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Binghams Food invests in the future

09 November 2015

Potted beef manufacturer Binghams Food has recently invested £100,000 in their operations. Food Processing visited the factory in Sheffield to learn about the Yorkshire treat and how the company is still expanding after over 100 years of business.

Bingham’s Food is hidden away on a residential street in the middle of Sheffield, where it has resided since 1934. It’s one of the quirks of many a traditional food factory that has stood the test of time and remained in their original premises, despite the lure of business parks and trading estates away from the busy towns and inner cities. And the original sign which adorned the gate into the company has been relocated, visible on the side of the business for residents and visitors who pass on the street.

But the story begins in 1914, when Charles Bingham began producing potted beef at home, as well as dealing in yeast. An orphan, Charles took a break from the business when he went to fight in World War I – in the Yorkshire regiment of course – before coming back to continue his growing business. 

“We take great inspiration from Charles Bingham, who fought in two world wars while keeping this business going,” explains Peter Moon, Managing Director of Bingham’s Food. “He was still working here up until 1969, when he sold the business to Samworth Brothers. When my wife and I bought the business in 2007, we made contact with Charles Bingham’s family. His grandson is a professional photographer and when we redesigned our packaging in 2008, he took all the photographs of our products. It’s good to bring back that continuity, after the business has changed hands over the years.”

Under the Samworth Brothers wing, Binghams Food became a subsidiary of Pork Farms, although the business maintained its own identity and brand. In the early 1970s, Pork Farms was sold to Northern Dairies, which was to become Northern Foods. Moon first worked for Binghams Foods in the late 1980s as the general manager before moving on. He made a chance return to the business in 2006 and, having been on the lookout for a good brand to buy for the past decade, made a casual remark that he would be interested if the business ever came on the market.

As luck would have it, in February 2007, venture capitalist company Vision Capital bought out a significant share of Northern Foods’ business, which included Pork Farms and Binghams Foods. And not long after, Moon received a call asking if he would still be interested in purchasing the business. So, in December 2007, Peter and his wife Stella were proud owners of the potted beef company. 

Since 2007, they have made a significant investment in the company. Most recently, they invested £100,000 to increase production and distribution capacity as demand for their product continues to grow. The investment includes a 7.5 tonne lorry, which is the principal method of delivering palletised products to supermarket depots, as well as investment in new machinery. 

“There has been a change in the needs of our customers, and we continue to invest to reflect that change,” says Moon. “For example, when I was here in the late 1980s, I was making investments into the delicatessen side of the business, which were our 500 gram and one kilogram packs. These used to be the bulk of the business, rather than the retail side. Now, we no longer produce the one kilogram packs, while our 500 gram products are still performing well. But our retail packs now make up around 80% of our total volume, so the business has swung towards the smaller 100 gram packs and that’s where we’re investing more. It’s a reflection of changing habits, where customers would go into a corner shop and ask for a quarter of potted beef, which would be taken out of one of the larger packs and put into greaseproof paper with four ounces of potted beef for the customer to take away. The supermarkets have grown rapidly over the past twenty years, and buying loose has declined. Now we produce a convenient, prepacked potted beef carton for retail.”

Another significant change that has taken place since the 1980s is the use of pasteurisation in the process. Binghams Food invested in a pasteuriser which is used on the retail packs only to give them a longer shelf life of up to three weeks, which makes them more appealing and convenient for the supermarket consumer. 

“One thing we’re very good at here at Binghams Food is extended the life of equipment,” Moon explains. “We don’t have an engineering team here, so we rely on in-house abilities. One of our guys is very knowledgeable but unfortunately he has to do his day job too. If we can’t fix it here, then we’ll pull in expertise from outside of the business. If it’s a particular machine that’s gone down, then we’ll go to the manufacturer or a contractor who specialises in the technology to get a really good service. We’ve been working with a lot of these manufacturers for many years, so they know that we’ve got very strict time and temperature controls in the production process and they can react very quickly to get us back up and running again. We rely on a mix of service contracts and ad hoc work.”

The company has replaced two key pieces of equipment in their most recent investment, both of which have seen a huge amount of change since they were last upgraded. They’ve replaced their salmon mixer, which was around 20 years old and originally supplied by Crypto Peerless. Electrolux has since bought out the company, and supplied the new mixer to Binghams Food. 

“The other piece of equipment that we replaced was an old Turbo Systems bulk depositor,” says Moon. “The original depositor was a foot pedal operated single piston depositing machine that filled our 500 gram and, when we produced it, the one kilogram packs. The machine was, for the best part, around 50 years old, or at least parts of it! We’re incredibly proud that we can extend the life of our machines this way, and speaks to the quality of the machinery we’re investing in as well. About two years ago, we replaced one of our industrial dishwashers. The original was manufactured by Oliver Douglas and had been in situ since 1980. When we contacted Oliver Douglas to enquire about a replacement, they were very proud of the fact that their technology had been in use for 33 years. We bought a replacement from Oliver Douglas again that suited our needs. We believe in keeping machinery well maintained, and looking after our investments.”

The factory isn’t an outdated one though – far from it. The company believes in upgrading as and when the industry or demand calls for it. “When our pasteuriser was installed in the late 1990s, it contained a controlling alarm system which was activated by probes that measured the temperature in the oven,” explains Moon. “But six or seven years ago, we replaced the system with more advanced technology that had more capabilities, allowing us to do more with our pasteuriser. Another industry requirement that has kept us up to date is data capture. So all the information from our pasteuriser logger and our average weights system is logged onto a memory card where it is easily downloadable. As environmental health or trading standards have asked for more information, we’ve been able to provide it thanks to our upgrades.”

After the well-documented horsegate scandal, while other beef products were losing volume, the Binghams brand continued to thrive. Even the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001 only affected volume for a short period of time, and numbers bounced back within six months, something that Moon attributes to the strength of the brand. And because they source locally and keep tight records, Moon can trace back the source of a carton to the cow within an hour.

And while food safety is of paramount importance to the company, so is removing complexity from the production process, leaving their operators to work simply and efficiently. “We’ve got a great team here – some of whom have been here for 15 or 20 years – and they know exactly what they’re doing and how to work well in a team,” says Moon. “But we’ve removed monotonous tasks to make their jobs easier. For example, we were quite late in introducing average weights a few years ago. We were still using minimum weights but I was determined that, although the technology had been there for a long time, I would only introduce it when I could ensure that the process would make it simple for the company. We only have four or five people working in our main production area, but it works and it helps to keep the tasks as simple as possible, which removes a lot of the potential for anything to go wrong.”

The company also avoids some of the pitfalls that can befall a larger food company. “In a large organisation with a few hundred people working in a factory, you’ll have different languages being spoken and communication can be a problem,” explains Moon. “You also have a large number of agency workers. We don’t have those particular issues, which can affect a company’s efficiencies. And unlike a larger company where they receive a report to check on their KPIs, I can look at the number of boxes that we’re filling and see physical evidence of a production run.”

The company employs just 20 people and yet manages to produce around 15,000 individual 100 gram cartons every day that go out to the supermarket depots. They can meet these high demands by keeping their core SKUs down to just five – potted beef, beef spread, beef and tomato, salmon and potted hough for the Scottish market. But there are plans to expand in the future, with talk of more contemporary flavours such as potted pulled pork and beef fajita spread, which could extend the appeal of potted beef far beyond its current borders around the Yorkshire area and to the north of England.

Into the factory
The different areas of the factory are dotted around the courtyard where Charles Bingham used to house his stable of cars – the old garage since converted into packaging operations. 

The butcher works alone, slicing and cutting the beef according to the production schedule. While there may be a common misconception that potted beef is made from any cut of beef, Binghams Food favours the flank and keeps to strict levels of visual lean to ensure quality in their product. 

The beef is cooked overnight before it’s removed and sieved into separate pans for stock and meat. Then the meat is transferred to the mincer, along with seasoning, before it’s put through a hydrogenator. The temperature is checked to ensure it is still above 85°C before the product is deposited into pots. Then it travels through the Goring Kerr metal detector to check for flaws before moving to the Loma Systems checkweigher.

The retail cartons then go into the pasteurising oven before moving into the blast chiller to bring the temperature of the cartons down as quickly as possible. After the blast chiller, the cartons are individually handled and checked by hand for any blown cartons after the pasteurisation process. An operator checks every single pot by hand for a correct seal before it is passed on to be sleeved by hand. Due to the space within the factory, a packing machine cannot be installed so all the cartons are sleeved by hand.

The cartons are then put through the Videojet coding machine to ensure everything has the correct date and coding printed before being placed within a shelf-ready pack for retail.

Supermarkets and contracts
At the moment, Binghams Food doesn’t trade with the discounters, who are out-performing the large supermarkets. 

“But the word contract is probably misleading,” Moon muses. “In reality, we don’t have a contract with the customer in a formal sense of a written document. There is an understanding and that’s the way it runs. Our view is that if we trade well, and that’s something we monitor very closely, then there is less risk. One of the key metrics is the unit rate of sales per store per week and I keep track of that to ensure it’s at a healthy level, as well as in growth. However the supermarket categorises our product, whether it falls under cooked meat or sandwich fillers, then our aim is to satisfy the criteria set out by the supermarket for that category. I sit down regularly with the supermarkets, sometimes as often as once a month, looking at the data and trends to look at the key metrics and how we perform against those. So that’s how we work, and to date from my return to Binghams Food, we haven’t lost any supermarket business and we have in fact gained, doubling the size of the business in value.”


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