Spotlight: Behind the scenes at Nestlé’s York KitKat production

While the pandemic may have posed operating and logistics challenges, York’s treasured connection with the confectionery sector continues apace in the hands of Nestlé, as editor Neill Barston discovers

Observing a vast stream of KitKats roll off the production line, it’s hard to visualise the immense scale of operations behind the billion bars emerging each year from the Nestlé site in York. But it is perhaps only fitting that this is the case, with the bustling historic English city proudly being the renowned confectionery brand’s original home from the mid 1930’s.

With the presence of other major local companies including Terry’s, the area became justly known as the country’s capital of chocolate making, famed for its consistent stream of innovation. See our exclusive video on the company’s facilities here.

Thankfully, the sense of imagination and determination to continue the area’s sweet-toothed heritage is very much alive and well in the city, with the emergence of a handful of fresh young chocolate making companies flying the flag for the independent sector. Clearly, much has evolved since the long-vanished era of KitKat’s formative years under the ownership of Rowntree’s, founded in a far less automated age that saw its workforce produce a classic series of sweets that became generational favourites.

Encouragingly, a good deal of these classic lines such as Milky Bar and Aero live on under the auspices of the company’s present owner, Nestlé, which acquired the business in 1988 for a then record reported fee of $4.5 billion, after fending off strong competition.

The deal saw the Swiss-headquartered firm become the second largest manufacturer of chocolate in the world – echoing its wider ambitious rise to the notable heights of being considered the global industry’s biggest food and drink enterprise. Its significant UK expansion brought vital upgrades to its principal York location, with the site benefitting from an overall financial investment of half a billion into its manufacturing operations during the past three decades.

Among key strategic decisions made under new management was a major decision to sell its on-site cocoa processing facilities to Cargill, which continues to play an integral connecting role with the historic Yorkshire confectionery business.

Ambitious investment

Today, the company’s distinctive manufacturing site in Haxby Road is home to some 2,000 workers across its major production halls and broader operations, which included an accompanying administrative headquarters – which is presently undergoing the final phases of a significant £9 million refurbishment.

While the investment, which includes additional funding in the pipeline of around £20 million for its production facilities provides a welcome boost, it comes amid a decidedly challenging economic backdrop for the wider manufacturing sector. As Confectionery Production has previously reported, the UK’s food and drink business faces significant supply chain challenges impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, with confectionery and snacks industries no exception to the situation.

This, along with increases in raw ingredients prices and further headaches posed by Brexit trading complications, is placing renewed pressure on conventional manufacturing supply chains. Notably, as with many other sectors, the past 18 months have prompted structural re-organisation within Nestlé, resulting in proposals for 475 UK redundancies.

This is affecting up to 100 roles in York as it responds to the pandemic, and increases levels of automation across its systems to meet production demands. But in spite of these pressures, the wider business is continuing to display notable resilience, with KitKat hailed as being key to a recent upturn in company results.

Undoubtedly, the brand remains among its most bankable performers in ensuring that picture of relative buoyancy. Affection for the distinctive two-fingered bar runs deep, being embraced as far and wide as the US and also Japan – where fans have clamoured for an ever-expanding array of unusual flavours.

Indeed, the Asian market’s thirst for imaginative varieties has played an integral part in KitKat’s ongoing success, with the region chosen as the launchpad for the much-heralded ruby chocolate incarnations of the brand, further cementing its place as a 21st century favourite. Production scale With KitKat indelibly linked to its origins in York, there’s something just a little bit special about getting the chance to gain a behind-the scenes glimpse of its development.

In truth, the sheer scale of the site underlines its significance, with its 230,000m2 location already running a 24/7 operation is quite challenging, so we aim to make our confectionery as efficiently as we can, and every bar counts,” explains the product specialist.

Pandemic response

With a complex environment totalling around 700 staff working across its production facilities, there’s a clear need for efficient strategies that seek to optimise its processes. As Alison explains as we explore the site’s halls, the previously high standards for hygiene monitoring have been taken to the next level amid the pandemic.

This includes the additional personal sanitising, protective clothing and social distancing management of work areas to ensure the site continues to be fully operational amid the backdrop of covid.

“When the pandemic started, we moved to social distancing, which was quite difficult for some of the guys working on the line, and we also put in other measures like one-way systems so that everyone was not passing each other in the corridors.

“So that was quite challenging to get used to, but we did other things like working from home for those that were able to do so. “It went through quite a quiet period here, which felt a bit bizarre with few people around. Then mask wearing was introduced, and we followed all the protocols from the company and government, and we all worked very safely. We got through it – the social distancing just seems like the norm now,” explains the production specialist, who says despite the challenges placed on its workforce, she feels ‘it looks a lot brighter now.”

Production scale

Making our way through the building, we encounter some awe-inspiring sights along the manufacturing floor, including a huge ‘tower of KitKats’ as they make their way along the production chain. As Alison reveals, while there are a number of centres for delivering the brand around the world, York has its own special recipe that includes yeast, which is critical to its overall flavour, requiring precision timing in ensuring its fresh ingredients are brought together quickly.

Having been with the business for the past three decades, the production expert says she’s seen plenty of changes. In her view, perhaps chief among the advancements has been a key drive to improve performance amid an increasingly competitive global market segment. Intriguingly, she points to the now derelict building on the site that once housed a wide range of production including its Smarties brand – which has now been shifted to its Hamburg facilities.

Nevertheless, there’s a hive of activity around the overall site, which also churns out household favourites including Polo, Aero and Yorkie bars, as well as the KitKat chunky variety, that Alison confesses remains a personal favourite. On the topic of new products, the York site is also home to the company’s global research and development for confectionery.

This forms another vital cog in its operations in devising the next series of sweets and snacks for a new generation ever-eager for innovation. As Alison notes, the facility attracts a host of employees, ranging from engineers, product developers, through to entrepreneurs and scientists beavering away behind the scenes.

“We find there’s always a need for new products and confectionery – it’s gone beyond just looking at simple flavours and it’s more challenging in terms of what you can do. “The big thing at the moment regards sustainability and nutrition – sweets are always going to be a treat, so you don’t want people eating too many sugars. We are addressing the issue of obesity, and we are always looking at what we can do with the development of confectionery,” enthuses Alison, who acknowledges that it continues to be a major bonus to be able to call upon such experts, who remain close at hand.

Supply chain concerns

The past few months in the UK have seen a series of national media headlines gather pace surrounding further logistics issues during the pandemic. Indeed, CEO of Nestlé, Mark Schneider, last month noted the business was under pressure with supply chains as with many other sectors, but he remained confident its core confectionery, including Quality Street ranges (which are produced near York, in Halifax) would be unaffected in the buildup to the vital Christmas market.

As Alison adds, while there have been some issues in relation to securing packaging amid wider supply chain delays, she believes the business has the issue in hand. “There’s a strong team in place here who are dealing with issues relating to raw materials or packaging every day, so they are on that to make sure our hauliers are supported to get those deliveries in time.

“We have increased our volumes by 30 per cent in the last five years, that’s about 1,000 truck loads a day being delivered per day, to ensure our products are delivered for Christmas,” explains Alison.

With the festive season fast approaching, there are indeed a number of challenges as it gears up for what is traditionally its busiest period of the year. Though there are clearly tests facing the business after a period of such considerable wider disruption, Alison concludes it remains a rewarding environment. “I think it’s the variation that keeps me going.

In my role, I have projects relating to products and performance improvements in the factory, so that’s the interesting thing for me in covering all aspects of the role end-to-end. What we’re doing here is making something that makes people happy,” she says of her post with the company, which continues to unveil memorable chapters in its long and eventful history.

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