Seabrook Crisps - the famous crinkle cut crisps from Yorkshire

PUBLISHED: 00:01 22 September 2014 | UPDATED: 18:02 27 May 2016

Freshly fried crisps

Freshly fried crisps

Archant

The family behind Seabrook Crisps talks to Jo Haywood about the past, present and future of this iconic Yorkshire brand

Lattice Sweet ChilliLattice Sweet Chilli

People across Yorkshire claim ownership of Seabrook Crisps in Bradford. They’re the county’s crisps, provoking fierce loyalty and equally fierce debate over which flavour is the best (it’s cheese and onion, so let’s have no more bickering).

But while thousands of customers stake their claim, there’s only one family who actually has the right to call the company its own.

Four generations of the Brook family have built the business into a powerhouse performer over seven decades (the company celebrates its 70th anniversary next year), beginning with Charles Brook – who named his first company Seabrook Fish & Chips after a clerical error mangled C Brook in a way he found both appealing and appropriate. It expanded under the philanthropic guidance of his son Colin, and is now enjoying great success under chairman and owner Ken Brook, who’s married to Colin’s daughter Jane, part of a trio of directors alongside daughters Sam and Charlotte.

Charles was already running a popular fish and chip shop when his son returned from the Second World War after serving in the Navy. Fat was rationed and, while chippies were soldiering on, crisp manufacturers were struggling to supply their customers. The answer was ridiculously simple: chippies could use the hot fat left at the end of the night to fry up batches of crisps to sell the following day.

Crisps are packedCrisps are packed

‘They were sold in unsealed paper bags,’ Jane explained. ‘Our fish and chip restaurant at the time was what you might describe as a black tie place. It was very classy. It had a deli counter for wet fish and my grandfather displayed his fresh, handcrafted crisps on top. It was such a novelty that it really caught on.’

Charles and Colin spotted an opportunity and invested in some tin boxes to transport their crisps to local events, most often sheep dog trials where hungry customers were a given.

‘Colin realised the fish and chip shop wasn’t big enough to sustain the crisp business so he bought a one-up, one-down and installed a kettle fryer upstairs,’ said Ken. ‘Later, the Liberal Club in Allerton became available and he launched his first factory. This was 1955 – a real game-changing year for the business.’

Seabrook Crisps began to make their mark in Bradford as the family invested in vans to deliver them to pubs, shops and door-to-door. Charles retired to Jersey – he was set on buying Harry Ramsden’s but his wife had other ideas – and Colin took the company to the next level.

Ken BrookKen Brook

‘He was naturally very philanthropic,’ said Ken. ‘His big passion was for employing people. Basically, he wanted to make sure that no one in Allerton was unemployed. And he wouldn’t have anyone out of pocket. Like when the poll tax was introduced; he gave all his staff enough money to pay it because he thought it was unfair.’

But his philanthropy came at a cost. Seabrook became massively over-staffed as Colin found a job for everyone who turned up at the factory door, a decision that inevitably started eating into profits and stifling investment.

‘He had 390 staff and a turnover of £12 million; we now have 120 staff and a turnover of £30 million,’ said Ken. ‘And that’s not down to increased mechanisation.

‘In Colin’s day, there were nine levels of management. He had people watching people watching people. He made a lot of money and enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle and that was enough for him. But it wasn’t necessarily what was best for the business.’

Jane describes her father as a ‘workaholic, stubborn, risk-taking, alpha male’ but he was also a dedicated family man who delighted in his children and grandchildren and who liked to live a quiet life without the fanfare that usually greets a prominent local employer.

‘He was a very private person and liked to stay anonymous,’ she said. ‘He would often pretend to be one of the warehouse men if anyone came in the yard asking for him. He was not someone who liked to draw attention to himself.’

Sadly, Colin died in 2000, just eight weeks after being diagnosed with cancer. His family was distraught but they knew they couldn’t let their grief affect the way they ran the business he had worked so hard to build.

Difficult decisions had to be made – including drastically reducing the number of employees – and business hurdles had to be leapt while keeping the company on the level.

One such a hurdle – a whopper in fact – was Jamie Oliver’s 2005 school dinners campaign during which he decreed that schools should no longer offer crisps.

‘It was devastating,’ said Ken. ‘We have always prided ourselves on our healthy crisps – we introduced sunflower oil decades before anyone else, we have no MSG, we’re gluten-free and we only use natural flavourings. But none of that was taken into consideration.

‘At the time, a third of our turnover came from schools. On the Friday, we had 18 vans; by Monday we’d had to let eight go. His pronouncement meant our turnover went from £16 million to £11 million overnight.’

But the family-run firm fought back. Ken bought the business in 2006 and immediately set about diversifying its market base and installing an enthusiastic, knowledgeable team at the top, including former Vimto managing director Jonathan Bye and marketing man Kevin Butterworth who left Kellogg’s to join Seabrook.

The turnaround has not been problem-free, with heavily-discounted rivals, supermarket skulduggery and rocketing costs in potatoes, oil and flavourings all causing headaches along the way. But one thing has remained constant throughout – their customers’ passion for the brand.

‘We had a complaints department but we were getting more compliments than complaints,’ said Ken. ‘People would actually phone in just to tell us how much they were enjoying their bag of crisps.’

Even celebrity chef James Martin is a fan, dropping everything to cook a celebratory meal for Ken’s birthday simply because of his Seabrook connection.

‘I actually saw James at a service station a few weeks later and he came over and said: “They don’t stock Seabrook’s so I haven’t bought any crisps”,’ said Sam. ‘He even offered to let me check his bag.’

The company’s new tagline ‘Lovingly made in Yorkshire’ sums up what they do perfectly. But maybe it should also have the addendum ‘Lovingly eaten in Yorkshire’ too. As a county, we’re obsessed.

‘It’s very flattering that people care so much about our products and our company,’ said Ken. ‘It’s lovely to think we’re the custodians of something held so dear by the people of Yorkshire.’

But just because they’re proud of their heritage doesn’t mean they’re stuck in the past. The Brooks are a forward-thinking clan, always on the lookout for new ideas and pioneering new products.

They recently added lattice-cut crisps to their portfolio and are currently working on a top secret new snack for early 2015 which they revealed is going to be ‘seriously healthy’ (although they threatened to chuck me in the potato slicer if I let slip any more).

Which brings us quite neatly to the most important question of all: if they were forced to choose just one packet from their range, what flavour would they opt for? ‘Cheese and onion,’ said Jane, without so much as a flicker of hesitation. ‘No, no, no – it’d have to be sweet chilli,’ said Ken, reaching for another handful from the bowl handily placed in front of him.

He then told me the mystery ingredient that gives his favourite sweet chilli crisps their special sweetness. I could tell you but, to be honest, you probably wouldn’t believe me. And anyway, it’s my Seabrook secret and, like a packet of cheese and onion, I’m not sharing it with anyone.

Quick bites

:: Seabrook processes about 16,000 tonnes of potatoes a year from farms in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Norfolk.

:: It mainly uses Lady Claire and Lady Jo, with a few additional Hermes and Rosetta, to make a light crisp that, in its own words, offers ‘two bites and a melt in the mouth’.

:: The company uses tumble flavouring systems with electrostatics. The crisps are given a positive charge and the drums of flavourings a negative charge to ensure the two are attracted for an even coating on each and every crisp.

:: It became Britain’s first crinkle cut crisp brand in the Fifties, and was the first to start using sunflower oil for cooking in 1980.

:: Seabrook invented Worcester sauce flavour crisps in 1975 after Charles tasted it in a restaurant and decided it would be great on his tatties.

:: Before he went home every evening, Charles Brook would put an upturned glass and a packet of crisps on his desk for the following day (a different flavour for every day of the week).

:: The company held the Guinness World Record in 2004 for the largest packet of crisps. It weighed 51.35kg and measured 1.79m high.

:: Sam Brook – now a director and probably mortified that we’re even mentioning this – used to sing over the tannoy to people working in the factory after school from the age of three.



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