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Quality comes first for Wrights

17 August 2015

In August 2014, Wrights Food opened their new purpose built factory for cakes and desserts. Food Processing visited the site to find out more about why the company chose to diversify into the market and how the first year has gone for the business.

Wrights is currently run by Peter Wright, a third generation member of the family that started the business back in 1926. Wright’s grandfather built up his baker shop business to a chain of 10 by 1962, before the business was taken over by Wright’s father and uncle. By the time Wright took over management of the company in 1962, the company had expanded on the retail side and developed a small local van sale delivery. The business changed direction when Peter Wright took over, focusing on unbaked savoury products thanks to changes in regulations that opened up a new avenue for the business. 

In the 23 years that Wright has been at the helm, the business has grown from a turnover of £2 million to £44 million. “We’ve learned a lot in the years between,” Wright explains. “And we’re not afraid to invest to grow the company. We do a lot of Mintel data research and we talk to our consumers and customers to find out what they want, when they want it and how they want it.”

And that’s certainly how Wright ended up investing £6.5 million in the new desserts and cake factory. “We used to manufacture in Stoke, before we relocated to Crewe in 1999 and spent £6 million on the new factory,” Wright says. “That left us with a factory in Stoke and we continued to produce confectionery products from that site for our retail shops. We used the same concept as we had with savoury products because there was potentially a market for thaw and serve cakes or part finished cakes that bakers can finish baking in their own ovens. Skills in the baking industry are decreasing, and fewer people are willing to get up at 4am to bake bread, so we wanted to capitalise on that and create a useful product for our customers.”

While the baking retail industry may be in decline, the growth in coffee shops and sandwich bars is on a huge upswing. “We saw that there was a huge growth to be had because none of these guys are manufacturers, and they’re looking for partners to supply quality products,” says Wright. “The economy as a whole has started to pick right up and people are starting to spend more on confectionery and dessert products as they’re now seen as an affordable treat.”

The business grew quickly, and soon Wrights had contracts with quick service restaurants like Pizza Hut and Dominos, who they supply about 22 million cookies a year for. “We got to a point about two years ago where we decided that if we were going to do this properly as a business, we needed to invest and make a commitment to the sector,” explains Wright. “So in January 2014, we commenced building a purpose-built factory across the road from our Crewe site, and opened in August 2014.”

The site previously housed an old building, which the company bought and stripped down to the steel shell and built up around it. “It’s like a new factory,” Wright says. “And we’ve incorporated ideas and solutions that we’ve picked up by travelling around the world and seen how other companies work. I saw hexagon tiled flooring in Germany a few years ago in their bakeries, and that’s something we’ve incorporated in ours. It creates a hygienic, stylish finish that, during washdown, causes the water to fall into the drains smartly, rather than creating an exaggerated fall that can lead to water build up and can become unhygienic and potentially hazardous. We’ve also got stainless steel kerbing for impact resistance and reinforcement.”

And when it came to selecting and installing the technology in the new dessert factory, Wright explains that they select the best on the market and spend a lot of time researching the different options. 

“In the past 14 years, we’ve invested about £30 million in technology,” says Neville Curruthers, Operations Director at Wright’s. “Operationally, that’s fantastic. And while we do the research into the technology and make our choices, we also send our engineers out to trial the machines, whether that’s to somewhere in the Netherlands or Germany, or wherever the technology is. The staff are the ones who will be operating and running the technology every day, so it’s important that they find the equipment functional and practical for the needs of the business.”

The production area of the factory is surprisingly spacious, and there’s plenty of room for staff to move around the production floor. The dough pastry products are kept separate from the cake batter, separated by space that will eventually house a conveyor that will run to a spiral freezer. But for now, products are taken over to blast holding freezers.

“When we designed the factory, we wanted to future proof the whole area so we won’t have to rearrange everything later on, in three or five years, when we expand,” says Curruthers. “During the planning stage, we spent a lot of time deciding where equipment should be installed with an eye to the future and any possible obstacles that we might face. All the processing lines finish at the same place by design so that we can install a conveyor when volume reaches that level.”

In the pastry area, there are computerised VMI mixers making up batches for pastry shells, doughnuts and scones. For Dave Hanley, Factory Manager at Wrights, it takes the guesswork out of everything that they create. “We’ve got a combination of high technology and traditional skills in this factory,” he explains. “These mixing machines give us full control over our products so we can set the programme and get the recipe right and therefore the consistency is the same every time.”

On the day of Food Processing’s visit, long finger doughnuts were on the production line, creating a delicious aroma in the factory. “The dough is guillotined into a finger shape and travels through the Acrivan proofer to control humidity and temperature,” explains Hanley. “The yeast is activated and causes the dough to expand and darken. The dough is then dropped into the automated inline fryer, and everything is kept consistent so that we get the same product at the end, time after time.”

The automated inline fryer was provided by Belshaw and the depositors are made by Vemag Reiser. 

“What we try to do at Wrights as a business is to build something, to install the equipment before we try to go and find the business,” explains Wright. “I won’t commit to a customer unless I have everything in place. The only risk in that situation is the capital expenditure, and we will only commit when we believe 100% in what we’re doing. For example, Dominos came to us in January and explained that their current supplier couldn’t deliver the doughnuts they required in the volume they needed. We had the machine waiting, and we went onto seven days a week manufacturing straight through to give them the volume. Within two to three weeks of being asked if we could fulfil the order, we were running 120 pallets a week.”

Also in production was a machine that runs continuously, making either large or small custard shells. The products are supplied to their own shops frozen, either as a raw material or a finished product. Bakeries can bake the product onsite.

And across the production floor is where the sheeted cakes are created. Traditionally, cake batter was weighed into a tray, levelled by hand and baked. According in Hanley, the process was time consuming and not altogether accurate. Now, mixers with a tipping mechanism pour the batter down a chute where it will be sheeted at 15 sheets a minute with exact accuracy. 

Wrights have installed two Newtech ultrasonic robotic cutting machines that use ABB technology. “Currently, this machine is cutting a sheet of brownie mix into 540 pieces,” explains Hanley. “Previously, we’d be weighing the sheets on a scale and flattening it. Now we put it through the machine and we get 540 identical pieces of brownie that get separated into bags of 270 pieces before being taken away for freezing.”

And towards the rear of the factory, there are four Acrivan ovens, as well as one towards the front for high care products. Baking time can run from 15 to 45 minutes depending on what’s being baked, and then pulled through the tunnels so it’s not standing around continuing to bake or taking time to cool.

Currently, the factory runs on one manufacturing shift in the morning, one packaging shift and then a washdown shift, meaning that the factory is only running at 33% capacity. “We have 62 people working on this site,” explains Curruthers. “And 60% growth to achieve. This is a great factory, with the latest equipment and we’re confident that the business will grow and push us to 24/7 continuous runs. A lot of hard work has gone into planning the factory and setting up the best equipment in the industry, and we’re just excited to keep expanding the business in a slow and steady incline.”

Building relationships
Most important to Wrights is repeat business and creating lasting, mutually beneficial relationships. On the savoury side of the business, they’ve created a model that has made sausage rolls such a huge seller for the company that they make up a third of the business, followed by their cheese and onion slice. On the dessert side, cookies are the most popular product, followed by doughnuts and chocolate éclairs. 

“We have a healthy number of SKUs,” says Wright. “On the savoury side, we have about 450; for ready meals it’s about 800 and on the dessert side it’s 300. We’re a go-getting company but at the heart of our business is quality. Anyone can sell something once, but we want to sell to the same customer again and again. We’re not interested in getting involved in price wars; we want longevity and long-lasting partnerships. This business is, and should be, about relationships.”

And Curruthers isn’t overly concerned with efficiency, not when it comes to quality and getting the job done for the customer. “When people talk to me about efficiencies and OEE, it becomes difficult because we have a number of SKUs and we’re not always in a position to run the same product day in and day out and then to monitor that run too. It’s important to have efficiency, but it’s more important to us to produce yield and work with what’s coming off the line. I think sometimes manufacturers lose sight of that, and focus more on the OEE than the quality of the technology.”

Keeping up with trends
When it comes to keeping up with trends, or even staring them, Wrights keep their eyes open and travel whenever they can to see what’s popular abroad. “Thanks to the popularity of street food, we launched a new street pie range,” says Wright. “It’s available in three flavours; piri piri chicken, Cajun BBQ pork and beef adobo. The pie comes in an easy-to-eat handheld packaging and can be easily microwavable. Yet we’re also conscious that our old traditional staples are our best sellers. Eating on the move has become an increasingly important part of our day as our lives get busier and busier, so we’re pleased to continue to bring new ideas and old favourites to our customers.”

For Curruthers, it’s about evolving as a business rather than risking stagnation. “We can offer our customers a one-stop shop, from confectionery to savoury to ready meals,” he says. “And we’re constantly on the look out for a new idea. Peter [Wright] came back from a trip to South Africa with an idea for a Burger Bar. It was a handheld bar shaped product with a patty, cheese sauce and relish. We had to work with an engineering company to develop a triple extrusion nozzle from the stainless steel and polypropylene constructed head. The depositor is connected to three Handtmann vacuum pumps, whilst the Handtmann water wheel extrusion system maintains equal pressure, allowing the components to be accurately deposited within tolerances of just one gram.”

Wrights has been exchanging ideas and best practice with Pieman’s Pantry since 1996. Pieman’s Pantry is based in Johannesburg and is the country’s largest pie producer, with around 70% market share.

For the past 12 years, Wrights have been running an apprenticeship scheme with their engineering department and estimate that they’ve retained about 90% of those they’ve trained, which is a significant number. 

“As well as the apprenticeship scheme, we work with Reeseheath College who have a Food Technology department whose courses include bakery and patisserie,” explains Curruthers. “The skills gap is a problem but we’ve got good programmes in place to help us moving forward.”

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