We have a three-year plan to double the size of our business," says an excited Délifrance MD Ian Dobbie, having just cut the ribbon on a spanking new bake-off plant in Wigston, near Leicester. Having topped the £40m turnover mark at the end of last year, this represents a major kick-on for the business, which has seen around 15-20% year-on-year growth for the past decade. Until now, the firm has been largely perceived as a frozen par-bake specialist, but this is set to change, with a renewed assault on the packaged morning goods category, armed with a new ability to fully bake-off its own products.

The first year of that three-year plan culminated this month with the opening of Délifrance’s new 3,000sq m bake-off factory, built alongside the existing 4,000sq m frozen par-baked production facility. Known simply as Délifrance 2, it produces fully-baked croissants, pains au chocolat, and pains aux raisins in standard and mini sizes and will soon add brioches to the repertoire. The facility will turn out 20 million croissants a year with a five-day shelf life, as part of its ambitions to steal market share in retail, foodservice and wholesale.

This capacity is on top of what is now being called Délifrance 1 - the existing site that employs 130 people, producing 60 different frozen speciality breads from scratch. The major change, therefore, is that the company can now supply baked products fresh into stores, rather than having to bake them via third-party bakeries, giving it much more control over production and availability. It also offers a stronger foothold in the wrapped morning goods category, serviced by plant producers.

The major reason for opening the plant was to bake off products for Waitrose’s own-label packaged Viennoiserie. "We wanted to offer something different for the retail market, especially Waitrose," says Dobbie. "We thought that, with their reputation, their bread fixture should be different and we said we were prepared to put in a new bakery to deliver it."

Now the capability is in place, Dobbie says the longer-term plan is to extend its supply into other retailers. "Our first priority has been Waitrose, which has been very supportive and committed to growing our retail business. We can then look at going further into other retail partners or, with the addition of an in-line freezer on-site, provide thaw-and-serve products for foodservice."

The major differentiator in this highly competitive marketplace is the French origin of the products, allowing retailers to make provenance claims on-pack, says Dobbie. Teresa Lindley, category controller of bakery for Waitrose, tells BB that the provenance of the product - which is shipped in pre-proved and frozen from France - fits the retailer’s plans for its packaged morning goods.

"We have taken Délifrance croissants and pains au chocolat for two to three years," explains Lindley. "Délifrance has the process in-house. It’s a product that is made in France, it’s authentic, and it’s now baked-off by Délifrance, so it really is a fresh product made to the highest standards."

For Dobbie, the move complements its existing in-store bakery offer, because it can now provide products that appeal to a different consumer - those who buy packs to take home for weekend consumption.

"We now think we have the best of both worlds, because we can take authentic, high-quality French products, and then add value by baking them and distributing them fresh in a convenient plant bakery format," he says.

The next step will be adding on extra shifts to build capacity at the first unit, before eventually branching into the other two units. "We’re very excited at the way things have gone and I would hope that, by this time next year, we’re on our next phase of investment," he says. "I’ve noticed a spring in people’s steps around the place, because the investment shows that we’re going places."


=== Going shopping for new kit ===

"The new production site is not fully automated," says MD Ian Dobbie. "The way to add value to products is flexibility, so we opted for a degree of manual handling and have employed 25 new staff."

New factory equipment includes:

l an Acrivarn prover, custom-built to take 80 racks; an Acrivarn egg washer for use with free-range eggs; and an Acrivarn cooling system

l five MIWE two-rack roll-in ovens perform six bakes per hour of various products

l Loma metal detectors, which ensure no unwanted metal enters the product

l a Fuji horizontal form-fill packaging machine that is belt-driven as opposed to chain

l a Markem smart data coder puts on the vital bar code and other information.


=== Pushing provenance ===

Délifrance is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its brand in the UK this year and the provenance of its French-made product is playing a key role in its future market positioning. The firm is a subsidiary of the French Nutrixo group, which is partly owned by farming co-operatives and partly by its own employees. Indeed, every employee has a chance to buy a share in the business, if desired. "This gives it an entrepreneurial feel, as employees then have an interest in the business and its success," says Dobbie.

Nutrixo has milling and production operations, which, together with its connections to farming co-operatives, give it complete control over the supply chain, from developing new varieties of wheat for baking, to training the next generation of craft bakers at the Ecole de Boulangerie et de Patisserie de Paris. It also has its own internal certification process for full traceability. The products to be baked-off in the new Wigston facility are produced and frozen in Bethune, northern France, one of five Viennoiserie factories in the group, each making different products.

Having total traceability of supply is paramount in today’s marketplace, states Dobbie. "More importantly, it gives us a confidence in the consistency of the products. And for that you need a reliable source. That gives us a strength against some of our competitors, who buy in from a variety of sources; we know where all ours come from and that’s our unique point of difference."

The firm’s best-selling product in the UK is its Charentes croissant - made with Charentes butter from Normandy. All the products use the group’s Grands Moulins de Paris flour. French miller Sebastien Canceil, from the firm’s Euromill Nord in the Champagne region, will be travelling to Leicester over the next two months to aid the transition of the new wheat crop through production.

l Délifrance has launched a Jumbo Pain au Chocolat (pictured), with a double bar of dark chocolate, aimed at providing convenience for caterers, cafés, sandwich bars and hotels. Together with the Délifrance Viennoiserie range, it can be baked from frozen in a preheated oven at 175?C for 15-18 minutes.