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Innovation driving success at Willowbrook

By Ellie Woolven

- Last updated on GMT

McCann: ‘We are developing a range of free-from and vegan products, including  vegan cheeses and yogurts, which is very exciting for our NPD team’
McCann: ‘We are developing a range of free-from and vegan products, including vegan cheeses and yogurts, which is very exciting for our NPD team’
Northern Ireland’s Willowbrook Foods attributes its sustained success to its Innovation Centre and an ongoing ability to adapt to customers’ changing requirements.

Maintaining an average growth rate of 18% per year over a decade is no mean feat. But that is the level of success claimed by Northern Ireland-based salads and prepared vegetables producer Willowbrook Foods.

The family-owned firm, which was recognised for its achievement when it won Fresh Produce Manufacturing Company of the Year at the 2017 Food Manufacture Excellence Awards, attributes much of its recent positive performance to its Innovation Centre.

Initially conceived 10 years ago, managing director John McCann says the Centre is a new product development (NPD) hub led by consumer trends and advances in technology. This, he claims, has allowed the company to meet bespoke retail and foodservice orders in the UK and Ireland.

“The Centre has been instrumental in taking our business to new levels over the past decade, helping us sustain 18% annual growth during that time,”​ says McCann.

Major investment

Costing £20,000, the Centre was a major investment for the firm at the time, but has allowed it to “perfect our offering to customers to reflect emerging food trends with the best ingredients, flavour, texture and shelf-life”,​ he adds.

It has also enabled Willowbrook to enter new markets, such as healthcare and travel catering with bespoke products that include a full range of additive-free mashed vegetable lines. Among these are potato, carrot, swede, parsnips and sweet potato, as well as more niche health-focused lines such as non-dairy, low-salt mashed potato for catering use within the healthcare sector.

The company, based in Killinchy, Co Down, says customisation is one of its strong points. It acknowledges that the very nature of its products is allowing it to tap into some key current trends.

With the UK Government intent on reducing obesity and with personalised diets and exercise regimes, as well as free-from, clean-label and vegan eating all part of the modern zeitgeist, Willowbrook’s superfood salads, salad bags, pulses and grains fit neatly with consumers working towards a more health-conscious lifestyle.

Its best-selling products in retail and foodservice include superfood bags with seeds, grains, salads, cauliflower couscous and spiralised vegetables, which it says have had a big increase in volume.

“Research shows that 35% of consumers actively purchase products that add to their consumption of five-a-day, and 39% of consumers check the ingredients list when making a purchase​ [Mintel report 2017],” says McCann.

Monitoring trends

“Product choices are influenced by health conscious-ness and environmental concerns, moving away from the machine-made low-cost options that dominated in the past. By looking at trends, we have been able to develop products to captivate this area.”

However, “stating products contain no preservatives or artificial flavours is no longer a unique selling point”​, so they have had to look at other areas of diversity.

“Watching how trends have moved, we have adapted to become a gluten-free site​,” McCann explains. “We are developing a range of free-from and vegan products, including  vegan cheeses and yogurts, which is very exciting for our NPD team.”

While the company claims to benchmark on all the major UK and multiple supermarket trends, it identifies five leading market drivers – vegetarian/vegan, flexitarianism, organic, meal deals, and convenience.

Convenience products are continuing to grow​,” says McCann, who claims that taste and quality are also hugely important to future growth momentum.

We have to focus on these aspects to enable our products to stand out,​” he says. “We also need to enhance our ability to develop products that are both innovative and cost-effective to produce.”

Food choice

McCann acknowledges that modern consumers are no fools when it comes to food choice. “Consumer knowledge of both food and packaging has grown and their expectations have been raised significantly,”​ he says.

“The pace of change is quickening … and tastes are changing as people travel the world and bring home new flavours. We are keen to stay one step ahead.”

With packaging, McCann points to portion control and the environmental agenda as two major influences. “We see a trend in pouches and compostable products – ie cardboard, bamboo, biodegradable, recyclable materials,”​ he says.

Willowbrook is working on the latest biodegradable packaging suitable for use in the food-to-go sector – for example, family salad bowls and family-sized, four-portion carrot and parsnip packs, rather than the industry-standard two-portion packs. It is also focusing on lunch-to-go options using the latest superfoods, says McCann.

Keen to maintain its momentum, the company is now eyeing international expansion. Earlier this year, it opened a second facility in Newtownards, with the aim of doubling production capacity. Lines are now being developed for customers in Dubai and Hong Kong.

In the meantime, McCann views the UK and Ireland as an increasingly significant part of the business. “We are developing more products for the foodservice and food manufacturing markets,”​ he claims. “We are continuing to expand this part of our innovation as demand grows for specially developed ingredients to manufacturers and the hospitality sector.”

Willowbrook – an overview

1968:​ John McCann (pictured) starts farming vegetables on his father’s land on the shores of Stranford Lough. After initially selling produce in local markets, he pioneers a new strategy by packaging his home-grown vegetables for supermarkets.
1978:​ Secures its first major contract with former Northern Ireland retail chain Wellworths.
2004:​ Opens a ‘Mash Plant’ factory in Killinchy.
2008:​ Plans begin for a revamp of the original Killinchy facility, including the new Innovation Centre.
2009:​ Opens a factory in Newtownards.
2011:​ The revamped 5,575m2 food production factory in Killinchy is opened.
2017:​ Wins Fresh Produce Manufacturing Company of the Year at the Food Manufacture Excellence Awards.
2018:​ A second production facility is opened in Newtownards and the company eyes international expansion, with a presence at the Gulfood expo in Dubai.
Present:​ Willowbrook now supplies to leading retailers and foodservice companies in the UK and Ireland, including Tesco, Iceland, Lidl, Aldi, Spar, Subway, KFC, Domino’s Pizza, McDonald’s, Costcutter, Nisa, Booths, Budgens, Musgrave Group and Henderson Group. It has 220 employees and has sustained BRC Grade A certification for more than 10 years.

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