Meet the boss: The Norfolk firm making ‘better pasta than the Italians’
It is a £28m Norfolk business which makes 120 tons of pasta a day – and now the boss wants to take on the Italians. CAROLINE CULOT met Gordon Chetwood, managing director of Pasta Foods.
When you next grab a supermarket pasta salad or dish up a quick tin of spaghetti hoops for the kids the likelihood is it originated not in Italy but here in Norfolk.
Pasta Foods has been quietly making pasta for more than half a century, both in Yarmouth where it runs a factory – and the UK's only dedicated semolina mill – and for the past three years in state-of-the-art premises hidden away near the Norfolk showground, just outside Norwich.
And now it has the rest of Europe in its sights – including Italy where the average person consumes 25 kilos a year compared with just two in the UK.
And this week will also see managing director Gordon Chetwood and his team bid for a slice of the US market with a new macaroni cheese product which you just add water to. The firm claims it is low in calories and a perfect alternative to a more typical, gut-busting American snack.
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And whereas so many firms are fearful of the Brexit implications, Pasta Foods has just invested in a new £4m production line, meaning it can increase its capacity by 50%.
Not only can it supply pasta to more existing customers but it also hopes to potentially cash in on the fact some firms won't be able to source enough.
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'We have six months supply of wheat in storage. We're there, ready if other customers come on board and say we're struggling to buy pasta from our usual suppliers.
'There's no reason you can't be buying your pasta from a UK supplier, the quality's as good as Italy or probably better, we would argue, and other countries in Europe, we compete with them too, we're here and ready with our high-quality pasta.'
Mr Chetwood, originally from the Isle of Wight and married with two sons, has always worked in food manufacturing as a manager but always 'on the shop floor'.
'These are exciting times, we've got products which are in demand, we've got a facility which is the envy of anybody in food manufacturing without a doubt and a marketplace which is buoyant,' he said.
'We don't sell retail pasta, we don't sell a 500g pack of spaghetti to a supermarket, but we provide pasta solutions to businesses who are manufacturing pasta products so there is plenty of growth and opportunity in the UK because historically most of it would have been bought from Europe.
'If you went and had a pasta salad in any of the supermarkets, or pasta in a tin, or which you add water to, it's likely to be ours so most people are eating our pasta and don't know it's made in Norfolk.'
The process of making pasta is actually relatively simple with wheat milled into semolina at the firm's Yarmouth mill before being mixed with water.
The new production line – which comes from Switzerland and works with hardly any human intervention – mixes the ingredients into a dough-like consistency which is then pushed through large sieves which creates the necessary shape.
The pasta is then cut by machine into the required length before being passed though a large dryer and then cooled, a process which gives it a wonderful golden colour. It then gets packed and labelled as well as lifted on to pallets, all by robotic equipment. The new line together with the existing four-year-old production equipment can produce a total of five tons of pasta an hour and although it means employing fewer people, the firm is growing its sales team.
The firm was formed in 1956 from three small pasta producing companies and the mill has been on the site since 1878. The only thing which isn't local is the wheat which is imported mainly from France. So why not use it from local sources?
'Equate it to making wine,' he said. 'France, Italy, Spain beautifully suit making wine and the UK hasn't really been able to do that, climate change has meant certain areas are suited to it, vines are now growing successfully but 20 years ago that wouldn't have been the case.
'Durum wheat is similar to wine in that the ideal growing conditions are in those countries or in Canada, north America and Mexico, they're the big durum growing countries of the world, we can grow it here but not to the right yield nor consistent quality that can be guaranteed. That's where we currently sit, but we have got plans in the longer term, say five to 10 or 15 years ahead to see if we can do it, we are working with some partners so in the longer term it's a consideration but at the moment it's just not possible.'