When a 1.5kg bag of Waitrose plain white flour is currently being sold for £70 on eBay – and has nearly a dozen bidders – then it’s clear we are living in extraordinary times.
But then, thanks to the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent nationwide lock-down, the UK flour milling industry is facing extraordinary challenges as wholesalers demand more produce and retail customers clear supermarket shelves.
Up and down the country, UK millers have already been working round the clock to almost double the production of flour while seeking to protect their own businesses through online sales.
The National Association of British and Irish Millers (nabim) has heard stories of incredible commitment, sacrifice and innovation from its members and has shared just a few of them.
At the Wessex Mill in Wantage, Oxfordshire, father and daughter owners Paul and Emily Munsey have been running a 24-hour operation for the first time in its 125-year history. Staff have been working in 12-hour shifts, and such has been the demand on its online shop that it has been shut since March 20.
“It’s been absolutely frantic,” said Emily. “The biggest issue has been the public calling, trying to buy flour. But the milling team is doing exceptionally well. They have doubled production, especially of smaller bags for home-baking.”
As many as 20 per cent of staff have been sent home to self-isolate. However Emily says: “But we have already hired local people – a brickie and a roofer among them. They are both self-employed normally and are not classed as keyworkers so have had to pause their own businesses. We put out a post on Facebook and had over 80 replies in 24-hours!”
Richard Woolley at Kerry Taste & Nutrition in Gainsborough reports that where possible all departments are working from home remotely, while those still working on sites are following social distancing and have strict sanitation plans in place.
“These include daily walks on the factory floor – 2m apart, of course! – and we are talking to all staff for re-assurance. The feedback has been amazing, every member of staff feels safe and looked after, and they have had an input into ways of working and helping define the way forward for inclusive thinking. There’s been a real team spirit in this time of need.”
According to Richard, colleagues who have recently left the business prior to the outbreak have been in touch and offered to come back should there be a need for additional skills during the crisis. They include flour mill manager, Kevin Smith, who was due to retire on March 31 after nearly 47 years of continuous service.
“Kevin has offered to retract his retirement and stay on indefinitely until things return to normality,” Richard says. “He’s a credit to Kerry and still as passionate today as he was 46 years ago, bubbling with enthusiasm and always striving for better.”
At W&H Marriage in Chelmsford, most employees have hands-on roles as millers, packers, lorry drivers, warehouse teams, maintenance fitters, and laboratory staff, so they have remained on site.
Director Hannah Marriage said, “As with many mills, we generally run fairly close to capacity in normal times. However we have experienced a huge increase in demand for pre-packed flour and enquiries about home baking. Our online shop dispatching flour to home bakers has been incredibly busy too – and we have had extra staff in helping out in dispatching orders.
Hannah adds: “It’s gratifying to see the value of home baking flour in these uncertain times. People are wanting to bake at home, and many are keen to share on Instagram and online what they have been baking during the lockdown.”
Ripon Select Foods director James Cooper said that while it has been a “manic two weeks”, he believes the demand may now have reached its peak.
“Like others, we’ve been working seven days a week flat out since this all began, and last Monday we had a 50% uplife in leaving the mill,” he says.
“We’re unusual inasmuch as we specialise in rusk and breadcrumb production, but the increased demand has been just as high from our manufacturing customers. They’re seeing a boom in demand because people have been stocking up on cheaper foods like sausages.
Jeremy Heal, mill and product manager at Somerset-based Sharpham Park, said that an indication of the remarkable spike in demand is the fact that revenues from their monthly internet sales have leapt to £50,000 compared to the usual £5,000.
“Everything is off the scale, I’ve never known anything like it,” he says. “At times we’ve been completing orders hand-to-mouth and we’ve been working 15-hour days just to get everything done.
“Morale remains good, however, and the team here have been absolutely brilliant.”
Meanwhile spare a thought for Bertie Matthews, who along with his father Paul is joint managing director of Oxfordshire-based Matthews Cotswold Flour, and is currently stranded 10,000 miles away in Australia.
Bertie was visiting his girlfriend’s family this month when he became one of millions of Brits unable to return home following the COVID-19 outbreak.
But with Paul, 69, being forced to self-isolate, the 29-year-old has taken over the day-to-day running of the family business from his lap-top in Melbourne.
It’s meant starting work at 5pm (7am UK time) and finishing in the early hours, as Bertie oversees an already stretched staff who are now working around the clock to meet the huge commercial and domestic demand for flour – and ensure the 108-year-old firm survives the current crisis.
Bertie said, “We were in Australia when coronavirus really began to take off, and then last week all the UK flights were cancelled and I realised I was trapped here.
“With my dad out of action, it soon became clear that I was going to have to try and work remotely – although you couldn’t get much further away from the office than Australia. My team are all set up for video conferences and we get reports every day. Our main task is to do enough B2C business to keep us going.”
(source: nabim, image: pixabay)