Jimmy Mark, MD of Saladworks, gives Ruari McCallion an insight into what makes his company a tasteful choice.
Perhaps strangely, given its name, Saladworks is not in the salad business. Maybe it should be called something that reflects ‘agile’, ‘adaptable’ or ‘flexible’, because that is what the company has proved itself to be. It was founded in 2003 in a purpose-built factory on the outskirts of Leicester, with the intention of supplying pre-packed salads to high street retailers — hence the name; but it soon found that its chosen business area was not as attractive a proposition as it had first appeared. Rather than shut down and put the experience behind it, Saladworks looked for, and quickly identified, an area where its skills, experience, resources and expertise would enable it to build a strong presence and it went for it, with full commitment.
“Our business now is 100 per cent chilled short-life ready meals,” says Jimmy Mark. Salads ceased being any part of its operations in 2005. “The shelf life of our products is, at most, 10 days – they are generally sold within a week.” So freshness remains a cornerstone of its business model. “Our product lines are predominantly pasta based. We make macaroni cheese, spaghetti bolognese, pasta carbonara, lasagne, as well as traditional British favourites like shepherd’s pie.” Ready meals have been growing in popularity for decades, as the habits and demographics of the UK’s working population have shifted. Most households now have – and need – two incomes, and full-time working is not compatible with sumptuous dinners, cooked from scratch every evening, but the population does not want to give up taste, quality and variety.
A taste of Italy
“Ready-meals are broken down by cuisine and Italian-style meals represent a large proportion,” says Mark.
“Saladworks is quite a big player in that market, and also in the premium and diet sectors. These products still have pasta as their core and pasta products represents around 70 per cent of our range. Our customers are high street retailers but Saladworks has grown through being prepared to adapt and it is always seeking to find new markets and to both refine and expand its offer.
Some things will remain constant, however, chief among them being a commitment to quality — and that begins with recipes and ingredients.
“We cook all our sauces on-site,” he explained. “We buy-in our raw materials and get through around 40 tonnes of chopped tomatoes a week.
We buy joints of beef from UK sources, which may be from a specific site or supplier, depending on the product and customer.” The Leicester factory minces its own beef. “We believe this gives us a better product – it’s about quality. We have found in the past that mince has ‘clumped’ when we have had it supplied in. We like to be in control of texture and mincing on-site means that we are.
We also have ingredients like butternut squash and capsicum peppers supplied whole. Where we believe we can add value by prepping it ourselves, we will. ”On the other hand, the company does not peel onions, nor does it wash or peel potatoes. It doesn’t have the infrastructure to deal with the starch byproduct, so it leaves it to those who are better-equipped.
A bit of sauce
Some chefs maintain that it is the sauces that are the crowning glories of any meal.
Saladworks takes its raw materials, batches them and cooks them in 8 kettles, of varying sizes, and three ovens.
Meat may be cooking in one, vegetables in another and potatoes could be cheerfully roasting away in a third. Rice is prepared in measured bags, with a prescribed amount of liquid for a perfect finish. There are also three machines for blanching vegetables and pasta.
“Vegetables or dry pasta will be transported into the cooking chamber and held for a set period of time, depending on what the ingredient is.
Broccoli is different from carrots, for example,” Mark explained. “They then go to a quenching chamber, where they encounter cooler water, and proceed to a chilled water chamber, where they remain for a period of time before being dispensed to trays and tubs. It’s a cook/ quench/chill method. Vegetables are blanched, chilled and are ready to use.
The pasta goes in raw at one end and comes out cooked and ready to pack at the other.” Vegetables may be added 115 to the sauces or packed separately, depending on the meal being prepared.
‘”Ready-meal factories are actually quite complex operations,” he continued. “One finished product may have four, five or more components, which means that we will have a number of operations in progress, which all have to be brought together at the same time. Macaroni cheese is quite straightforward but, at the other extreme, we have dishes that consist of sauce with vegetables, meat, a sprinkling of cheese, another mix of vegetables – maybe up to eight raw materials that come together.” Some manufacturers, with bills of materials running into hundreds and thousands of components may raise their eyebrows at the idea of five to eight components constituting ‘complex operations’ but it has to be borne in mind that prepared and cooked ingredients cannot be put on a shelf until the product is ready to receive them. Perishable items cannot be left lying around.
Timing is everything
“Planning and scheduling is very important, all the way from when produce arrives,” says Mark. “Meat is minced and left to rest before it is cooked and cooled. We arrange for pasta to be ready at the same time as the sauces. We don’t use preservatives; we rely on chill chain management and hygiene standards and have a strategy based on critical control points (CCPs), to manage food safely throughout the process. Our products are stored at less than five degrees C, which ensures the shelf life. Delivery is by chilled lorries, which are maintained at three degrees. The supermarket shelves are kept at three to five degrees – we rely on the chill chain being intact.” Generally the raw materials received in the morning are cooked in the afternoon and assembled into finished products overnight or the next morning. “Some beef, for example, needs to be 14-days matured, which dictates our ordering from the abattoir,” he continued. And that timetable can be challenging. “We are ordering meat today, which we will use in two weeks – but we don’t know what the orders will be! That makes the forecasting from our commercial and planning teams very important. We need the right amount of packaging and stock — if we have too much we have to throw it away.” Although Saladworks has only been in business for seven years, it has just as much experience in the ready-meal business as most of its competitors. That comes from a combination of its own experience and the accumulation of knowledge within the Samworth Brothers group.
“Most of the companies in our supply chain have been in the business as long as we have. They have grown up with it and recognise what is required,” says Mark. “Good relationships and strong communications are important.
We communicate our stock control schematic with our suppliers’ stock control people daily.” A lot of the supplies are sourced locally, although pasta comes from Italy and chopped tomatoes originate in Spain.
“A lean supply chain is about getting forecasting right, ordering right and delivery time’s right,” he explained. “It’s quite a precise science — we get anything up to 35-40 deliveries a day. All deliveries are booked in advance — some are for materials we need at a certain time, in order to get the process through.” Packaging is bought-in and is mostly microwavable or oven-tolerant C-PET. Most products have cardboard sleeves, ordering of which is also a sophisticated process. “We don’t want too many at any time — a product line might be delisted by our customers and we would not like to be left with 10-12 weeks of stock! Six to eight weeks’ supply is the norm.” Ready-meals enjoy pretty steady demand, year-round, although some particular lines may see a seasonal dip from time to time — fewer people are interested in shepherd’s pie in the summer, for example. That means that labour needs are also pretty steady, which removes one headache.
Five years ago, when Saladworks moved into ready-meals, forecasting relied heavily on the retailer customers. Now, the company relies more on its own experience; it understands pretty well what the forecasts look like.
“When we have a new product launch, we still use retailer information, primarily,” he continued. “A product may, for example, be launched into 300 stores, at 10 units per store.” Deliveries are made seven days a week. “Less stock is ordered Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, then there is a significant pick-up on Wednesday and Thursday, ready for the big sale days, which are Friday and Saturday.”
Saladworks’ operations are largely manual, rather than being automated, which fits in with the factory itself. When it was originally constructed, pre-packed salads were the intended product and the level of automation was not as high as some other areas. This turned out to be a benefit, as the switch to ready-meals was not complicated by the presence of specialised machinery.
“We have people and that is one of our core strengths,” says Mark. “We assemble over 100 different products a day, so changeovers are key. We don’t want big automated lines, for that reason.” Saladworks’ standard ready-meal production runs can be quite short — maybe just half an hour or so in some cases. “We don’t want to spend a lot of money on equipment that won’t pay for itself. People are flexible – but we are looking at automation where we can drive efficiency. As the business matures the range inevitably expands to include products that lend themselves to automation. The factory is big enough, if we develop core products that are produced in volume.”
Investing in improvement
Saladworks has invested in increased capacity at its Leicester plant and has plans for improving efficiency.
“Really, we are just getting started on formal business improvement processes,” says Mark. “We have over 60 of our team leaders and front line staff going through the process. Over the next six months, four groups of 16 front-line operatives will be progressing towards NVQ qualifications. We are not calling it black belt, Six Sigma, Lean or World-Class Manufacturing, we want to keep it simple, with small, incremental continuous improvement steps.” Saladworks is using a training provider and has obtained some government funding for its NVQ courses. The ultimate objective is always customer satisfaction, which applies to both the end consumer and the retailer.
“We have a very open, very involved relationship. It’s about quality and customer service, so we are continually talking about getting the basics right,” says Mark. “As we get continuous improvement bedded in, we will get more efficient at making our products, improving yield and cutting waste. We are passionate about this, we aren’t seeking to change things overnight – we want it to be driven from the bottom up.
We’re focused on getting things right, delivering 100 per cent service to our customers, ensuring health and safety standards and delivering consistent quality. Our change of direction five years ago was about quality and service. It still is today.”