Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Hovis – still as good as they have always been

Heritage or Habit?
One of Britain’s best loved TV ads was of the boy pushing his heavy laden basket of Hovis bread to the top of the cobbly street and a more recent version featuring the boy running through the last 122 years of the most poignant events in British history
Are brands with heritage a good reason to buy? Do the brands we have grown up with give us comfort because we are familiar with them or should we be looking deeper than 'since 1886' and the brand slogan. Do we love them because they remind us of the past, conjuring up feelings of nostalgia, family history and childhood memories? Or is it clever marketing that is capitalising on this nostalgia and reminding us to stick to choosing what we have always known? Focussing on the subject of choice is an interesting point here.
Having visited the Hovis factory today, I found very few nostalgic items other than the bike in the reception area, as nice as it was, and as far as I know there is no Hovis museum to celebrate the great brand's British past. However, I did meet two very nice chaps, one of which had worked in the company for over 25 years having worked his way up through the ranks and now Project Manager of the site in Nottingham.
Owned by Premier Foods, Hovis produce over 839 million loaves per year and deliver to 9000 outlets a day across seven sites in the UK. Rank Hovis is the biggest miller in the UK producing 1.2million tonnes of flour per year. For the Project Manager at Hovis in Nottingham, his priority along with a few hundred ‘Baking Operatives’ is to ensure they produce 14,000 loaves+16,000 rolls every hour, 7 days a week, 364 days a year (they get Christmas Day off). Each loaf takes about 3.5 hours to go through the entire process. The journey starts with 3.5 mins in the mix, 4mins to divide/mould/shape, 3 mins in the first proof, 50 mins final proof, 21 mins to bake, 2hrs to cool, then sliced & bagged, racked & packed and out the door. It was quite amazing to see. I was completely mesmerised by thousands of loaves passing over my head on the lines bobbing along, uniformly travelling to their next destination. It was certainly a slick operation.

In order to feed the British public with their best-selling white sliced sandwich loaf and other assortments Hovis must supply the endless aisles of supermarkets with own label and branded products - and to do this means keeping their production line going morning, noon & night. This passionate chap, who is 100% committed to making sure the high speed (chorleywood bread) process runs smoothly, interestingly preferred the Hovis Scottish Pride loaf which had a more crusty and dense texture as opposed to the lighter sandwich loaves.

Nothing is left to chance, every ingredient is computer programmed with alarm bells going off if any ingredient or measure has been left out. Fermentation is fast and uses the ADD (Advanced Dough Development) method to ensure consistency and accurate specification compliance with every loaf. Surprisingly, the top three criteria on the hitlist for quality check is height/size, whiteness and texture. Even the renowned Hovis bread competition awards the perfect loaf according to height and texture. So where does taste come into it?

As an aspiring Artisan baker (not a baking operative!), it occurred to me today how extremely reliant we are on sight alone to make a choice on what food we buy. Perhaps it’s the lack of smell, sound, touch and taste that we are given in the supermarket environment that means our sight has become our strongest sense, overcompensating because we don’t use our other senses at all. Similar to those that may have lost their vision become heavily reliant on other senses, particularly sound and touch.

So if we only have sight to make our choice then perhaps there is a good reason for buying brands in a habitual manner...


  1. Interesting to note that the Guardian picked up on the question of sight a couple of days after your post!

    The arrival of "in-store bakeries" amongst the big 4 does suggest that they also see smell and touch as part of their amoury in the battle for the £ in your pocket!

  2. Great article, thanks.

    Have just applied to the School of Artisan Food for the 2011 intake for the diploma.

    Would it be alright to ask you a few questions about your experience so far please?

  3. Thanks for the link Tony. Your absolutely right, ironically in a twist to ensure we remain loyal to the one-stop-box-shop, the 'in-store' bakeries attempt to entice our senses with 'freshly made'(baked-off) bread. If your interested, there is a detailed report from the Real Bread Campaign calling 'in-store' bakeries a "tanning salon for baguettes". Not surprising, the supermarkets were mostly secretive with their responses - that's if they responded at all!