Exclusive: World Confectionery Conference interview: Plamil Foods

As one of the original pioneers of the vegan movement, Plamil Foods has a prominent history within the category. CEO Adrian Ling is among this year’s speakers at the World Confectionery Conference. Editor Neill Barston quizzes him on exactly what we can expect

Adrian Ling, CEO of Plamil Foods explains as we exchange assessments on state the industry at his company’s long- standing headquarters, there’s nothing quite like being at a live event for sheer industry engagement.

Indeed, as one of our panellists at last year’s World Confectionery Conference staged in the UK, his clear dedication to the industry shone through, which he will be further exploring as a speaker at this autumn’s event. You can register for the show directly at confectioneryconference.com

With his father having been considered among the pioneers of the global vegan movement, sourcing ethically remains at the core of the firm’s trading ethos, which is continuing to push the envelope of innovation within a category that’s garnering a following with new generations of environmentally conscious consumers.

This is a fact not lost on Adrian, known affectionately within the industry as the ‘vegan Willy Wonka’ who recently placed a major marker down in creating a new World Vegan Chocolate Day, held each January, linked to the conclusion of Veganuary.

It is occasions such as this, and indeed playing his part in our own show, which returns to the Belgian capital on 12 September this year, which offer vital opportunities to engage with peers and discuss the many challenges facing the wider confectionery sector.

“Having been in the industry a lifetime, it is still so enjoyable to meet new people and reacquaint with existing friends within a conference that gives time to delegates. Attending and taking part in last year’s World Confectionery Conference was, as it always is, informative, inspirational and educational.

“For the 2024 conference, I look forward to once again being back in Brussels, sharing some of my thoughts on the industry which may well be a little thought provoking, well you wouldn’t expect anything less from me, would you,” enthuses Adrian, who revealed that he will in part be using this year’s show to tackle one of the great ‘elephants in the room’ in the form of EU regulations surrounding the strict regulations surrounding exactly what constitutes products being considered as chocolate.

It’s a subject that’s close to his heart, as much as it is many others right across the sector who have been collectively baffled by a governing set of rules controlling the cocoa content and other aspects that have, in the eyes of many, to all intents and purposes effectively served to stifle innovation within the broader food and drink market.

“Most people inside the chocolate industry have no idea where we are with regulations, why we are where we are, except that it’s all based in the 1960s and based on probably some UK companies putting their formulas forward as the ‘standard of what it should contain. There are some really strange requirements within this, and we really need to bring the chocolate industry into the 21st century,” explains Adrian of the situation, which he says is very much ripe for fundamental re-evaluation in terms of opening up a significant amount of opportunities for innovative companies of all sizes.

This topic and many more topics besides relating to our ongoing themes of sustainability and innovation will be showcased during our fourth edition of our conference, which falls as our Confectionery Production title celebrates its 90th anniversary.

Major industry celebration
Among our other keynote presentations this year, we will have major returning contributions from European trade body, Caobisco, as well as key industry groups including Ferrero, Cargill, Palsgaard, Kruger & Salecker, and Tony’s Chocolonely providing a strong event core.

Clearly, unearthing the latest trends across confectionery and snacks markets is of significant importance, which will be capably handled by additional keynotes from the globally renowned Mintel Group, and also featuring FMCG Gurus, which has been another strong supporter of our events.

As for Adrian Ling’s contribution, he will be keenly detailing life behind the scenes at one of Britain’s most intriguing ethically focused confectionery businesses that has continued to expand and evolve down the decades.

This is despite mounting supply chain challenges, that its CEO concedes has stretched the company’s resources, not least the major mountain of cocoa prices that have hit the $10,000 a tonne mark with the past few weeks, as well as hikes in operating costs including energy prices and Brexit-related trading complications also having an impact.

This is reflective of the fact that the UK, much like many other locations around the world, are facing unprecedented conditions that have tested the resolve of many small and medium-sized enterprises that make up the backbone of our industry.

Well-established history
As Adrian notes, the business has come a long way since its roots in the 1960s, where it emerged out of the Plantmilk Society in the previous decade started out as a pioneer of plant-based products, including milk, which formed the basis of its name.

From its early origins operating in a factory based in Buckinghamshire, the business found a new home in Folkestone, Kent, with the company becoming known as Plamil Foods from 1972. This led to an increasing range of products serving the vegan market, from its soya milk, rice pudding and vegan cheese known as ‘Veeze,’ as well as carob coated fruit and nut bars, which further showed its willingness to experiment.

Today, the company’s factory by the sea in Kent, which is known as the ‘garden of England’ produces to high BRCGS standards, affiliated to the Rainforest Alliance and soil association, manufactured entirely on site.

Its core range of products includes chocolate chips, cocoa bites, milk alternatives, and even the company’s own vegan chocolate spread, Plamilla, which was introduced to its series over the past couple of years. As he enters over three decades working within the sector, there are clearly practices today that show considerable evolution. But how does the CEO believe the business is different from when he started out?

“I can see the vegan chocolate world has expanded hugely, which is why we celebrate World Vegan chocolate day on 31 January, and that’s something that I like to push more and more each year as it grows.

“For us, and as an industry, it’s grown enormously from when I started in this company to where we are now. There have been some indescribable changes.

“I started with the business in the early to mid 80’s, though it began in the 1960’s, my father said ‘well I’ve just bought a chocolate machine – and I just said, ‘ok, I will come along and make chocolate with you then, it’s got to be more fun than doing my mechanical engineering course at university,” noting that it could have easily seen him go down a very different route into the automotive sector.

As he details, recent years have seen the business grapple with a dilemma of whether to push their business in a direction of mainstream supermarkets. While this would potentially bring considerable rewards, it also carries with it key risks, and against a current backdrop of high retail inflation (of prices up in confectionery over 20 per cent annually) over the past couple of years, the ongoing spectre of Brexit hugely hindering export activity, and cocoa prices that are tripling over what was being paid just a year ago, makes the prospect for most of its series to be seen in major supermarket chains unlikely right now.

But as Adrian states, while it would have been easy to retreat into focusing solely on its core lines including its So Free chocolate series, he says the time in fact seems right to become even more creative with a fresh new release. This is taking the form of an entirely new release, the Coffee Bar.

“I do believe it’s the first coffee in a bar form – when you look at the statistics on the sales of coffee, they are enormous, and the history of chocolate used to be a drink until Fry’s came along. So, I thought ‘hang on a minute, everyone seems to be missing a trick here.

“Using similar technology as making chocolate, we decided to go into the world coffee – it’s a whole new world for us, but e that is in fact very similar. I am almost surprised that this doesn’t seem to have been done before, as it’s such a simple concept,” he enthuses on the new bar, which gains its launch this month.

As he reflects, it took around a year developing the range with testing and trials, which led to one particularly memorable session in which they went home after a day of solid testing, and were unable to sleep.

According to Adrian, this must have been “as they’d had the equivalent of about 25 coffees” in their taste testing. Perhaps inevitably, this is giving rise to an addition to the core launch bar of double-shot intense option.

As he notes, the series has involved sourcing beans from Brazil, with the company linking-up with Rainforest Alliance to ensure that it confirms to its own high sustainability standards. It is naturally also a vegan-friendly product, though the CEO admits that this is not something they are directly going to be promoting.

Moreover, as he explains, the new venture is very much intended to sit within the mainstream ‘to go’ food market, and it’s reportedly causing quite a buzz within the industry from initial feedback.
“People have been overwhelmingly positive about it so far, which is really pleasing. We knew we couldn’t please all the people all the time, as with chocolate, people like dark and light, and all the rest of it and coffee drinkers are similar. So, we’re continuing to develop that, “explains Adrian of the new series, which he enthused had major potential for expanding the company’s horizons even further.

Notably, as he reveals, the Coffee Bar isn’t the first time the company has been at the forefront of the market with a brand-new innovation. Its other successes include soy and pea-based milk, as well as being recognised for being the first in the UK to be organic chocolate producers, underlining its enterprising spirit.

As we tour the company’s site to check on its ongoing development – which includes expansion of its production lines to accommodate new machinery, such as the recent introduction of a new three-tonne Scottish-based MacIntyre refiner conche chocolate processing system to add to its existing equipment lines, its staff seem in upbeat form ahead of the major new product launch.

So, while there’s a good deal of fighting spirit within the ranks of the company’s small, closely-knit team, the challenges are clearly palpable. With the retail landscape posing both financial and regulatory challenges – including the government’s plans to adapt present labelling legislation, which are meeting with pushback from the UK’s Food and Drink Administration, these are some of the most disruptive moments in the region’s industry.

“Getting market penetration with pricing as it is remains the probably the big point at present. I think there are going to be casualties in the sector, as when you are locked into contracts with some of the major retailers and you see how rapidly the prices are changing, not just with cocoa, the speed of this is going to cause a lot of heartache.

“For example, I went into a supermarket the other week and saw a vegan chocolate bar – I thought there was no way you could put those ingredients together at all if you were costing them against what cocoa is costing now. Ours is still quite an evolving market, but I do think some of the smaller brands are going to have some challenging times ahead.”

While he’s all too aware of the steep rises in manufacturing costs that have hit over the past couple of years, off the back of a notably testing period during more than two years of pandemic conditions, he remains determined to drive the business forward to even greater success.


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