Plamil set to expand its free from production facilities

Tapping into the ever-growing free from movement of confectionery has proved a winning formula for Kent-based Plamil Foods. Neill Barston reports exclusively on its fortunes since its major rebranding exercise.

Even with the so-called “Beast from the East” snowstorm hitting Kent’s coast, it seems there’s a commendable hive of activity surrounding Plamil’s Kent headquarters.
As its director Adrian Ling explains, there’s a genuine sense of optimism surrounding the Folkestone-based business following an extensive rebranding of its free-from chocolate lines that are continuing to gain market prominence.

But as he is all too aware, there is no room for complacency within a fiercely competitive marketplace featuring both niche and major corporate brands.
So, devising its latest range has proved quite some challenge for the enterprising company boss, who had originally been invited to join the fast-rising business as a teenager by his vegan father, Arthur, one of the firm’s original founders.

“I think I have unquenchable thirst to grow and carry on and I don’t really see that stopping yet,” reflects the director on his career with the business that diverted him from a path studying a degree as a mechanical engineer.

He says his dad and fellow founders would have been proud of where the business (a shortened version of Plant Milk) now stands from its relatively humble origins starting in 1961 with canned soya milk concentrates.

These days, its facilities now operate on a far-expanded global basis serving a growing market for products perceived as providing healthier choices.
Clearly, that hasn’t been achieved without considerable refinement of its practices over years in response to changes in the market, yet there’s a sense this is a company that is making the most of its heritage in carving out a renewed sense of momentum. This is despite the challenges posed by Brexit on the horizon, placing it under pressure with fluctuations in financial exchange rates.

However, the business is now producing around 1000 tonnes of chocolate on site, employing around 50, with plans to roughly double that figure by the end of 2018.
Underlining its investment in the future, Mr Ling confirms that with sales of its So Free series expanding by some 100%, the company is to invest £250,000 into extending production lines for its flagship chocolate brand.

As if this weren’t enough, there are further proposals for a major site redevelopment within the next three years that the company believes will open a door on an even more progressive chapter in its history.

“Walking round here is like taking a tour of the world, we’ve got pallets going out to everywhere from America, Sweden, Dubai and across Europe,” enthuses the director offering a tour of its warehouses packed with So Free pallets.

He concedes that perhaps one of the wider free from chocolate market’s major issues has been in convincing consumers of its comparative quality and taste.

Yet he feels there have been relatively small yet key strides made with its own products such as reducing the size and thickness of its range of bars.

The director admits this led some to believe the latest series was an entirely new range, but he insists it has bee more of a case of revising former varieties. Its diverse series now includes everything from an organic Fairtrade dark bar, mint, orange and espresso flavoured varieties, through to a white chocolate alternative bar retailing in 80g format.

“What has happened previously is that people have been so pleased just to find something free from, they’ve accepted what they have found. That’s been a common theme for many decades, but that’s just not good enough these days. You have to attract the second and third sale, and that’s not going to happen unless they’re enjoying it,” adds Mr Ling.
As he explains, it’s been an intense process that has taken more than two years of research in order to reposition its well-established chocolate range, but he feels it been a worthwhile programme.

In terms of its potential market, he said there had been ‘an unbelievable reception’ to So Free and believed there had been a clear gap for producing premium gluten-free and no added sugar chocolate options to strict Vegan standards.

Its development in the UK is timely, with government body Public Health England now producing guidelines seeking both 20% reduction in sugar content and calories in order to tackle a troubling health crisis that has placed a strain on Britain’s health facilities. Inevitably, this has come sharply into focus with latest figures revealing the NHS is presently spending around £6 billion a year on obesity-related treatment.

“So free has been so successful, and it has really caught people’s imagination. The position for us has been very clear in that we’ve wanted to be the go to premium brand for free from, and we are now in discussion with some of the biggest supermarkets in the UK over putting it on the shelves,” enthuses the director, who says it has already found wider acceptance in a number of supermarket groups across Europe.

His colleague, marketing manager Julian Lucas appears equally animated in discussing the company’s rebranded confectionery offering.
“We even had one woman contact us in tears she liked it that much – when we said, well, it’s also no added sugar as well, she just said ‘I don’t really care, it just tastes great.”

As Mr Ling reveals, from participating in a workshop at the recent ISM confectionery event in Cologne, there appears a clear consensus of consumer demand for free from ranges that would provide a greater range of opportunities for the confectionery and bakery sectors.

For example, this has been supported by reports in the UK that demand for the wider free-from food and drinks market rising by 40% in the last year alone, as customers increasingly monitor their dietary intake for general dietary, as well as for specific health reasons.
These figures were supported by research group Mintel, which estimates that British sales of free from food of more than £500 million last year are projected to increase even further, to a total of £673 million by 2020.

“All the market research about where Free from should go and the So Free brand, we have absolutely hit it on the head with it,” adds the director on how he feels his faith in the rebranding exercise has been fully vindicated.

Ambitious plans

As the Plamil director explains, the irony of producing its non-dairy ranges within a converted former dairy is not lost upon him, and he remains commendably committed to delivering its success. Though the addition of chocolate to its portfolio (building on products including spreads and mayonnaise) may be a relative latecomer to its stable of food ranges, it’s now right at the core of its business.

Underlining this, the company is turning its attention into unveiling a range of seasonal items, ranging from white chocolate Easter eggs and novelty figures, through to Christmas calendars and even a Halloween special edition confectionery product.

Critically, Mr Ling says the company has invested considerable research into finding equipment partners that have understood the production challenges required to develop confectionery with specialist nutritional demands.

As such, Plamil has linked-up with established firms including Italian manufacturer FBM for its chocolate tempering equipment, along with MacIntyre mixers, with both sets of machinery in full-swing as we tour round the compact, yet well laid-out facilities.

The company also invested in an Ishida product weighing systems, which the company believes are set to play a significant role with the expansion of its seasonal confectionery ranges within the group.

Ethics first

While increasing production volume is something that is clearly a priority, its director stresses that this must not come at the expense of the firm’s stringent ethical production values that extend across its entire range.

This includes sourcing Rainforest Alliance cocoa, which is an especially important factor to the business with the majority of its cocoa being sourced from a sustainable farming co-operative in the Dominican Republic. As for its own operations, the company also buys renewable sources of energy from the national grid to power its own on-site systems.
There are also some refreshingly enlightened attitudes towards employees, with the business investing heavily in ongoing training for its production teams, in terms of operating skills and overall knowledge of the business.

“I think there is a growing number of people that not only look at the product, but the ethics of the company as well and say that it’s great as a whole that you are an ethical business as a whole package.

A lot of the companies, may have ethical branding, yet seems a rush to the bottom as to how cheaply can I produce an ethical product by allowing plastic packaging,” adds Mr Ling, who reveals the company has gone to considerable length to ensure that around 90% of its cardboard packs are presently being recycled, though concedes there is work to be done to achieve recycling linked to its flow wrapping systems.

“I am immensely proud of where the brand had got to and a vindication of where we have placed it is absolutely right. There will bound to be others who attempt similar products, but at the moment, we believe there’s no-one else doing quite what we’re doing here,” adds Mr Ling of this forward-thinking business that has taken free from products to the next level.

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