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A sense of stability

08 August 2014

The fully-cooked, frozen food market is a more competitive market than it was 10 years ago. Joint Managing Director Philip Paul explains the secrets to Snowbird foods’ ongoing success.

In Enfield, Middlesex, Snowbird foods continues to thrive. With 67 employees (45 in the factory, 22 in the office), most of whom have been with the company for years, the company continues to manufacture fully cooked and frozen sausages and meatballs which supply sandwich manufacturers, ready meal manufacturers, pubs, restaurants, hotels, airlines, ferries, trains and any other food business where they're looking for something convenient and easy to deliver. Since the products are fully cooked before freezing, they suit convenience foods such as sandwiches, ready meals, or part of a component to a bigger meal option. 

Around 100 tonnes of sausages and burgers leave Snowbird foods every week, which equates to 2.5 million units a week of individual meatballs and sausages. Suppliers to food manufacturers such as 2 Sisters Food Group, Greencore, Bakkavor and Samworth Brothers, Snowbird foods prides itself on having a small family-run feel, even if that hasn't always been the case. Back in 1999, the owner sold the original business, keeping only the Enfield site. The company wasn't allowed to manufacturer or sell frozen raw burgers or sausages. But no one told him that he couldn't sell fully cooked meats, and so Snowbird was born. After the business was sold to J&J Tranfield who in turn was taken over by Vion, Philip Paul and Albert McGovern, who were long-term management figures with the company, bought the company from Karro Food Group. 

When asked why people stay with the company, Philip Paul, Joint Managing Director, answers; "Because I'm such a nice guy! No, it's because Snowbird has always felt like a family-run business, even when it was owned by a large international company. People like to feel like they're part of the family, and more importantly, that they enjoy coming to work because of that feeling."

Paul recounts that the staff actually petitioned Vion years ago to sell the company to the directors because they wanted the company to be privately owned once again. "They actually made the petition and sent it off to Head Office," Paul says. "I got a fairly awkward phone call from my boss at the time asking me what I'd been up to! I knew nothing about it."
A constant in management, Paul has been Managing Director since 2003. Albert McGovern, Paul's business partner and Joint Managing Director, had been the Financial Director previously. The two owners started working together in 1995, so had a fair amount of history both together and with the company, which Paul believes further strengthens their position and that of the company. "Management has stayed constant," he says. "That provides a sense of stability for employees, even with the changes of ownership over the years."

The factory
When the incoming deliveries of meat, seasonings or other ingredients arrive at the factory, they're subject to the first of many hazard analysis and critical control points, which is a hive of activity at 6am when the factory opens for business. Anything not up to standard is rejected, and the meat is separated into fresh and frozen to make its way through the production line.

Into the preparation area, frozen meat such as belly trim or shoulder is added to the LASKA W 400 grinder where the meat is minced, before being transferred to the LASKA K 330 bowl cutter, a low-power, quiet piece of equipment where seasoning, rusk and water are added as required by each product's recipe. With the ability to change speed and direction, the cutter allows the mix to have different textures and really gives Snowbird the opportunity to develop new, innovative products onsite. The recipes are onsite for each product and every Unitech buggy is colour-coded and batch-coded to enable traceability as the product makes its way through the factory.

The sausage meat is then fed into a Handtmann VF 628 vacuum filler. The VF 628 has a filling pressure of 72 bar and has an ergonomic monitor control, which is the central control unit for synchronisation and can handle up to 700 portions/min. The VF 628 is coupled to a Handtmann AL system, where skins are loaded and each sausage lengths can be made, thanks to automatic twisting and cutting technology.

On a separate line, meatballs are punched into slugs before they are rolled to smooth out any edges. 

Running three lines in total, Snowbird uses two bespoke Meyn frying lines and one Gernal frying line, as well as a bespoke Formcook combination cooker, which combines intensive conduction heat transfer with convection steam, and a Formcook Wiking Forming machine, which uses low pressure to gently form products and comes with a meatball rolling device.  
Quality control checks are carried out every 10 minutes, including weighing, colour checks and temperature checks. Snowbird utilises three Frigoscandia (now JBT Foodtech) spiral freezers, which freeze the sausages and meatballs before they are packed and sent out to Peterborough for distribution across the UK. 

The meat of the product
Snowbird uses 80-85 visual lean meat from trim, on the whole. “When meats have been cut, where they’ve taken a belly and made a square cut, we’ll take the trim,” explains Paul. “Or if they’ve made a ham from a shoulder, we’ll take the boneless trim. But if you manufacture a sausage simply from lean meat, it wouldn’t taste as good so we have to add fat. But we try to balance our recipes to ensure that the balance in the content matches that which you’d find in the animal.”

The company is proud of its British roots, which is why 99% of the meat Snowbird uses is British. “We export a little,” Paul says. “But not much. Some of what we make will go to Italy, Belgium, France, sometimes Spain. We’ve gone as far as Singapore and Hong Kong. But that tends to be a result of our clients asking us to make something specifically for their market abroad. Predominantly, what we do is destined for the UK.”

More competition
“The fully-cooked, frozen food market is a more competitive market than it was 10 years ago,” Paul says. “Businesses are looking for convenience and speed. Pubs in particular are looking for speed of delivery, looking for a quick turnaround, especially at lunchtime. The slowest item on the menu will most likely be the meat, and when some of the bigger chains wanted to enforce an eight minute turnaround, cooking that meat becomes a problem for meeting that target.” With companies also moving towards deskilling their kitchens, a solution that is fully cooked, safe and easy to use is appealing. It also cuts down on waste, according to Paul, as there’s no second-guessing involved when it comes to how many to cook; each individual product can be taken out as and when needed and simply heated up.
“The good thing about what we do is that it’s price driven, but also quality driven too,” explains Paul. “We’re not faced with the dilemma of making something at any cost, because manufacturers want quality as much as a reasonable price. In a market where customers decide what product they want to make, price can be a big driver. Customers decide on the profit margin they want to make, the company making the solution needs to make a profit and that filters back to us, as a component supplier, and whether we can make it at a cost that works for the entire chain while still maintaining quality.”

The trap that some companies fall into is when a large percentage of their business is with one customer, and therefore production is driven by what they require. “Some companies buy equipment to help them fill an order, and if that contract goes, they’re stuck with a bit of kit that cost millions and yet nothing to fill it,” Paul says. “Thankfully we’ve avoided this. We’ve got a good spread of about 60 customers across a range of businesses that we supply regularly, and that keeps those kinds of pressures off us.”

Snowbird foods’ most recent innovation was the Cheeseburger Pizza Crust for Pizza Hut. Snowbird manufactures just one type of burger, a 20 gram mini burger that tends to be used for seasonal promotions or activities. “The most recent application for the burger was for Pizza Hut’s Cheeseburger Pizza Crust,” Paul says. “We obviously don’t make the pizza but we make the burger, and it’s been phenomenally successful for Pizza Hut. We’ve run it twice, and both times, it’s performed outside their forecasts by a signification margin. They’ve run it both in the UK and Ireland, and as a dine-in and dine-out option.”

Pizza Hut had originally come to Snowbird foods to see what ideas the company had. Originally looking for a meatball option, Sales Director Roy Anderson suggested the burger as an alternative option. “They came up with the idea of shaping the crust around the burger,” Paul explains. But it’s that kind of innovation that we like to come up with fairly regularly, and to develop a niche market for ourselves.”

In their first year of ownership, Paul and McGovern have spent a lot of money on fabrication, replacing walls, floors and drains that needed replacing. They’ve just invested in a new blender and metal detector for the production line, and in the future, they’d like to make more investment on the production line with another conventional oven, but according to Paul, that’s a few years down the line. For the moment, the directors are focusing on innovation and stability for a company that has remained constant, regardless of the climate.

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