Filling with success

Filling with success

Whether or not Britain’s best sandwich proves soon to come from the North East of England, the enterprise of James and Helen Stoddart will be an ongoing cause for pride. Brian Nicholls tells their story.

Are Britain’s best sandwiches made in the North East of England? They could be. And we’ll know for certain very soon if James Stoddart wins a national award to prove it.

The venison filled entry from new product development chef Nathan Baker, that has taken James’s company to the London final proved strong meat indeed for other bidders of the region to contend with. An over-all victory now for the title, to be bestowed by the British Sandwich Association, would add prestige indeed to a silver-sheen new factory called The Pantry. That’s where James and his wife Helen have just moved in and expanded their business, called cleverly and appropriately (in light of a £7m turnover and growing) On a Roll.    

A six month resettlement period into the 35,000sq ft pristine premises from a smaller site next door but one at Riverside Park, Middlesbrough, enables the Billingham couple now to take the workforce onward and upward to almost 200, and to run three production lines with another to follow soon and perhaps a fifth eventually, all building on a 10 hours daily operation seven days a week.

The business sourced from local produce, and with everything bar egg mayonnaise made on site, and with the ingredients delivered fresh every day, began as a bet on a ski-ing holiday, when a baker friend joshed James, a chef, over a couple of beers.

“Bakers are very controlled in their work,” James explains. “Everything for them has to be measured, weighed precisely. A challenge was made because chefs weigh nothing. Nothing is consistent. We chefs just keep adding ingredients and if it doesn’t taste right you just change it.”

James said: “You can’t buy a good quality sandwich.”

“Well, a chef wouldn’t be able to do it anyway,” came the reply. James replied: “OK, we’ll see.”

On A Roll 03The challenge was to make one million sandwiches in a year. As James had nowhere to do it the baker made a room of 1,000sq ft available to let. “Use that room and we’ll see what you can do if you’re so clever - and that was it,” James recalls. “He was laughing because I was paying rent on a room he wasn’t using.”

But James got the last laugh because On a Roll was on the move and today the business to business operation makes seven million sandwiches a year in about 80 different varieties, having enabled James to win his £10 bet some considerable time back.

On a Roll sandwiches, produced at more than 10 times the first year’s output, are sold so extensively nationwide it surprises even James sometimes.

Holidaying in Devon, the couple pulled into a filling station. “You know what it’s like when something catches your eye?” James recalls. “It happened as I glanced at the food shelves. I suddenly thought ‘God, somebody’s copied our packaging.’ I went over and picked it up. It was my own packaging. On another occasion he happened to be in Essex when one of On a Roll’s 21 flamboyantly liveried delivery vehicles flashed past on a delivery run he was unaware of.

On a Roll product may be bought anywhere between Devon and Scotland because Nisa is a major customer, along with other retailers, various hospitals (through NHS bodies), workplaces, schools and Teesside University. About a third of current orders go to the schools and higher education destinations, and hospital sandwiches meet NHS nutritional guidelines of being at least 300 calories and with 18g of protein or more.

Now, with a diversification into gluten free, the firm’s sandwiches are being sold also into Sweden and Norway, and though the Stoddarts weren’t allowed to shout it at the time, they supplied sandwiches for the recent UK Olympics. Many challenges there were successfully met, such as an order for 8,000 sandwiches suddenly being whipped up to 19,000 later the same day.

James, 52 this year, trained as a chef at Darlington College, had a variety of job experiences initially – in a fish shop, as a fork lift driver and even as a butler. From college he initially worked at Gisborough Hall Hotel, now a four star Macdonald but privately run then. It was made clear to James the management then had little faith in college education, but a belief that ability came with working one’s way up through on-job experience. James took that in his stride. From starting as a pot washer he found himself banqueting manager within nine months.

He later took over the kitchen of the squash club at the old Stockton racecourse, now buried beneath Teesside Retail Park, then in 1987 opened a hotel and restaurant, James’s, in Stockton. “The food there was too far ahead of its time,” Helen says.

‘Food on the go’ at which On a Roll now excels, business to business, has proved a different prospect altogether – as results of mega-participants like Greggs, Subway and McDonald’s confirm. On a Roll’s early customers included a local NHS body and a vending company. But even when growth compelled them to relocate to a second factory they were still a workforce only 12 strong. Since recently moving to their latest location the workforce has risen from 90 to more than 150 with 12 agency staff in addition, and the target of 200 still stands.

On A Roll 02

An interesting sidelight on recruitment shows a continuing value in print media despite a lot of pessimistic talk that surrounds it. Helen explains: “We’ve had a lot of job applications at production level, especially after an editorial article about us appeared in the local newspaper – a better result than any advertisement or a dotcom would have done.”

Finding suitable applicants at management level is harder. One would-be quality manager for example suggested: “I have no quality experience but I have a good eye for quality.”
And the lady who suggested in all sincerity “I make good sandwiches for my children so I will be ok” probably had no idea of the precision now involved in sandwich making. The entire activity is heavily computerised.

As James explains: “When someone places an order for bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches we have all the ingredients going into them recorded, details of the products’ storage, all the costings involved, the nutrition involved for the labelling, and stock requirements and stock availability. That’s all generated from one order put in.

“So if you bought a tuna sandwich today then rang and said you weren’t sure about the tuna in it, we’d ask for the date on the pack and be able to tell you within five or 10 minutes when it was made, how many were made and where they were sent, which mayonnaise accompanied, which butter, which bread, what time it ran down the line and when it was out of the fridge.

“In other words, full traceability. We’re just in time onto line. That’s why we invested so heavily in due diligence and traceability systems.”

The data processing employed controls weights, stocks and recipes. If you went downstairs now I could put you on a mixing terminal and you could mix a filling like someone who has been here for three years. The terminals tell you what you’re doing. You can’t pass go until you hit the tolerance on scales. And if something goes forward that hasn’t the requisite life span the system won’t accept it. It won’t let a later batch of tuna, for example, overtake an earlier batch.”

The 13 terminals in the production are complemented upstairs by a bank of computers processing delivery notes, invoices and other administrative requirements. A particularly remarkable feat recently was the firm’s ability to continue production amid the “massive changeover”, as Helen describes it, for three production lines had to be resited.

“If I’d known better I would most probably have done a course in change management,” James laughs. “Everybody assumed more space, better equipment, better facilities and more staff would make it easier. Actually it made the move harder. You wouldn’t believe that, would you? “

Support came financially from Tees Valley’s Business Growth Investment Scheme and Middlesbrough Council’s economic development team, through which land was bought from the local authority with the backing of a £640,000 grant.

Councillor Charles Rooney, the council’s executive member for regeneration, has described On a Roll’s progress as “a real local success story showing what can be achieved through hard work and commitment.”

Now the firm is bringing in a new product development chef who, at 28, will be tickling the public’s taste buds further from inside the gleaming experimental kitchen where this interview has taken place. “He’ll have the best job in the building,” James reckons. “He gets to play with food, and I get to play with rubbish bags.

Hands-on James, in corporate overalls, had just seen to it that the most fundamental job in hygiene is carried out thoroughly. “This is the biggest investment I’ll ever do in my life,” he says, looking round – then admits he’s holding onto the building just vacated while he looks into a further sandwich project. You can’t keep a good man down, after all. Or a woman.

Tuna Sandwich

Tuna by the ton, please

Most popular filling? Chicken tikka wraps, Helen says, though tuna mayos are massively popular. They must be. The firm gets through just over a ton of tuna a week. Bacon, lettuce and tomato are also well up the chart and the vegetarian market is growing but not expected in the near future to match tuna mayo or egg mayo.

Even so, having felt a lack of creativity existed in this sector, On a Roll Choice has gained custom with offerings such as coronation egg with mango chutney and coriander, spicy chick peas and roast vegetable with spicy tomato and onion chutney.

Any fillings losing popularity? “Not unless there’s a scare,” James says. “There’s always something. Someone will say there’s more salt or sugar in a BLT than there is in a McDonald’s. You get a fall in sale there for two or three weeks, then people come back from what they’ve switched to.

You can take the fat, sugar and salt out of a sandwich. But if you take all the fat out there’s no flavour left. So you have to replace the flavouring. Nine times out of 10 you’re replacing it with a sauce or something like that, so you are back to where you started.”

Here it should be mentioned that emphasis in design of the new factory has been placed on hygiene standards to ensure excellent microbiological testing results.

With the products locally sourced, On a Roll is out now to get the Soil Association Charter Mark which is heavily geared towards British products. It guarantees that what’s being sold or served is freshly prepared, free from undesirable additives, better for animal welfare, free from controversial e-numbers and does not contain artificial trans-fats or ingredients that are genetically modified.

The fourth Earl of Sandwich, whose call amid a poker game for meat between two slices of toast on 3 November, 1762 (toast preferred not to smear the cards) cannot in truth be said to have invented the snack named after him. Arabs had been wrapping their meat in pitta bread centuries before. But even he, and perhaps those early Arabs, would have been impressed going around On a Roll and seeing just how many different fillings they could call for now.