In just one year, Albert Bartlett, one of Britain’s leading grower and packer of potatoes has seen production almost double, re-launched and expanded its robust Rooster brand, opened a purpose-built factory in Jersey and is now turning its attention towards Europe. Evie Serventi and Katy Whitelaw report.
An awe-inspiring tour through the pristine, state-of-the-art 37,000ft pack house watching staff work diligently on up to 26 production lines that wash, grade, sort, pack and distribute 100,000 tonnes of potatoes annually, exemplifies the dedication Albert Bartlett and its potato growers have in raising the profile of the humble spud.
Headquarters of the third generation family-owned business, which enjoyed its 60th anniversary last year, cover 56 acres in Airdrie, Scotland. Up to 900 employees work throughout spacious offices, a main production pack house and storage area. There are four training rooms, a canteen, car parking and a wastewater treatment system.
A £50 million investment over a three year period has led to the company today supplying one in six of the UK’s fresh potatoes.
“We have 85 growers in the UK and we work on informal handshake agreements – it has been like that for three generations. Our growth has sustained their growth,” explains John Hicks, the company’s head of marketing, adding that the three-times running Re:fresh Packer of the Year winner’s strength lies in its relationship with its growers.
“The more you put in, the more you get out it,” agrees local farmer Douglas Brunton, who has been growing six varieties of potatoes exclusively for Albert Bartlett for over 22 years on 3,500 acres of farmland in eastern Scotland. Many of the company’s contracted farmers have been supplying potatoes to the company for three generations. Growers are a core part of the business.
“We have a good relationship; and feel comfortable with the company. Albert Bartlett never lets its customers down: even in the early days, the bosses were always hands on and always making decisions,” he reflects. He reminisces to his early days as a young lad, handpicking potatoes; a part of everyday life.
Brunton is currently in the middle of harvesting this year’s Rooster crop (his main crop) which he is already selling onto the market.
“We have been increasing our tonnage of Rooster and I expect we’ll harvest around 6000 tonnes this year,” he says positively. “Our land
lends itself to what we do.”
This is exactly what John Hicks and the company’s international manager Tim Hammond wants to hear. Ireland’s most popular potato, Rooster is their £23 million baby and best seller. And thanks to three years of solid, no-nonsense marketing the brand has had 70 per cent year on year growth and is a value brand suitable for niche and mass markets, says Hammond.
“Rooster is about 15 per cent of our volume (in UK’s fresh pack market) and the brand has grown really fast. If you think of something like a Jersey which gets 89 per cent recognition, Rooster is doing well,” he says.
“Rooster sits between the core and premium but we try to make sure it is priced as something that is affordable.”
Brunton adds, “Rooster has a lot of potential in the UK.”
Last year saw a chilled range of Rooster launch which Hicks says received ‘a pretty good consumer reaction’ followed by a second phase launch of frozen chips and rustic wedges that contain three per cent less fat.
Future marketing strategies will focus on taste, packaging and consistent branding. If you attend the British Potato Show in November or Fruit Logistica in 2010 you may run into Albert Bartlett. Hammond, who joined the company several years ago specifically to develop international strategic marketing opportunities, emphasises the importance of retaining a long-term marketing strategy.
“We are looking at long term success. We have done this in the UK and we are now finding the right producers to work with in Germany, France and Scandinavia. We have grown the crop in southern Spain but it’s a traditional Irish variety which prefers a cooler climate,” he says. The company’s development programme includes testing and evaluating novel, new and international varieties.
It’s important to understand the different consumer needs and trends from country to country. “In Europe for example, the average French consumer is savvy and increasingly wants local produce,” explains Hammond.
“We want to permeate north European countries within the next five years such as Scandinavia, Belgium, Germany and France. I’m optimistic about the EU market and Central Europe also offers scope for the future.”
“Variety development is changing as far as consumer needs. Atkins diets etc didn’t do us any favours. Convenience like ready meals is a huge part of it and many companies developed potatoes which looked great but didn’t taste great,” Hicks says.
Hicks and Hammond agree that at the moment consumers believe “price is king”.
“Household cooking times are down and people snack more often. And health is still a major issue for people. Potatoes are involved in all of those nice memorable meal times and we are looking at targeting a younger market. You change your eating habits as you go through life,” Hicks says.
“For us it is about getting people to step out of the core range and go into the premium range. With Rooster we have sold it on taste, versatility, packaging and the endorsement of two Michelin-star chefs who helped to show there is excitement there about the product.
“For us Rooster has been the key. We have other things in the pipe line but it is important for us to develop the generic part of the brand,” Hammond says.
Albert Bartlett is currently working on a national TV campaign which Hicks and Hammond hope will follow the success of previous campaigns such as their link-up with Phillipo Beno Olive Oil which was highly successful.
“We are making the move into chilled and frozen which is exciting for us. We are about to launch the new range of chilled with new packaging to fit into our identity,” Hicks says.
“All Albert Bartlett potatoes are graded at farm level, which has two benefits: it reduces the volume of on-site waste and strengthens control of product supply. We have never seen such a clean and orderly facility: sanitation and hygiene are a number one priority.”
The company’s fresh produce is supplied to the retail, food service, wholesale and processing industries. The retailers have a three-tier structure and Rooster sits between the core and premium but they try to make sure the brand is priced as something that is affordable.
“Supermarkets are 99 per cent of our business. Our main customer is Sainsbury’s but we also distribute to Tesco, Asda and Morrisons,” Hicks says.
The company also holds exclusive rights to the popular varieties Vivaldi and Osprey; and sells Vivaldi potatoes mainly to retailer Sainsburys in 40, 50, 60 pound packs. Hammond says, “We think Osprey is great – growers like it and it packs really well.”
“Our core remit is as a supermarket packer,” Hammond adds.
“We work our way back from the customer to the field. We used to go from the grower and go the other way but you have to be customer facing now,” Hicks explains. “It gives the grower a sense of identity and ownership and reduces the potential that there is not a market for the crop. One of the key strengths of ours is our agreement with the suppliers. It’s a very important partnership. We are helping them manage their crop and a lot of them are relying on our support. It is a joined up approach.”
“We have meetings where we have the growers and retailers in the same room. They have been constructive as it is about understanding both sides. By doing that it helps everyone to avoid unnecessary confusion about the process. It will never be 100 per cent perfect but it is a start,” he says.
“The retailer has to look at longevity. It is about having a long term view.”
The pack house, a £35 million investment, is divided into sections: washing, packing, cold storage and point of distribution. The company uses a combination of automation and manual packing; manual operations are better for different varieties, says Hammond. Equipment includes Bosch packers, Yamato headers and check weighers and Herbert Engineering washers, graders and packers.
Hydro coolers are used for optimal temperatures. Potatoes are guided out of barrel washers into the hydro cooler for 10-15 minutes, which takes out the heat to about five per cent. The coolers serve to extend the shelf life of new potatoes. An organic sector plays a small role in total production at about three per cent.
Software systems are an integral part of production and complete traceability explains Hammond. “Dry matter tests are performed when potatoes are brought in from farms, data is recorded and accessible to growers and used for analysis, research and audit trails.”
Jersey Royal Ltd and Albert Bartlett opened the Jersey facility in April (although officially this autumn) and it is a colossal story not only of investment, but of inspiration and success. Construction was carried out through 2008. The British project, which focuses on micro-regionality, has seen retired farmers re-enter the industry, expand their businesses and invest in new equipment. The company carried out consumer research in Jersey that revealed an 89 per cent brand recognition, which was excellent says Hicks.
“Jersey was going downhill and we had to save it, which we did. It is a big investment but its right for the customer so it is right for us,” he reasons.
The company has won several environmental awards, has a commitment to natural farming and a strong environmental focus. Water conservation measures include rainwater, borehole collection and recycling channels. “It’s all about saving energy,” says Hammond as we walk through the packhouse, which is self-sufficient, taking water from the roof.
Water wise and conscious about high discharge costs, the Airdrie plant is run by using three-quarters rainwater and one-quarter groundwater.
The company invested £1.5m to build its own wastewater treatment plant and less than five per cent of its water supply comes from Scottish Water. Rain water is channelled into one main lagoon.
An efficient soil recycling system that retrieves soil from the washing process delivers more than 40 tonnes of soil a week to regenerative projects like riverbank restoration.
“We hope to have a wind turbine erected within the next 12 months, which will generate up to 70 per cent of the plants electricity,” Hammond says. “We have ambitions to be the best in the business with state of the art technology.”