For 35 years, Lancashire farmer Colin Bradley has put consistency at the heart of his potato growing enterprise.
His passion and drive to put the consumer first has seen the farm grow from a relatively small growing operation into a multi-faceted business, which now sees his products available on supermarket shelves and chip shops across the UK.
From seed to finished potato, the entire process takes place at the home of Fylde Fresh and Fabulous, Weeton, Preston.
Major investment has enabled the business to expand and build an impressive potato peeling and processing plant, ensuring it has control from first planting to final chips, which make their way to more than 400 chip shops around the country.
And although famed for its Triple F Chips brand, the business provides potatoes for the ready-meal market, which has continued to grow, giving the farm another outlet for its produce.
In early 2005, Colin drew on the expertise of his former bank manager David Linton, who has since become a director of the business. David shared Colin’s passion for the industry and, so Fylde Fresh and Fabulous was born.
David says: “We started off with a business plan. We wanted to just be 100 per cent chips, but we found the business was not evolving as quickly as we hoped.”
The pair quickly realised they needed to explore the European market to assess whether their business plans could become a reality.
They toured various potato growing and manufacturing units across Poland to gain a better understanding of the market.
On returning to the UK, they secured a £300,000 Process Marketing Grant from the EU, which was 30 per cent of the capital costs needed to build a state-of-the-art peeling plant.
David says: “While we were building our [peeling] factory, Colin had been supplying another processor in Bradford, which had entered into administration.
“We bought this business out of administration and it got us into the factories which make ready-meals for supermarkets.”
Because the business is accredited by the British Retail Consortium, it allows easier market access, he says.
“This gave us a higher market of accreditation and protocol.”
Potatoes go through a strict grading process following peeling
Chipping and ready-meal markets are core to the farm business
Colin and David saw the potential in the booming ready-meal market and started to focus efforts on this sector, as well as continuing their successful chipping enterprise.
Taking control of the supply chain was a key factor in the pair’s ambitious expansion plans, as this enabled them to manage both risk and quality of the end product.
“We start with the consumer and understand the supply chain back from there,” adds Colin, who started his farming career as a tenant farmer milking about 60 cows.
He turned his attentions to potato production in the early 1980s because he saw the crop as a higher value product.
Colin and David’s market research revealed their competitors did not focus on quality of potatoes, but instead used waste potatoes in many branded ready-meals.
Colin says: “We are not the cheapest. You cannot have a dedicated supply chain growing a consistent product which is as cheap as someone who uses waste potatoes.”
As a McCain’s grower for more than two decades, Colin has always prided himself on crop quality, regardless of which market it is destined for.
He says: “It is all about identifying what consumers want and trying to deliver it.”
While product differentiation is practically impossible in mash potato, the Fylde Fresh brand has continued to deliver the high standard it is renowned for.
Colin says, while other companies were selling waste potatoes for use in ready-meals, it meant there was no consistency in the product.
He says: “There are two reasons potatoes are grown – one is for appearance and the other is for content.
“Appearance potatoes go for the packhouse and supermarkets, while content potatoes are for the likes of McCain.”
As some companies use packhouse waste potatoes for ready-meals, the lack of consistency enables Fylde Fresh to steal a match on its rivals.
“Because of our consistency, our potatoes are available for use all-year-round,” says Colin, who farms 174 hectares (430 acres), plus further rented land in the North West.
Through market research, Colin and David found quality measurements for both crisps and chips, but no measurement for quality mash potato.
By setting a protocol whereby only a consistent potato was used, they found they could produce a better standard of mash.
Colin says: “If you have a bad meal experience, you may never revisit.
“There is not enough attention given to this [in ready-meals], and we feel it is unacceptable to have a bad meal experience.
“We want to understand our market, which takes some doing, and I feel the industry as a whole spends so much time and money on how to produce potatoes, but nothing on how to utilise them.”
David says: “We look at the end market grow for it.”
With David’s experience from the banking sector and Colin’s potato procurement knowledge, they believe their attributes complement each others and have helped to grow the business into what it is today.
Simon Butcher brought his expertise from the crisp manufacturing sector to Fylde Fresh in 2009 and became the company’s third director, leaving London to take on the role.
Sam Paterson, farm manager
Another important addition to the team came in the form of farm manager Sam Paterson, who joined the enterprise about six years ago.
With the help of Simon, Sam runs the potato growing side of the business, which is a balancing act according to variety.
Sam says: “Different varieties are suited to different soil types. This all links back from the end product. We work back from the target date for harvest.”
As the focus is on quality over quantity, Sam says yield is almost irrelevant when it comes to the crop.
He says: “Our aim is to meet quality and yield comes after it.
“If we produce 30 tonnes which is not worth processing, then there is little point.”
Some potatoes go in to store and some are used straight after harvest. The grading process is strict to ensure quality remains high.
Sam says: “Everything we work towards is based on dry matter, due to the market we are selling to.
“Potatoes come off the field and on to the grading line. They are then put into short-term storage.
“We grade them on the harvester and then grade them in the store. You do not want to put anything in to store which is defected.
“When they are brought out of store, they go back over the grader, are sized depending on the job, and then they are put into a box ready for the factory.”
The business is always looking for new market entry points and Colin believes the addition of a pre-cooked chip to its offering would open up more market opportunities.
Colin says: “You have to know the supply chain to plan for the future. This takes a lot of research.”
Outside the business, David runs his own chip shop in Chester, which has enabled him to test ideas out on the general public.
He says: “If there is an issue with chips, for example if a consumer says we are not peeling them enough, I can feed the information back to Fylde Fresh.”
David has used the chip shop to nutritionally test a standard portion of chips, after feeling negative publicity around the product was damaging the industry.
He says: “Our analysis found there is less than six per cent fat in a standard portion of chips.
“An American study of 1,000 grossly obese people found in six months, the potato calorie intake was less than three per cent of the total calories consumed.
“Yet, when you see photos of obese people, they are always shown with chips.
“I think a lot more education is needed in promoting good practice and the importance of a healthy and balanced diet.”
Colin adds: “I see there are a lot of wrong messages which go out about chips and potatoes.
“We have to market ourselves, as we are competing against a large competition of fast food chains, so differentiating ourselves is vital.”