A few weeks back I was invited to attend a factory tour and visit to the Thorntons factory and head office, up in Derbyshire. Not a huge fan of their more established product ranges, I am open minded – they have a (relatively) new head of development who I know is keen to add ranges that appeal to a different palate. So I was delighted to go along and learn more.
On arriving at the Alfreton site, we were greeted by Emma Tagg, the PR Manager, who ensured we were properly suited and booted (OK, white coats, blue plastic shoe covers and very fetching white hair nets not to mention ear protectors) before being taken on a factory tour.
The tour was fascinating, not least because this is a genuine working factory, with no concessions for hoardes of tourists – our little group were lead around by Ian Clay, the Technical Manager. And we were clearly as much of a curiosity for staff as they were for us!
What struck me most strongly during the tour was how much is still done by hand. Yes, there are fancy machines that are fascinating to watch, but there are also many, many processes that need skilled, human labour. Knowing how big Thorntons are, and how much they must therefore produce, it was actually quite a surprise to me to learn that they still use so many traditional techniques – whether boiling up, tipping out and spreading fudge or spreading chocolate evenly inside plastic moulds or applying chocolate details such as eyes to Easter rabbits and swirls to eggs.
Of course, it was fun being shown all the various different sections and processes, being talked through them by someone who is passionate, knowledgable and articulate. I was also interested in seeing some of the steps I hadn’t thought about – for example, for each recipe, whether it’s a praline filling or a turkish delight one, a team carefully weight out all the required ingredients according to a recipe sheet and lay them out onto a pallet. When we walked through the ingredients store I noticed boxes of free range eggs, butter in a cold store, fresh cream and milk. Perhaps wisely, they didn’t take us to the corner where champagne is decanted from bottles into larger containers ready to be used in their champagne truffles!
The atmosphere was calm and efficient and all the staff seemed to be very happy at their work, chatting to colleagues and manning their stations. Staff loyalty is clearly high and we were told that many of the staff stay with them for years, decades even. They believe in training and retaining staff and the commitment seems to be two way. It might sound odd that I am so surprised but I guess this is one of those occasions where I’ve been influenced by media “insights” into factories full of miserable staff, drained by their jobs and the environment. Minus mark for Kavey and her unfounded assumptions!
After pausing for a lovely pub lunch nearby, we next enjoyed a session with Keith Hurdman, Thorton’s master chocolatier. Keith joined the business only 18 months ago and has been hard at work to improve the product range and quality of products. As I discussed at lunch wtih Peter Wright, Marketing Director, Thorntons has a difficult task in that it must keep happy it’s large and loyal existing customer base, most of whom want to buy the same products they have known and loved for decades and a newly emerging and growing sector of the market who are looking for more sophisticated and adventurous chocolate. A huge challenge!
Keith introduced us to some of the chocolates he’s currently working on, only a few of which will likely make it into production. There were some that I absolutely loved, far more than the old product ranges, and the recently launched blocks. Fingers crossed that the white chocolate bar we all raved about makes it through to production and without any major changes.
We left with gifts of chocolate – a box of Melts and a box of their Metropolitan range, neither of which I’d tried before as well as a stunning special edition Easter box containing a limited edition designer egg, some smaller sidekick eggs in eggcups and a couple of those colourful blocks. The box itself is a thing of beauty, let alone the contents, and shall be gracing my brand new bedroom once emptied of it’s chocolate bounty.
So have I been converted? Well, whilst I liked the smoothness of the Melts, and their praline centre, like much of the range, I found them too sweet. The Metropolitan box I liked a lot more, though there isn’t much of a range, just lots of the same few chocolates. They can’t compete with my favourites such as Artisan du Chocolat or Paul A Young or, more recently Matcha Chocolat,but nor do they carry the same hefty price tag. I didn’t love the blocks I tried recently either.
But, I was excited by some of what I tasted in Keith’s development kitchen, though I know both from Keith’s own comments as well as a long (IT) project with the food development division of a large supermarket that many things tried by developers never make it to the shelves, and if they do, they’ve often been tweaked to use less expensive ingredients or less fiddly production methods. I shall certainly keep my eyes and tastebuds open!