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Behind the scenes of a popcorn factory

07 March 2016

Popcorn is the rising star of the snack food industry. Over the past five years, sales have risen by an incredible 169 per cent, threatening crisps for the top spot as the most popular British snack. One of the fastest growing businesses in the burgeoning popcorn market is a company called Savoury and Sweet.

Last January the company relocated to vast, modern facility in Leicester. Later in the year they received £12.5 million in investment to grow the business. 

Kurt Hilder, Director of Savoury and Sweet, said the anniversary of moving to the facility went largely unnoticed by staff. 

“We’re a very busy business, so it just passed us by,” he said. 

A growing segment
With the popcorn market growing by 38 per cent last year, and further expectations that the market will grow by 25 per cent this year, it’s no wonder. The company is thriving. 

Research from Mintel in February found that seven per cent of snack products launched in the UK in 2015 were popcorn products, compared to three per cent in 2010. 

Sales of popcorn have risen to £129 million in 2015. Over one third (35 per cent) of Brits have eaten popcorn in last three months of the year, rising to half (49 per cent) of those aged 16 to 34.

Conversely, sales of crisps declined to £1.34 billion, from £1.39 billion in 2013. 

Mintel’s Senior Food and Drink Analyst, Amy Price, described popcorn as “the star growth performer” in the crisps, savouries and nuts market. 

She added: “Popcorn’s health credentials and flavour innovations have helped boost the segment, along with its popularity among younger consumers, who are more likely to snack.”

Getting a foothold
Savoury and Sweet started business in August 2012, operating from part of a warehouse owned by contract packing firm Universal Flexible Packaging.

The company had two production lines in the warehouse, and a lack of space meant that innovation was restricted. 

“We were adding things on to the line and literally having to move walls to accommodate it,” said Mr Hilder.

In October 2014, Mr Hilder went to view the 135,000 sq ft facility in Lewisher Road, Leicester. 

“When we first came here, you could stand at one corner and look across at what was three football pitches of empty warehouse,” said Mr Hilder. 

The company moved in January 2015, and hasn’t looked back. Now there are high-tech fingerprint access points across the office and factory, sleek office space and a state-of-the-art production area. 

There are four production lines working 24 hours a day, soon to be seven days a week. There are plans to expand to a further three popcorn lines, as well as another line in a separate area of the factory. 

The company is also looking at other snack food segments to expand into. The size of the factory space meant that however large the company grew in the near future, space would never be an issue. 

“We always planned that we would future proof in that way,” said Mr Hilder.

The company at present has the capacity to produce 200 million packets of popcorn a year. It currently produces around 80 million packets. 

Savoury and Sweet has its own brand – Lord Poppingtons – with five recipes, including gourmet flavours like cheese and onion and chilli and lime. The brand is sold in Asda and Road Chef, as well as overseas. 

However the majority of the company’s business comes from contract manufacturing. It makes popcorn for several retail own-brands, as well as other bigger named brands in the popcorn industry. 

Juggling act
The company imports around 1.5 million kg a year of popping corn from the US. Shipments arrive weekly to a warehouse facility just metres away from the start of the production line. 

It is loaded into kettles, where it is cooked with a mixture of oil and sugar. The corn pops every 6.5 minutes.

When the corn is cooked it is passed along conveyors to be seasoned in a tumbling machine. From there, it passes along a grille to screen out any unpopped kernels. It goes down a gravity fed chute, to be stuffed into bags by packaging robots. 

Checkweighers ensure the bags are of the correct weight.

The whole production line is linear and rational. “It’s about making that flow as short and as efficient as possible,” said Mr Hilder.

That was the beauty of designing the facility effectively from scratch, he said. “In the older factory, the production line was going around corners,” he added.

“When we moved we had the chance to build in everything that we needed from the ground up, including increasing the amount of electricity we could have, and positioning the lighting exactly where we needed it.

“Everything was measured and sited precisely to deliver what we needed for now and the future.” 

There are around 50 staff on the factory floor at all times, loading up kettles, removing any blockages and performing quality control checks. 

Mr Hilder said there wasn’t any further automation on the line because the company was aiming to remain responsive.

“The more you do that, you lose a bit of control,” he said. “Right now we’re a lot more nimble in terms of the recipes and the volumes we produce. We can adapt better with a more hands on approach.”

The packaging machines the company does have are however able to manage bag sizes of between 10g to 300g. 

One challenge was however the fact that popcorn wasn’t always the most responsive to a gravity-based chute. 

“Pop corn isn’t easy to pack, because it doesn’t have much weight,” said Mr Hilder. “You have to coax it into the bags a little.”

A lot of the machinery that is used in the factory is off the shelf from suppliers in the US. However, many elements of the production line – like the filter to remove unpopped kernels – are proprietary designs and based on the company’s own research and development. 

The company collects a few tonnes a month of unpopped kernals, which are then passed on free to animal feed producers. 

Quality checks
Because Savoury and Sweet is primarily a contract manufacturer, it has to manage different recipes for different product lines. Mr Hilder said at last count, there were roughly 35 recipes the company was able to fulfil. 

That meant a good amount of time had to be spent on cleaning out the line. The majority of the machinery was of hygienic design. Component parts could be removed easily for cleaning. 

Certain recipes, like the Lord Poppington’s Cheese and Onion line, used potential allergens like milk. That meant the line needed to be thoroughly cleaned after a run. In addition, swabs are carried out afterwards throughout the whole line to ensure there was no trace of the allergen. 

“We do that several times a day,” said Mr Hilder. “Our clean down is between one to three hours, depending on the level of volume that we have been producing.”

In order to ensure consistent standards across a run, the company employs quality control technicians who carry out checks for appearance and taste every hour. 

“She eats popcorn all day long,” said Mr Hilder introducing a quality control technician. “In fact, we had a bag of popcorn together at 7am this morning.”

Mr Hilder said that despite eating popcorn every day for the past four years he has spent in the industry, he was yet to grow sick of the taste.  

“I don’t eat it at home that often now,” he said. “But if I’m out at the supermarket, and I see something I haven’t seen before I’ll buy it and try it.”

But sometimes, he admits, it goes beyond a basic impartial assessment of the competition.

“The only way to really judge the taste is to not eat just one or two,” he said. “You have to eat at least a quarter of the bag. 

“That’s what I tell myself anyway.”

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