After taking over the family farm in Ely, Cambridgeshire, Ross Taylor decided he wanted to do something different, and with friend and business partner Rod Garnham set up Corkers Crisps.
The first Corkers Crisps were made from potatoes washed in a bath and sliced and fried by hand. But while the venture’s beginning was far from glamorous, three years on, business partners Ross Taylor and Rod Garnham have created a successful enterprise.
The Corkers Crisps story began with Mr Taylor’s quest to find a new market for the Naturalo potatoes grown by his family business. When he took over the family farm, the sole trade was with the wholesale fish and chip industry.
The original plan was to sell washed and packed potatoes, but despite investing about £50,000, the venture, launched in the middle of the recession, did not take off.
With that put on hold, the partners put on their thinking caps. The idea for Corkers Crisps came to them when eating a particularly bad packet of crisps on an Austrian ski slope.
Bearing in mind their previous experience, they spent the best part of a year doing market and consumer research for the new venture.
They already knew the Naturalo potatoes fried well and after a series of trial tastings, where potatoes where washed in the bath and prepared and fried by themselves, they were ready to hit the road to success.
The Naturalo potatoes, they say, provide them with a unique selling point - they are not commonly used by other crisp manufacturers as the variety costs more to grow than other varieties used for crisping, they produce lower yields and need handling and storing carefully because of their tendency to bruise more easily.
“Corkers are cut slightly thinner than standard hand-cooked chips and, as a result, are less abrasive to the mouth, but maintain the superior crunch,” says Mr Taylor.
“Quality is more important to us. The Naturalo potato brings out the unique taste of the crisp. Taste tests have shown testers can actually taste the potato - it’s not all flavouring.”
Two years on, the ambitious pair have gone from just the two of them working part time on the project to 25 full-time staff.
Confining all production to one site has cut down on food miles, which is something Mr Taylor feels consumers are increasingly concerned about.
Ten of the 25 staff work in the British Retail Consortium-accredited factory, which is where the secret of their success lies, says Mr Taylor.
“Rod’s engineering expertise has helped us build and invent a lot of equipment ourselves, improving efficiency and saving labour and time.
“The factory has the capacity to produce one million packets a week without further investment, but at the moment it is producing a quarter of a million packets per week,” says Mr Taylor.
The partners have invested roughly £1 million into Corkers, he says. All potatoes used for the crisps are home-grown.
The farm has 61 hectares (150 acres) of potatoes, half of which is used for Corkers Crisps and the rest is still sold to fish and chip shops direct.
The average potato yield off the organic peat soils is around 8.1 tonnes/ha (20t/acre) producing on average 3,000t per harvest.
Mr Taylor says crops were not affected by the past season’s bad weather. The peat soils are forgiving and well drained and yields were about average.
Potatoes are kept in modern temperature and humidity controlled stores to maintain year-round supply through to December.
“We like the barns to always be used, so we made sure they were built to be multi-purpose,” says Mr Taylor.
The aim is to put all 3,000t of potatoes through the factory next year, as the customer base continues to grow.
Mr Taylor says: “We chose to build the business on lots of independent outlets, rather than supermarkets, which can drop you so easily.
We chose to have the pain at the beginning trying to source customers than be dependent on a supermarket contract.”
Corkers supply crisps as far afield as Australia, including companies in Dubai, Denmark and America. The business sells to 1,000 independent customers, mainly delis and farm shops. It also has larger customers such as British Airways, for which it produces a 20g bag. Corkers crisps are also available in 40g and 150g bags.
The partners spent a lot of time on brand development and launched Corkers Crisps around the time of the Royal wedding, the Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the London Olympics.
Mr Taylor says: “We wanted it to be different, rather than plaster the Union Jack everywhere.
“There are personal stories behind each unique British symbol for us. The idea behind the design is that Corkers represents what we feel is great about Britain. We have designed Corkers to be a national brand.”The farm
The crisps enterprise is integrated within the wider business, with the potato stores used to house Gressingham ducks from December through to the end of January when demand for ducks is at its highest. Mr Taylor produces 50,000 ducks every seven weeks.
Potatoes and ducks are not the only two pies the partners have their fingers in - they also have relaunched their washed and packed potatoes and sell them direct to fish and chip shops, with the aim of helping chip shop owners to save on time and labour.
The two partners have also set up ‘Buffaload Logistics’, producing robots which they use through their own distribution company.
The distribution service delivers ambient and refrigerated loads mainly to the Co-op, with computer programs and systems which enable stock levels to be managed effectively.
Vehicles include 18 class one HGVs and four vans and the logistics operation employs 100 people.
Mr Taylor says: “We have recently started using waste oil from the factory in our trucks as biodiesel. Other than that, we have very little waste.”
Since taking over the family farm, Mr Taylor is now running three businesses with partner Mr Garnham, and employs 130 people - an incredible result considering it started with the two of them hand frying potatoes which had been washed in the bath.