Confectionery sector will have plenty of food for thought over coronavirus pandemic

Food and Confectionery Industry Consultant Graham Godfrey, a board member of Confectionery Production explores just how the sector is set to be affected by the ever-evolving coronavirus pandemic

At some point in the future there will be a lot of publications on the “effects of the lockdown” from a commercial, technical and sociological point of view

Unfortunately, when the current situation starts to regularise, we will not have time to wait for the wise (and not so wise) heads to deliberate on this, as an industry, and particularly for smaller scale and artisan confectioners, we will have to make our own judgements and try to respond accordingly.

In the short term, immediately after restrictions are eased, there will be some kind of “bounce” as people react to the renewed freedom to travel and associate. However, whether this will affect the confectionery industry is less clear.

It is worth noting that when the Berlin wall came down there was a short term boost in chocolate sales as people had access to products previously denied them, but in our current circumstances most confectionery products have continued to be available from supermarkets, in spite of some organisations considering them “non-essential”.

It is important that the enforced “downtime” has been used profitably in planning and preparing for the future – there is history of companies surviving an interruption in trading but, through lack of planning and forethought, failing to survive the recovery

Products

Consumers will in all probability need a renewed reason to purchase and will be looking for novelty and excitement. This will increase the importance of innovation and novelty in the products offered, “same old” is probably not going to be adequate

There is, however, no point in making what people don’t want or are unwilling to buy – witness a number of recent failures in the “high fibre, low sugar” niche. So how will our consumers wants and wishes have changed in the past few months and how do we react to this?

It is at least conceivable that some major changes will have taken place, at least in the short to medium term

· People will have got out of the habit of impulse buying both because they have not been able to do so and there may have been in increased focus on food requirement rather than indulgence.

· In all probability a seriously degraded economy, higher unemployment and potentially higher taxation will result in much lower disposable income for many people

· “Value” – a combination of desirability, attraction, excitement and novelty in addition to value for money will become even more important

Innovation

There is potentially a real opportunity for companies able to present innovative , exciting and valued products to the consumer quickly. Whilst making it onto supermarket shelves will continue to be difficult and expensive for smaller businesses there are important alternatives for them

Many small shops (for example newsagents and also gift shops at tourist sites) which have been forced to close will reopen and will want products to excite and attract the consumer to visit and purchase.

There will (hopefully) be a move to support small local businesses and attractions, so products which are “local and wholesome” will be attractive. Canvassing these local businesses personally and providing regular, reliable deliveries to avoid them having to lay out large amounts of cash could be very attractive to them and provide quick and effective access to consumers for smaller businesses and those willing to move away from traditional supply chain models. This approach can be combined with an effective social media campaign highlighting both the product, its benefits (including those to the local economy) and where it is available. People will want to know where they can find your products once they have been interested in them, so market presence is vital

Quality

In food and confectionery people will always opt for quality if they are aware of the quality benefits you are offering. A hugely experienced and highly respected person once said to me “if you produce a quality product you do not need to sell it, people will buy it off you” and I have found that to be true time and time again.

Consumers in all sectors are increasingly interested in the providence and environmental impact of their food sources. This is particularly true of the younger generation of consumers who have not only their own thoughts, but also pressure from their peers. The availability of recyclable/compostable packaging materials for individual wraps is particularly interesting, although obtaining supplies on a scale suitable for smaller businesses can be difficult

There may well be increased sensitivities about ingredients sourced from countries with poor environmental, civil rights or industrial practices and moving away from these could be beneficial. There is currently heightened interest in Vegan and Vegetarian products and most confectionery produces are at least Vegetarian, but few are labelled as such. If you have an interesting story to tell, don’t be afraid to tell it!

Reduced day to day activity during “lockdown” therefore provides the opportunity to understand and possibly reconsider your sources of ingredients and packaging. You will then be able to use this as a selling point and be able to properly discuss these sources with consumers (social media again) and to provide evidence.

Manufacturing

With manufacturing essentially stalled for many smaller manufacturers (and reduced in volume for larger ones) there are many important things which should be done and which are sometimes overlooked in the everyday rush of operations.

Small plant may be shut down completely but even larger ones with reduced throughput may offer the opportunity to cycle through machinery and to take some off line in succession

People – ultimately people are the heart of a business, this can be an opportunity to upgrade staff through in house learning or wider studies, even just reading and thinking about where there are gaps in their knowledge (perhaps by going through back copies of this magazine).

This involvement will also show staff that the company cares about them and is trying to make a constructive use of their time. They may positively welcome the opportunity to do something practical and useful during otherwise enforced idleness, so with some planning and perhaps providing training materials the outcome may be very beneficial

Cleaning – of course everyone cleans their equipment routinely, but the opportunity exists to really deep clean, dismantle and check machinery, pipework and general facilities which may get overlooked. You should try to ensure that everything is absolutely spotless and hygienic be it a factory or just an expanded kitchen. This is particularly important as plant that is not in use will have vulnerabilities beyond what is normal

The condition and perishability of ingredients and part processed materials also needs to be carefully monitored and recorded. Scrap and other perishable materials may need to be disposed of and the nominal value recorded for accountancy purposes

Formulations and Processes – here is the opportunity to formally record every detail of formulations and processes, to update from “what we think we are doing” to “what we are actually doing” or even “what we should be doing”.

Audit the usages and specifications of everything, ingredients, packaging, people, weight control, etc. can all be re-examined and the costs of deviations understood and corrected. Times will be tough in the short to medium term, so anything which reduces costs and waste and increases efficiency is going to be valuable and a potential advantage over competitors

It is also important to fully understand and document how equipment was shut down and how it should be started up from completely clean and empty. It is rarely a case of just “turning things back on”. Starting up ovens, pumps, heat exchangers and many other items of equipment from cold and empty requires care and attention to detail and it is vital that operators understand this.

Start up needs a proper, well thought out, plan of action to avoid scrap and even equipment damage. Even simple things like getting pipework reheated can take a surprising amount of time

Maintenance

This is an opportunity to examine and service equipment which is off line and shut down which may occur only rarely. The last thing you need when production restarts is a simple breakdown which could have been avoided. Most equipment manufacturers will be able to provide spares and even if specialist maintenance support is unavailable, they may be willing to provide extra guidance to you or your staff. This applies as much to services equipment as it does to process machinery

Cleaning as mentioned above doesn’t apply only to the “product” side of the plant, services such as heat exchangers, cooling towers, air compressors etc. all benefit from a thorough clean and examination. Note that cooling water circuits can become seriously contaminated when not in use and they should be run regularly and dosed with chemicals to avoid a build up of viruses, bacterial, algae etc.

Boilers which are shut down for extended periods need proper attention and the manufacturers should be consulted to avoid expensive and potentially dangerous problems later. Even if drained down, some pockets of water may remain in places like steam traps which should also be physically drained. On start up there may well be items which have corroded (steam traps, valves, pressure reducing units, etc.) and careful attention will be needed for the whole system as it is brought back on line.

Conclusions

We are in challenging times and things are not going to get any easier, even when restrictions are eased with a likely “no deal” Brexit just around the corner. The economy is going to be set back on its heels and as an “indulgent” rather than an “essential” component of consumer’s focus confectionery businesses are going to have to work very hard and think of new approaches to survive

This feature article is restricted to logged-in paid subscribers.

Login or subscribe now to view this exclusive content.

Related content

Leave a reply

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!