Angus Kennedy met up with Katie Walker, UK Sales Director, and Jonathan Rae, Production Manager and Digital Marketing Executive, from Walkers Nonsuch Toffee at iSM to discuss the company’s huge achievement of 125 years in business.
Angus Kennedy: Katie, amazing achievement, congratulations! I am so happy for you and the Walker family; so how does it feel for your company to get to this stage?
Katie Walker: I can’t believe it really, when you think back to 1894 when our great-grandfather started the business just from a small sweet shop in Longton, UK. The recipe has stayed the same and people are still eating it 125 years later.
AK: Exactly the same recipe?
KW: Yes, little has changed, we’ve kept all the good quality ingredients and changed the hydrogenated vegetable oil for obvious reasons.
AK: Do you think that’s one of the secrets to success in some ways to get to 125 years – by not changing things (everyone seems to be doing the opposite!) and having lots of trust in your customers? Then in return your customers know that the recipe is always going to be the same – no secrets – just it as it was?
KW: Yes, honesty is very important. Also, we have really good people that we work with at the factory, people that stay with us for a very long time. Although we have a lot of family here, the people at the factory are nearly like family because they have been here for so long.
AK: That’s a testament to your dedication to your company and your lovely staff. You are based up in Stoke on Trent in the UK, is that right?
KW: Yes, as Dad used to say it’s a creative hub really.
AK: I wish we were there now! Is there a tradition of sweet making in the area?
KW: No, not really Angus; mainly it’s pottery so I think we are the only people that make sweets in the area. Often with a name like Walker people think we are from Scotland.
AK: Your confectionery is going all over the world, isn’t it? I think it was your father that started pushing things for iSM with the exports?
KW: Dad visited the first iSM in 1970 and then exhibited at the next. So, it’s our 48th year here!
AK: Yes, it was, I remember he and my mother, Margaret Lang, used to battle it out to see who was the first to be at iSM!
KW: He always told me when he first came here, he came with my mum and they just had a little kiosk with a flag of Great Britain and a few toffees – look at it today!
AK: Yes, you have a beautiful stand here in the British Pavilion. You all must be very pleased with the position here too. You are a real family business just like many of them here. I love it! Jonathan, you are definitely part of the family too – tell me, was it your decision to come into the business or do you just love toffees?! How did it come about?
Jonathan Rae: To be honest, when I left school, I did politics and a year at college and failed miserably. So, I ventured off to do food manufacturing and product design, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It was more hands-on and practical and good fun. I realised I enjoyed it, and when you enjoy something you realise you are good at it because you want to do it. So, whilst at university I started getting involved in the business part time, fell in love with it, finished my degree and couldn’t get away!
AK: Great story Jonathan – I failed my way to success too! So, are you involved in the production side now?
JR: Yes Angus, 95% of my time is spent on the production side, and with us growing in the export markets and in the UK, it’s a challenging time, but so much fun. As Katie said, we’ve got some great staff, which makes it worthwhile.
KW: The nice thing is, when Dad was here, Jonathan had come into the business and so had my daughter Jessica. Dad said that having the grandchildren here was the best thing that had ever happened.
AK: I can imagine – yes, he was a lovely man, we all miss him. You mentioned challenges – what would you say is a real challenge in making toffee in the current environment?
JR: It’s not so straightforward, obviously the process itself stays the same, generally speaking. However, success is due to our quality. Quality is paramount – so as we grow the shift patterns, it’s about training the people to know what a high standard we work to. As in any business there are obstacles to overcome both in exports and also in the UK in supermarkets such as Tesco or Sainsbury’s. You can be sitting on the shelf next to another toffee manufacturer at half the price, or the same price with double the weight, but what sets us apart is the quality and variety.
AK: I wonder, going back 125 years, what was the first toffee like?
KW: Well it would have been in a tray, as we still put the toffee in today, put into a cellophane bag and sold with a big hammer!
AK: The toffee is softer though now, isn’t it?
JR: I think certainly over the last few years with the release of products like our salted caramel toffee, it really was to focus on the younger generation and get them eating toffee. I think sometimes people are a bit scared to try it because they are afraid to lose fillings etc, so we have made some of the products slightly softer, so it’s more forgiving for the teeth.
KW: And that means they can eat more!
AK: Ha yes [laughing], it wasn’t that long ago that there were many more companies around in your marketplace, and you’ve survived for 125 years which is incredible. We were talking about the quality and the ingredients and you mentioned that there are certain things that you stick to always? It’s worked.
KW: We don’t want to forsake quality just for the price. If you keep to the quality people always come back. So, I think that’s the key really – the quality of the toffee, the ingredients, the packaging – it’s the whole package.
AK: And everything is the same size?
KW: Angus that’s another thing I was going to say, I am proud that all our sizes and weights have remained the same!
AK: Nothing has changed – well I have some grey hair now since we first met! Katie, Jonathan this is lovely story and congratulations on your 125 years -ha-ha – honesty pays off. Honesty is rare in many other industries I feel. But that’s why UK confectionery is still trucking 125 years on and I am so pleased you are a big part of this. Not least because I really love your toffees!
KW/JR: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure Angus.