Fresh food producer and processor Willowbrook Foods was recently named winner of the Best Innovation Award at the 2015 Best Business Awards, underlining the pioneering approach the Northern Ireland-based company has consistently demonstrated since its formation in 1968.
“As a company we’ve continually looked to evolve and expand our range thanks to our strong new product development department, whilst always remaining very quality orientated,” explains John McCann, Managing Director of the Willowbrook Group. “New product development is absolutely key to keeping the buyers’ interest. We have NPD technologists that work on expanding our range as well as improving our existing lines. This has been one of the key factors behind our ability to keep moving forward as a company.”
Over the years Willowbrook Foods has developed its range of products and is now the largest processor of lettuce bags and salads in Northern Ireland and Ireland. It produces a wide variety of fresh and ready-made products for the retail and foodservice markets with its product range including a variation of own-label and branded products. These include salad bags, prepared vegetables, stir-fries, noodles, farm-grown bean sprouts, mash, mayonnaise and sandwich fillers.
Willowbrook Foods’ forward-thinking approach came to the fore in the British Business Awards, which prides itself on having a large panel of over 20 independent expert judges who select winners according to strict criteria for each category and sector. Commenting on Willowbrook Foods’ award for Best Innovation, the chair of the judges said: “Willowbrook Foods has found a recipe for success by creating two unique food products: curry-flavoured mayonnaise and curry-flavoured coleslaw. The company drew on its expertise and ten-year experience in making its own mayonnaise to develop the new delicacies, which required considerable skill in creating the right consistency and texture. Sales have been a runaway success in a highly competitive food sector against major global corporations. Very well done and congratulations to Willowbrook Foods for demonstrating outstanding innovation in the development of new food products to tempt our appetites.”
Upon receiving the award Mr McCann said: “Willowbrook Foods is extremely honoured by winning this award as we recognise this is one of the most prestigious awards within the food sector in the UK. I am particularly pleased for the enthusiastic staff who work in our newly established Food Innovation Centre.”
“Part of the ethos of the Food Innovation Centre is to understand the needs of each individual customer because they’re all different. We have the facilities and the know-how to meet every requirement, from tailoring the recipes through to delivering the packaging and the labelling. This is vital because the marketplace is constantly changing at a rapid pace.”
John McCann, Managing Director
Despite its latest award success there remain a number of daily hurdles that Willowbrook Foods has to deal with, as Mr McCann highlights: “This type of business is challenging because all the products have a short life, typically seven to nine days, although some have a bit longer. This therefore makes it imperative that we get the delivery side right and we pride ourselves on providing high service levels in the region of 99.85 per cent. We have been able to achieve this by having a long-standing commitment to investment in all areas of our operation and by building a strong transport infrastructure. We carry out all the distribution locally but anything outside of 30 miles is looked after by haulage companies that deliver to all the various depots across Ireland and the UK. We work with most of the major haulers that have very well developed operations allowing them to deliver an extremely reliable service.
“The close relationships we have with our hauliers are mirrored in the relationships we have with our own customers. Our new product development approach, supported by our Food Innovation Centre, is just one way we provide a high level of service to our customers. We can do all we can to keep the quality and the service levels high but if we don’t keep developing the product range and the packaging then we won’t be as successful as we could be. This is why we place such a strong emphasis on NPD, which is driven not only by our own innovation but also the feedback we receive from our customer base.
“Part of the ethos of the Food Innovation Centre is to understand the needs of each individual customer because they’re all different. We have the facilities and the know-how to meet every requirement, from tailoring the recipes through to delivering the packaging and the labelling. This is vital because the marketplace is constantly changing at a rapid pace. One of the most recent trends has been the increasing move towards convenience in all product areas. When the recession came there was a lot of pressure that led to the recalculation of weights and even recipes to get the price point down. The situation is thankfully much improved and consumers are now willing to pay that bit more for convenience.”
With the growth it has seen over the years there are now two companies within the overall group: Willowbrook Foods, which has a 240-strong workforce, and Willowbrook Fine Foods, which was created at the end of last year and has 30 staff. With this latest addition to the group, and fresh from the Best Business Awards’ success, the aim now is to keep the momentum going.
“Willowbrooks Fine Foods is aimed at the top end of the market and we feel that we want to be recognised as one of the top quality food processors in the UK,” says Mr McCann. “It’s still early days but we’re pleased with the progress we’ve been making. We have firm business plans in place with our strategy being to increase on all our categories’ convenience products and hit price points, whilst remaining at the top end of the market from a quality perspective. This will involve keeping the volume of the products up because increasing the efficiencies of scale allows us to drive the costs down. This is important because the market is becoming more competitive all the time. Having a cost-effective offering, coupled with our flair for product development, puts us in a really good place moving forward.”