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A food business is born

06 May 2019

Food Processing finds out how one entrepreneur’s idea moved from being a home-based artisanal opportunity to becoming a fully-fledged manufacturing operation. 

Fruit crisps was a category that did not exist when Nim’s starting production so there has been an ongoing marketing job to do alongside the task of product development and production. The range has expanded from the original idea for fruit crisps to also include vegetable crisps – which won a FoodEx Award in 2017 for best new product at the show. All Nim’s products are made with a single ingredient. No oil, salt, sugar or flavourings are added.

The original idea for the fruit crisp snacks came when Nimisha Raja, CEO at Nim’s, was running a coffee shop and was looking to stock some interesting, but healthy snack food options for customers. “I had seen freeze-dried apples in the bakery section of my local supermarket and it made me think about whether it would be possible to turn fruit into a dried crunchy crisp treat,” said Nimisha.

The idea took root and, after not finding anything along these lines already on the market, Nimisha started to develop her own range of dried fruit crisps at home using small drying machines. Nim’s started life as a true artisan operation, selling hand cut and packed fruit crisps to local shops on a sale or return basis. The business grew and Nimisha started selling her artisan crisps at local fairs and consumer shows. However, the production process was labour intensive and this made the finished products expensive. Nimisha understood that to make production viable she would have to find a way to reduce production costs and to produce in much larger volumes. “I needed to move towards an industrial process operation,” continued Nimisha. “I was advised to contract production out, but this did not prove to be easy. The production process was new and I struggled to find a facility that had the right equipment. Also, I was not able to promise the volumes that would have allowed a contract manufacturer to change their existing process set up for me. 

“Eventually, I found a small Hungarian manufacturer who offered to help. It worked well for a while, but I became worried about product consistency and, as we started to get interest from supermarkets following a trade show, I realised that the logistics of expanding production would also be problematic. I was ordering fruit and vegetables from across the world, having it delivered to Hungary where it was processed and bulk packed and then shipped to a warehouse in Oxford before it was sent on to a co-packing factory and then on to distribution or to the consumer. It made quality control very difficult and product development was almost non-existent, as the Hungarian factory only agreed to manufacture the original product range for me.  

Regaining control
“I felt I needed to have more control of the product if Nim’s was to be successful in supermarkets as we had to be able to guarantee consistently good product quality.”

The decision was made for Nim’s to bring production in-house. Finding an investor and factory and raising the money took over a year.  A suitable facility was found in Sittingbourne – it had enough room for growth and offered a blank canvas to allow Nim’s to create a production environment that, from the outset, would meet its needs and which could be created with the knowledge that it would adhere to all the necessary requirements for health and safety and to ensure BRC accreditation. 

Nimisha had to cut her coat according to her cloth when it came to production equipment.  “To purchase an entire vertical form fill packing line from any EU country would have cost me up to 250,000 euros,” she said. “I was able to source a solution from China that would do the same thing for around 72,000 euros.  Of course I understood that the quality may not be the same, but at the time I had to take the short-term view that if the business failed at least I would not have invested in very costly equipment that I knew would have quickly reduced in value. I worked on the assumption that if the packing line lasted up to two years, I would be able to buy another one at the same price, or would be in a better position to buy a more reliable line.” Luckily the gamble paid off and two years later the packing equipment is still working well.

However, when it came to sourcing drying machines Nimisha took a completely different approach as this was such a crucial piece of equipment for the production process and is vital to the quality and consistency of the product. “No one was producing a machine that did exactly what I wanted, so much closer collaboration was needed to enable me to get the customised solution that I needed. With this in mind, I opted for a more costly European supplier for this equipment.”  

Following installation of the production equipment, the facility was officially opened at the end of 2016, with the first products coming off the line for sale in mid 2017.

The latest offerings
More recent product offerings from Nim’s include its infusions range – dried citrus fruits for the pub and bar industry, which saves on wasted fresh produce as the dried product lasts a long time and quickly rehydrates in a liquid. This also led to the most recent idea for a tea infusion range which utilises the fines that are not suitable to be sold as crisps, effectively making use of what might otherwise have been a waste product. The only additional equipment required for the new infusions and tea products has been the purchase of a dedicated semi-automated packaging and labelling machine, which is expected to be installed very soon. In the meantime, these new ranges are being hand packed.

So, along the way to creating a new manufacturing company what has Nimisha learned? “Aiming straight for BRC certification proved to be a huge learning curve. You have to get it right so never underestimate the task,” she said.  “The company was originally too small to employ a full-time technical manager who could handle all of its BRC needs so we employed a consultant which was costly. Now that production rates have risen we have been able to employ a technical manager to a level that we can keep that person fully employed.

“Our motto is ‘improvise but never compromise’. I think that when you are a start-up company doing something completely new it is important to ensure that you always aim to produce and sell the best possible quality product to ensure that you always delight your customers.”

Today Nim’s is processing for five or six days of the week for 15-hour days. “We still have room to grow without the need for adding more equipment and are still only at 40% capacity.” So, the Nim’s journey continues apace. If demand continues to increase the next step could be to increase the use of automation within the plant. However, Nimisha stressed that it would be essential to first be able to ensure a quick return on any such investment.

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