Its crunch time for Yorkshire crisp lovers
PUBLISHED: 12:38 06 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:45 20 February 2013
The humble Yorkshire spud is making big waves in the crisp world thanks to a new hyperlocal company. Chris Titley bags the story
Four years ago Tony Bishop was dragging bits of abandoned machinery out of nettlefilled ditches. He was salvaging them for use in the factory of the Yorkshire Crisp Company, then being put together on a shoestring.
Today those crisps are on sale in Fortnum & Mason and have been described by the head chef at the Ritz Hotel as 'the best I have ever tasted'. This lip-smacking success story is a credit to the tenacity of Tony and his team, to the farmers who supply them with the finest local potatoes - and to the quality and versatility of the humble Yorkshire spud itself.
Only potatoes grown in the Broad Acres are eligible to be sliced, fried and packed in the company's distinctive 50g bags and 100g tubs - and all the packaging is made in Yorkshire too. 'We don't have to look outside Yorkshire to run a successful crisp company,' says Tony, the managing director.
His determination to go local is not based purely on principle but makes good business sense. Yorkshire exudes has an 'earthy credibility' which is trusted nationwide and around the world. And we have an abundance of good land and farming expertise on our very own doorstep. 'Yorkshire's a fantastic agricultural county,' he said.
'In the south of Yorkshire we're blessed with a range of soils that go from heavy clay to light sand which warms up early and allows you to get an early potato crop.' Tony knows farming - he used to run a cattle herd for Sheffield businessman Ashley Turner before the BSE outbreak devastated the industry 20 years ago.
He left agriculture to go into publishing in Nottingham, only to team up with Ashley again when he proposed launching a crisp company. The sector is dominated by PepsiCo, which owns brands like Walkers,Wotsits and Nik Naks. But it is worth 1.6 billion a year. They reckoned they'd only need a sliver of that market to make a profit. Their target: the ever-more sophisticated palate of the nation's wine drinkers.
'We wanted to create a range of flavours that complemented a drink without overpowering it,' Tony said. Only completely natural flavours were to be used. No chemical additives or monosodium glutamate (MSG) in Yorkshire Crisps, but the real taste of black pepper, cheddar and caramelised onion chutney or basil and mozzarella, to name but three.
When Royal Ascot was moved to York in 2005 a hamper company asked Yorkshire Crisps to create a flavour to accompany their smoked salmon sandwiches. Chardonnay wine vinegar was the result. More recently the distinctly Sheffield taste of Henderson's Relish was added to the range.
That won its category at the Excellence in Food and Drink Awards last November. They aimed for the luxury market, and they have hit the target. Not only does Fortnum & Mason stock Yorkshire Crisps, so do Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and the 12 West End theatres owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber. As for the Ritz, 'they charge six quid for a serving, brought to your table on a silver platter by a liveried footman,' Tony said. But packs are also on sale at farm shops throughout Yorkshire and recently made their debut in Morrisons.
Such broad appeal is down to the quality of the product, Tony believes, which in turn comes from their attention to detail. The company uses three varieties of spud: Courage, which is lifted in late July or early August; Hermes, the main crop, lifted in September and October; and Lady Claire, harvested in October and carefully stored for use a few months down the line.
Much of farmer Simon Hinchliffe's Hermes crop is turned into Yorkshire Crisps. His family has been growing potatoes on Newhall Grange Farm, east of Rotherham, for three generations. Nowadays the crop only takes up about 50 of the 1,700 acres. The miners and their large families who ate a lot of spuds have gone.
And although Yorkshire folk 'eat more crisps per capita than anywhere else' according to Simon, most of the raw ingredients are sourced more cheaply elsewhere by the likes of PepsiCo. But Yorkshire Crisps are more about quality than price, and Simon was delighted to come on board.
'We're really proud to be associated with a good quality product which has Yorkshire labelled all over it,' he said. 'If I'm in the pub and see a pack I say "We grew those".' In an era when people are growing uneasy about ingredients flown halfway across the world, this is food production with a tiny carbon footprint. Simon's potatoes are taken from the field to Tony's factory nine miles away at Wales Bar by tractor.
With its near 1 million turnover and six full-time staff, the Yorkshire Crisp Company has a long way to go to catch up with Seabrook Crisps. Bradford-based Seabrook employs 130 and its turnover is set to hit 20 million in 2009. It will use up about 24,000 tonnes of potatoes in the process - about half of which are grown in Yorkshire. 'We're trying to build some good longterm relationships with growers,' says John Tague, managing director of Seabrook Crisps.
'I've tried to meet most of them.We want to buy as much as we can from Yorkshire.' The company was founded after the war by Colin Brook - or C Brook. For the last 25 years, long before the bigger manufacturers caught up, Seabrook crisps have been cooked in healthier sunflower oil. Quality is important to Seabrook. There's no MSG or genetically-modified ingredients and the crisps are relatively low in salt.
'It came from the guy who started the business, Colin Brook, who insisted on only the best ingredients.We wanted the best crisp on the market,' said John. The crinkle-cut Seabrook crisps have long been enjoyed up here. Now the message is reaching other parts of our crisp-crunching kingdom.
'We do sell better in Yorkshire than anywhere else. However the best growth we're seeing currently is in London and the South West, and we're also seeing phenomenal growth in the North East.' A new Hot & Spicy range has done well and John says too look out for some new flavours. 'We've got two more ideas we're working on. They're very innovative - if we can pull them off.'