The £31M investment is the biggest the site has seen in its 40 year history

Related tags New plant Bread Allied bakeries

Allied Bakeries’ Stevenage site has come to the end of a £31M investment, Russell Zaple tells Nicholas Robinson all about it.

Key points

This is by far the biggest and most exciting investment we’ve had at this site since it was built over 40 years ago.

We’ve had more than £31M invested here as part of a five-year company-wide £210M plan to modernise equipment and improve efficiencies across our five UK bread manufacturing facilities. Overall, it’s the largest investment in UK bakery in recent years.

Originally, my background was in logistics and I have worked for companies such as TNT. I came to Allied Bakeries 11 years ago as the logistics manager and was promoted into this role – general manager for the eastern regions – just over a year ago.

It is unusual to move from logistics into manufacturing, but my role was going to be more involved in the manufacturing side of the business anyway, so I decided that was where I wanted my career to go and I made the jump. It didn’t seem an impossible move because manufacturing of some sort has always been in the background throughout my logistics career.

Some of the investment here at Stevenage was made in 2010 before I came into my manufacturing role. We used to have three bread plants and we now have two. In 2010, we refurbished and renewed parts of one plant.

Investment (Return to top)

However, the bulk of the investment started last year, when we tore out two old bread plants and replaced them with one big brand new facility. The new facility can produce 9,000 loaves per hour. It produces Kingsmill, Allinson and Burgen brands, as well as own-label products for the major retailers. We're in production 24 hours-a-day, seven days-a-week.

Some of the old equipment dated back to 1974 and was too old to take us into the future. The new plant gives us greater flexibility and will boost our efficiency. I can’t say precisely how much more efficient it is than the plant it has replaced, because we won't come to full capacity until later this year. However, we already know that wastage has reduced and we're using less energy. It will produce 1.8M loaves a week once it's at full capacity, which is more or less the same output as the two plants it replaced.

Even though we’ve gone from three plants to two at this site, we won’t have space to expand in the future. We invested to become more efficient and to become more environmentally friendly.

Automated systems (Return to top)

Personal facts

Name:​ Russell Zaple

Job title:​ General manager for the eastern regions, Allied Bakeries

Age:​ 49

Domestics:​ Married with two children

Outside of work:​ I volunteer with the Scouts and also with a local rugby club. I also like to get out and do some walking

Biggest achievement:​ I have to say, probably making that move from logistics and securing my first role in manufacturing

The investment didn’t just buy us the new plant. We also bought five new silos with a capacity of around 60t each for our bulk ingredients. All of our bulk ingredients used to be manually handled, but they run through an automated system now. We’ve got a new sieving area, new mixing facilities, new rounders, new rollers and a new prover. A whole new oven and new coolers have been installed and we have a new cutting and dusting operation, which allows us to use a wider variety of toppings than the old facility did.

To get the new plant in we had to raise the roof by 11m, because it was a lot taller than the previous one. Having a higher ceiling also makes the factory a more spacious and nicer place for our 300 staff to work.

Here, we have the ability to produce standard tin loaves and batch products. A batch loaf is rustic-looking and has a ripped side to it and tends to have seeds or oats on the top and some slashes on it to give it an authentic country-baked look. The standard tin loaf is something like a basic white Kingsmill product.

Production process (Return to top)

The production process on the new line is fairly straightforward and very much automated. The staff, who work a continental shift pattern of four shifts on and four shifts off, are here to ensure everything is running smoothly.

Our main ingredient is flour, but there are 65 ingredients in stock at any one time. Ingredients such as flour are handled in the bulk silos and they are managed by a computer system.

Depending on what product we're making at the time, the operator will select one of the pre-loaded recipes from the system and the correct amount of flour will be poured into the mixers. It will then be mixed with other ingredients, such as yeast and water for a pre-determined amount of time into a dough, before being tipped out into the divider. The divider slices the huge 200kg lump of dough into loaf-sized chunks.

The chunks then go into a rounder, which shapes them into balls and stretches the gluten. From the rounders, the dough then goes into a moulder and is dropped into tins in four pieces, which gives the loaf strength after it’s baked.

After it has been moulded, the bread is proved for a determined amount of time and at a determined temperature and humidity. The proved bread will go through the cutting loop and then, depending on what product is being made, it may be dusted and dressed with seeds. From there it goes through the oven on a conveyor belt.

To create products that have a flat top, we put a lid on the tin. But, if we’re making a traditional loaf shape, it is not lidded so the dough can rise up and over the tin during baking.

When it’s been baked for long enough, the bread comes out of the oven, is de-lidded and de-tinned and then goes into a cooler. The capacity of the cooler is around 18,000 loaves. The hot bread moves up a spiral conveyor belt and then across onto another spiral conveyor belt and down and out along the line again until it’s at a workable temperature.

New slicing (Return to top)

Factory facts

Location:​ 7 Cartwright Road, Stevenage SG1 4QJ

Staff:​ 300

Products:​ Kingsmill, Allinson, Burgen and own-label bread

Output:​ 1.8M loaves a week

Customers:​ All major retailers

Size:​ 10,000m²

At this point, the bread is ready to be sliced, bagged, put into baskets and then picked and delivered to supermarkets across the east of England, which is the main region of the country this factory manufactures for.

Our slicing and bagging operation is all new too. We’ve moved to a band saw slicer, which gives us advantages, particularly when it comes to preventing things like blade judder, which was a big problem for us and something our customers would complain about. We used to slice with set of blades in a frame, which vibrated up and down and you would often get a jagged cut. But, the band saw gives a nice and neat cut.

This will be the last major investment at this site for a long time. It’s been the only major investment since the site was built. We had to make the investment to secure our future because white plant bread is in decline.

The big five-year plan has all been carried out to ensure Allied Bakeries’ facilities can respond to growing consumer demand for more speciality breads, such as the seeded varieties we make here, and products like sandwich thins.

In the past, we've had minor investments, such as upgrades to ovens and some other bits and pieces. It was all continual small-level investments, which we’re likely to carry on doing over the years as consumer demand and technology changes.

Upgrading the facility has been difficult for the staff. While we haven’t made any redundancies, we haven’t taken on any new people either. We have had to upskill and retrain people on the new facilities too, because they are a lot more modern than the ones the staff were used to.

Also, there has been a lot of disruption at the site. It’s a relatively small facility, considering how much we produce, and we’re short on parking and the canteen isn’t massive either. So, having lots of builders here has been trying. Getting back into a routine now the work has finished is going to take some time.

But, hopefully, the investment here has set the site in good stead for the future.

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