Long before Peter Kay uttered the immortal line in Phoenix Nights, "Garlic bread - it’s the future, I’ve tasted it!" a Northern Irish bakery was having the very same flashbulb epiphany.
Portadown’s Evron Foods, which was established back in 1983 to supply raw frozen dough, has swept up over 90% of the Northern Irish garlic breads market since it became an early adopter of the now-familiar product in 1987. Since then, it has diversified its speciality breads, supplying some major customers - not least, the high street sandwich giant Subway.
But Northern Ireland is only one part of the success story, accounting for just 7% of Evron’s business in the year to August 2006. Instead, the bulk of products was supplied to Great Britain and represented some 65% of the firm’s £15 million turnover. In August last year, it opened up a new production plant in South Wales to boost capacity and bring it closer to market.
The business now has three strands: packaged products for retail, whether branded Easibake or own-label; par-baked and frozen dough products for in-store bakeries; and foodservice, which includes Subway, restaurants and wholesalers. The biggest increase in the UK has been in its chilled business and there are imminent plans to produce added-value breads in the new Pontypool facility. "As a temperature-controlled supplier, we give the product life by either chilling or freezing it; with the ability to produce a fair volume and distribute safely, we’re a growing business," explains MD Morris Evans.
Evron dropped its pastry production in 1988 and is now focused solely on value-added breads with toppings and fillings. "There were a number of very large companies specialising in frozen pastries, and we found that we couldn’t offer an advantage, so we concentrated on the areas where we could," says Morris.
The time is now ripe for bake-off speciality breads market to take a step forwards, he believes. "We are developing specially-shaped breads with different fillings and toppings," says Morris. "Value-added breads in the market are mostly based around garlic and we’ve got to move forwards now. The variety of toppings can be added to, such as chargrilled vegetables, as well as injecting flavours other than butter and garlic."
Subway has been looking at increasing its bread offering, and Evron has been developing ways to extend the subs retailer’s offer with, among other things, a breakfast choice and a carrier for later in the evenings. Some urban Subway locations trade well into the early hours, and the range needs to reflect this, says marketing director Dominic Downey. "Subway has tasked us, along with the German manufacturer of Subway breads, to come up with ideas that will complement their sandwiches," he says.
Evron exclusively supplies a white and a brown bread frozen into Subway’s UK and Irish outlets, which are then topped in-store and baked-off to give a range of five breads - wheat, honey and oat, hearty Italian, Italian, and cheese and herbs. So how did Evron secure the three-year Subway rolling contract? "We were basically in the right place at the right time," says Downey. Evron was approached in 1991 and subsequently developed the bread products according to specifications issued from the States. Originally supplying just a single store in Dublin, Subway’s UK and Irish operations have since snowballed and the firm now has 780 stores, with a projected target of 2,010 shops by 2010.
inspired by US success
Initially, Subway’s European arm was born out of master franchisees inspired by the concept’s success in the US, who then imported it back home. Bread, meats, cheese and other ingredient suppliers needed to be sourced and Evron was among the original group. Following strong growth, Subway HQ has since introduced its own regional director to oversee European strategy.
"It has taken a lot of hard work to first establish and then develop the brand, but Subway is a great concept and everyone involved is passionate about it," says Downey. "In the last three to four years we have seen momentum really pick up. We’ve kept pace and grown as their business has grown - they’re a significant and valued customer."
All breads destined for Subway are shipped from Northern Ireland. As the US sandwich giant stampedes towards its growth targets, there is significant spare capacity in the new Pontypool plant to step up production. "A lot of our developments, both here and in Northern Ireland, clearly have Subway in mind and we provide a balance of capacity for their use," says Evans.
Financial support from the Welsh Development Agency and National Assembly for Wales played some role in its decision to set down roots in Wales, as well as quick access to the M4 and an easy route to Birmingham, London and the south. "One of the reasons we needed a GB-based manufacturing site was because we needed to be closer to the market," says Downey. "From a commercial point of view, that stretch of water between Ireland and the UK mainland adds both cost and time."
With two Mecatherm French bread lines already installed, the facility has space to house double the amount of equipment and that capacity could be doubled again by extending the facility. "We are about a quarter of where we want to be with machinery on the Pontypool site. We will look at more development this year," says Morris.
Evron is taking speciality breads into the in-store bakery and has developed frozen bread dough products for Asda, including tear-and-share. Proved and baked-off in-store, they allow retailers to extend their range without having to make from scratch. They are then sold on the ambient shelves.
"We have developed some tear-and-share breads that we sell into one of the key supermarkets, which are supplied frozen and baked-off and sold on the ambient shelves. That adds a couple of days’ shelf life," says Downey. "We’re giving retailers a ready-made product, and there is a growing demand for that in the in-store bakery. We’re ready to extend that further."
Downey anticipates that its retail business in the UK will increase. "Apart from Asda, we also deal with Netto, Musgrave Budgens Londis and Waitrose. But we don’t deal with all the big retailers at present. It’s our plan to be a supplier to as many of the key players as we can, not forgetting our existing customer base which has helped us get where we are. We have had some customers for 20 years and haven’t lost sight of where we came from."
Flavour trends are favouring Mediterranean and Mexican-inspired bakery products, with jalapeños, chillies and sun-dried tomatoes increasingly used, he says. "Supermarkets are looking for that indulgent product that consumers might buy at the weekend. When developing breads, we look at the whole meal occasion and ask ourselves how would the product fit into that meal experience?"
Like many other bakery manufacturers, health is a big consideration for Evron; it has reduced salt, fat and taken out hydrogenated and trans fats from its traditional garlic bread range. Functional breads, such as a low-GI bread, are also being considered. "We have the opportunity to develop significantly with our new site," says Downey. "We’re hungry to develop business and we have a history of putting investment and resources in place in anticipation of our future business needs. There is still a long way for us to go. We don’t expect our competitors to roll over and let us take business off them, but we’re here to stay. n
=== Evron Foods at a glance ===
History: Started out supplying par-baked breads, frozen doughs and pastries to in-store bakeries in Northern Ireland. It progressed onto specialising in garlic bread and dropped the pastry side of the business.
Locations: 120,000sq ft in Portadown, Northern Ireland; 40,000sq ft in Pontypool, South Wales
Ownership: private, run by MD Morris Evans
Products: Par-baked breads, raw frozen breads, value-added breads with toppings and fillings
Major customers: Subway, Asda, Waitrose
Supply split: Around 40% foodservice, 60% retailers
Staff: over 150 in Portadown, supplemented seasonally, and 40 in Pontypool