Comfort food

Comfort food

Brian Nicholls discovers how the North East has become home to one of Europe’s biggest ice cream makers.

Right then you sweet tooths, are you aware that your ice creams this summer will include KitKat cones? And a return of Lyons Maid - that cinema intermission indulgence that melted many a young girl’s heart in the back rows of yesteryear? Both brands will be bring their cooling comfort and joy as ice cream sales peak during the coming months. Meanwhile, their creator, R&R Ice Cream is revelling in all its frozen assets.

A great North East business success based at Leeming Bar near Darlington, it has, in little more than two decades, metamorphosed into a massive tickler of tastebuds. Formerly a North Country farmer’s modest investment called Richmond Ice Cream, it is today the UK’s largest volume manufacturer of ice cream and Europe’s second largest ice cream manufacturer in ‘take home’ varieties.

Charlotte Hambling, R&R’s senior marketing manager, says enthusiastically of the KitKat cones: “KitKat is a truly iconic British brand. It’s coming in as an ice cream cone exclusive to the ‘impulse’ market.” And Charlotte does not doubt the timeliness of the launch.

“With the parent brand experiencing a massive public awareness - worth over £170m and showing strong double digit growth – this is the perfect time for a KitKat ice cream,” she asserts. As for Lyons Maid, she affirms its enduring quality among consumers following what she terms an incredibly successful re-launch last September. It is now sold, in case you hadn’t noticed, as raspberry ripple mousse, milk chocolate sticks, vanilla, raspberry ripple and Neapolitan, as well as strawberry, blackcurrant and pineapple splits.

“Our new Lyons Maid extensions to the re-launched range sit perfectly in the essence of the brand,” she says.

“These are traditional products and they fit everyday family meal occasions.” The profusion of flavours and shapes seems limitless as R&R bids to better its sixth place among North East and Yorkshire firms which appear in the latest nationwide Top Track 250 List of biggest mid-market private companies. Group turnover for the UK and European operations was around €500m last year.

The £200m spend from Britain representsabout £3.28 from every man, woman and finger-licking child. R&R Ice Cream brings in about 300 ‘projects’ a year, a third of them new products and the remainder recipe re-formulations and/ or packaging re-designs.

That’s a startling demand on marketing ingenuity in any business, and last summer it largely enabled R&R to grow ‘impulse’ sales by 15% in a market of overall decline. One impulse contract alone won last year was worth £2.5m. The average product calls for anything up to 20 different ingredients and three or four items of packaging, whether carton, case, wrapping or lollipop stick. Ten basic ingredients include water, milk, sugars (x3), emulsifier, stabilisers (x2) – but also other compound ingredients such as sauces, chocolate and other inclusions are added, and these can have several ingredients themselves.

Entry and departure of products in this market place are dictated partly by public fads and fancies. So out of 607 products ‘live’ in the system, perhaps 200 are no longer turned out. That does not mean the end. Anything with a hint of heaven might just, like Lyons Maid, come again. R&R’s corporate growth has come through a tasty series of mergers and acquisitions, and Leeming Bar’s operation employs 350 - more than half the group’s UK complement of around 600. Many of the UK’s most popular brands now carry the R&R trade mark. These include Nestle products such as Mivvi, Yorkie, Rollo, Smarties and After Eight. They also include Skinny Cow, the leading UK brand in ‘healthy’ eating ice cream, and Fab, the UK’s number one ice lolly, now 40 years old. It has had a juicy orange flavour added this year. Mivvi, like Lyons Maid, returns to cash in on a retro resurgence. Popular particularly with older consumers who remember it from before, it became a number two ice lolly in a recent 12-week retrial.

Now repackaged, its 20% juice content is complemented by clotted cream and is all wrapped up in a major packaging re-brand which reflects its high quality credentials. Nestle lines also include Munchies, Fruit Pastilles, Milky Bar and Mr Men, while high hopes are held this summer for Lion Bar and Nesquik tubs. For the former, R&R is out to replicate in ice cream the success of Nestle’s chewy 1980s favourite Lion Bar, which pulls in £8m-plus in confectionery.

Meanwhile, the latest addition to the core Nestle kids’ range is an 800ml Nesquik tub whose chocolate ice cream has less sugar and fat and is made with fresh milk. Also new this year are Rowntrees Fruit Screamers, mini ice lollies with no artificial colours and 20% fruit juice in strawberry, orange, lemon, lime and pineapple flavours.

A major coup recently was winning a clutch of deals potentially worth around £2.5m for the Nestle, Thorntons and Ribena impulse products.

There are two Ribena variants and a new Thorntons range made with Belgian chocolate and double cream – Toffee Temptation and Chocolate Trio White with, new for 2009, White Delight and Milk Choc Truffle.

Besides supplying retailers with individual ice creams for impulse buyers, the company produces own-label multi-packs, tubs and convenience desserts.

In the UK, R&R’s main stockists are supermarkets, and besides a presence of its branded products it claims to be the multiples’ largest supplier of own-label ice cream.

Its ‘take home’ and impulse products are also available at many independent retailers.

The impulse range is also sold by mobile operations and leisure park outlets which include The Alnwick Garden.

Martin Williams, sales manager of wholesale at R&R Ice Cream, says: “Winning key contracts like Alnwick Garden shows the strength of our impulse range.

A lot of planning and research goes into pitching for this kind of business, and the hard work is paying significant dividends.” A remarkable transformation then, since Yorkshire farmer Johnny Ropner acquired Cardosi, a family ice cream manufacturer at Thornaby.

Hitherto, Ropners’ family name had been associated more with marine and other insurance broking and the Ropner Shipping Company at Hartlepool, which ran from 1875 until its takeover in 1997.

In the ice cream making, four people were employed at the start, the main product being own-label ice cream made for Hinton’s supermarkets.

Hinton’s, which was based in Middlesbrough, was sold to Argyll in 1985, which then merged with Safeway two years later and faded further into history when Morrisons bought Safeway in 2004. Johnny Ropner changed the company name to Richmond Ice Cream in the year of Hinton’s takeover and moved the production to Leeming Bar.

Richmond Ice Cream’s big leap came when it was bought for £182m in 2006 by Oaktree Capital Management; an American investment firm which also owned Roncadin, Germany’s biggest own-label ice cream maker.

Oaktree’s purchase of all the shares opened the way to bring about R&R - Richmond and Roncadin - and Leeming Bar became its base because of its proximity to the A1 and its potential for factory and parking expansion, both of which went ahead later as part of its continuing development.

The R&R combination has already enhanced the strong market positions held by both operations. Oaktree’s objective also in merging Richmond’s management and capability with Roncadin’s potential is to enjoy ultimate ownership of the largest and most profitable private label in Europe.

As Charlotte Hambling says: “Our summer range has been created with family in mind and responds directly to current macro trends and an impacting economic climate.” Some of us might say, more simply, that during hard times we all feel entitled to a small personal indulgence and, given the right weather this summer, a lot of us will probably go for fancy flavoured ice creams, whether R&R’s or anyone else’s.