Behind the scenes: Plamil living the vegan dream by the sea
pic: Neill Barston
With a million-pound investment in new chocolate processing equipment and latest vegan product lines, Plamil Foods is facing wider production challenges of recruitment and navigating Brexit fallout with genuine optimism, as editor Neill Barston reports
Take a stroll round any high street supermarket or specialist food store and you’ll notice that vegan and plant-based segments have become noticeably more prominent in the past couple of years.
The confectionery sector is certainly part of this pattern, with a number of high profile launches amid the pandemic adding further to the rapidly-rising market considerably. This was reflected in the fact more than 600,000 people signed up to taking part in this year’s global Veganuary challenge to trial a vegan-based diet, which was promoted by a range of major companies, from motor manufacturers to high street retailers.
As a result, market analysts have asserted that the wellbeing and healthier eating movement has been far from a short-lived consumer trend, kick-started by the Covid-19 pandemic, rather it has been a longer term evolution in global eating habits. Indeed, one such prominent example in the UK is Kent’s Plamil Foods, which stands as a pioneer of the vegan movement, established in the 1950’s to deliver dairy alternatives (its name stemming from a combination of plant and milk).
From those early origins, it went on to extend its focus to include an array of seasonal specialties, eventually leading to its chocolate series from the early 1980’s. Today, the business employs a dedicated team at its site in Folkestone, operating from a converted dairy that has served the business well as it has gradually evolved. It is now embarking on a million-pound investment to double its production to 2,000 tons of chocolate per year, amid considerable category growth. As the company explains, it may have been a relatively long journey, but it has continually refined its offerings, with the ethically-minded company is gaining increasing market share within Britain and further afield, enjoying export gains in Europe until recent challenges of Brexit impacted on overseas markets.
However, the creation of its So Free brand several years ago now being extended this month in releasing its latest oatmilk varieties, marking another key step forward for its product development. It’s a milestone CEO Adrian Ling is assuredly proud of, revealing there has been an encouraging industry response to his decision to establish the first World Vegan Day on 31 January of this year.
“It was a lightbulb moment in creating it, as it seemed to fit very well into the end of Veganuary. I’ve supported other chocolate days, but I didn’t feel they were necessarily focused on where we wanted to go, with bringing in some nuance on having concern for farmers, and that if you are buying these products, please buy them with a certified cocoa source,” he reflects of the new annual celebration, adding that his ambition is to encourage a ‘broad church’ of like-minded businesses within the sector.
He hopes the vegan day will encompass environmental and social concerns, as well as offer an opportunity to address key issues such as developing far clearer product labelling standards across the sector, which he felt required considerable improvement. As far as the market is concerned, research has unearthed that Google searches for food within the category rose 5,000 per cent during 2021. This was supported by Innova Market Insights studies revealing an annual growth in global food and beverage launches with vegan and plant-based claims grew 21 per cent and 58 per cent between 2015-2019 respectively.
As Adrian reveals, the company’s major decision to install its new MacIntyre chocolate processing system has involved reducing its overall portfolio, and focusing on core lines to effectively double production capacity to 2,000 tons in response to heightened demand.
While this represents a significant initial capital outlay at a time of wider market challenges, the business is confident that amid sustained market growth, its ambitions will pay off. “We’ve had MacIntyre’s here at the business for a long time – when I originally joined in the 1980s, the first piece of equipment we had was a small second hand refiner from the company. “That’s how I cut my teeth in chocolate making, so gradually over the years, we’ve moved towards having new lines, and now we have six units and so it was always the one type of refiner to go to, particularly for its flexibility for our types of products. “If you look after these machines well, they last a long time, so we decided to step up production in two phases, which was a significant increase for us. So we went for MacIntyre’s latest model that is capable of handling three tons,” explains the CEO of the newly-installed refiner/conche sourced from the Scottish-based business that sits proudly within a new processing room.
He adds that the decision for its latest machine was also based on strong environmental consideration, with the system using considerably less power than previous generations of equipment. The line has also been set up so it does not use additional groundwater water in the cooling process, delivering a further considerable eco-benefit. While the CEO believes that they’ve weathered the uncertainties of the past two Covid-hit years relatively well, there remain Brexit hangovers that have thrown up fresh trading and logistics obstacles. This includes challenges relating to the fact that the UK’s ‘equivalence’ status placing its ranges on a par with those on the continent, is no longer the case, as well as the physical cost of exporting and its additional administration costs proving prohibitive.
“I think one of our biggest challenges now is to get European customers to have our products when we’re no longer in the trading bloc. There’s a big psychological issue there. Why purchase from a third country from their perspective, when they can do so from within the EU? It’s a question of convincing customers, but with spiralling costs at the moment, it is a challenge.” As Adrian reflects, there are a number of other tests the business is engaged with, including recruiting skilled staff across its production operations against a backdrop of a tough jobs market. He says there are also hurdles in terms of customer requests for rapid turnaround times on specific projects, yet he feels recently implemented planning improvements within the business means they’re able to adapt to peaks in demand.
On its new vegan Carami!k, series, he adds: “I’m really proud of our latest range, and I think that it will do well for us,” explaining there had been considerable amount of development work into delivering its paper packaging, ensuring it is doing more than just talking a good game on delivering sustainable and environmentally mindful product ranges amid a highly competitive market.
As Linda Mather, MacIntyre’s regional sales manager explains, the partnership that has developed between the two companies over the years has been a very successful one indeed.
“It will be interesting to see what new creations “Vegan Willie Wonka” will develop next. With Adrian’s recently installed 45Kg MacIntyre Refiner/Conche now available for trial batches, new recipes with ingredients such as date sugar may be available soon. This new 45Kg model will also allow Plamil to develop a new generation of vegan recipes for their customers, who will benefit from their decades of experience, making them a perfect supplier for a sustainable products.
“A reliable partner sharing expertise is fundamental to any business and MacIntyre Chocolate Systems were delighted to be Adrian’s first choice, once again, following Plamil’s investigation of the latest technologies available in the market for chocolate production. Although MacIntyre Refiner/Conches had been used to produce Plamil’s recipes for over 30 years, it was essential to assess if the MacIntyre Refiner/Conche would be the right choice today – the most energy efficient solution for the production of high quality products being paramount.
“This is an area where MacIntyre have heavily focused its R&D over the last two years and were able to share news of the cycle time and energy reduction being experienced by customers, working with their latest Next Generation (i) model.
Where typically it had taken a full day to produce a batch of product on a 5000Kg Duplex model, two batches can now be refined in a 24 hour period, meaning 10,000Kg of chocolate can be produced daily from a small footprint 8.57 square metres. During commissioning at Plamil, the service team at MacIntyre were pleased to see production of delicious dark vegan chocolate completed in seven hours, using the 3000Kg Duplex Refiner/Conche. A remarkable reduction
from a cycle time of 14 hours using a 500Kg Mark 12 model.
“The features available in the PLC of the Next Generation (i) model offer plenty of flexibility for a variety of recipes and excellent control in product processing. Multi stage recipes can be created to allow varying degrees of temperature, different amounts of pressure and controlled conching, enabling stronger cocoa notes to be detected in the final product when required, using Siemens technology. The control cabinet incorporates EWON which can be used for on-line software upgrades, troubleshooting or as a communication tool for other equipment in the factory. As MacIntyre operate continuous improvement throughout the company, development of new software for 2023 is ongoing at present, which will offer operators more benefits.
“Meanwhile, users of the Next Generation range are pleased to see the removal of some maintenance tasks due to the cinch seal replacing the glands and gland packing but, more importantly, no waste of product and money due to continual seepage, no mess and no contamination. Although glands and gland packing are a typical sealing arrangement which is used in many food production machines, continual waste is something the modern world can no longer withstand, so the new cinch seals are a valuable addition to the new range of MacIntyre Refiner/Conches.
“MacIntyre’s Next Generation machine may be named a ‘Chocolate Refiner/Conche’ but there are so many more products which can be produced on the machine. While nut based recipes are a growing trend and forming the basis of a number of plant based products, Plamil operate a ‘nut free’ manufacturing facility which is good assurance for producers who require a vegan, nut free, product.”