WHEN it comes to Christmas confectionery, Yorkshire really does take the (chocolate) biscuit.
Of the tonnes of biscuits that will be dunked, dipped and devoured over the festive period, many will have originated in the West Yorkshire town of Batley, the home of Fox’s Biscuits and the UK’s unofficial cookie capital.
A remarkable 1.5 billion biscuits roll off the Fox’s production lines at Batley each year, many of which are destined to find their way to our homes packaged as a traditional Christmas assortment in a celebratory tin.
Biscuits have been sold in tins for over 200 years and have become a part of our national psyche: there is something uplifting and edifying about opening up a full metal jacket of chocolate-coated comestibles, as troops in both World Wars and families across the country will testify.
Fox’s will sell five million tins of biscuits this Christmas, plus ‘several million’ more packaged and branded for a high-end high street retailer.
Although Fox’s also manufacture biscuits at two other modern installations at Kirkham near Blackpool and Uttoxeter in Staffordshire, their premium products are made at Batley in a sprawling, complex factory that has more than a touch of Willy Wonka about it.
Set on a steep hill rising high above the mill town, the factory is built on five levels at the heart of which is the site of the original building from the 1920s. Throughout the factory, conveyor belts snake between the various floors transporting serried ranks of biscuits between ovens, coolers and chocolate-coating stations before wending their way towards the packing and dispatch areas.
It’s a very logical, gravity-fed process: the raw materials of flour, granulated sugar, caster sugar, butter, chocolate and palm oil plus ‘inclusions’ such as chocolate chips, cranberries, dried fruit and nuts, arrive at the top of the hill and work their way down before emerging at the bottom transformed into some of the nation’s favourite snacks.
Whilst the process of biscuit making in Batley will be familiar to every home baker, its sheer scale is mindblowing. During the course of a year more than 80,000 12-kilo blocks of butter, 7,000 tonnes of flour and 4,000 tonnes of sugar are creamed together to form a variety of doughs.
These are then shaped, baked, coated and cooled via a series of monster ovens and coolers, many over 30 metres in length, en route to the packaging department.
Along the way a rigorous quality assurance protocol is followed with biscuits tested across a range of measures, including weight, dimension, moisture levels and consistency.
“Historically the biscuits would have been tested by specialist tasters during manufacture and though the process is more scientific now, we still employ tasters to make sure our products are perfect,” said Tom Phillips, the Operations Support Manager at Fox’s.
“Over the years the way we operate has changed subtly but the process would still be recognisable by the company’s founder Michael Spedding, who set up Fox’s Biscuits here in Batley in 1853.”
In a wonderful nod to tradition, Fox’s still manufacture in Batley the first biscuit Spedding produced 162 years ago using the same recipe, although ironically the product isn’t technically a biscuit at all.
Brandy snaps, one of Fox’s biggest sellers at Christmas, are made from circles of flat batter which are baked in 90-year-old ovens and rolled on modern machinery into their traditional curly shape.
Legend has it that after being left with a surplus of brandy snap batter after one bake, as an experiment Spedding tossed in a few scoops of flour, some additional flavouring and put the result back in a hot oven. Twenty minutes later ginger nuts were born: tea breaks would never be the same again.
As important as tradition is, Fox’s is a progressive, modern manufacturer in all aspects of its business. For all the familiarity of the biscuits in every tin, Fox’s make around 50 product changes and launch at least one major new product launch every year.
Many of the changes are cosmetic but of the 12 or so types of biscuits in each variety assortment, several are replaced annually to keep the tins fresh and in tune with changing tastes.
“Because there’s usually a 12-month gap between purchase, our customers don’t mind a change from what they bought the previous Christmas,” said Phillips. “We are very proud of the brand loyalty our customers have and we want to give them what they want.”
As sales of biscuit tins are holding up each Christmas, it’s clear that Fox’s strategy is working.
Nowhere is Fox’s blend of modernity and tradition more apparent than in the packing department , where rows of men and women work alongside high-tech robot pickers undertaking the identical role of inserting biscuits in the right position in their tins.
The whole process could be entirely mechanised but the eye-watering cost of installing robotic machines, together with the seasonal nature of biscuit sales, mean that Fox’s is likely to remain one of the town’s biggest employers for the foreseeable future.
“We have a permanent workforce of 800 people here at Batley but that increases to 1,200 by early December,” said Phillips. “The Christmas ‘rush’ can start as early as July but because many of our products have a short shelf life it’s usually later in the year before we really gear up.
“Things start to quieten down by late November but because of the number of last-minute orders we receive, we retain many of our seasonal staff well into December.”
The popularity of Fox’s Biscuits is international, especially amongst ex-pat communities, and the company is keen to develop this side of the business, although there
“We don’t export in significant volumes but this is an area we are looking to expand upon,” said Phillips.
“Our products are very popular in countries like Australia, Canada and new Zealand and they remain a big target for us. It’s important that we play to our strengths: we have some great products and are confident we can sell them around the globe.
“Our biscuits are the best in the world: why would we want to make anything else?”
A fair point. Time to put the kettle on.