How Bishop's Stortford is at the heart of the Gü pudding empire as the premium dessert brand prepares to launch in Australia and New Zealand
Last year, more than 130 of Gü's indulgent ramekin desserts were put in consumers' shopping trolleys every minute.
The company sold 70 million of its puddings in their instantly recognisable glass containers worldwide in the 12 months to September, with one in five UK households buying the brand.
With a turnover of £55 million last year, the company is a huge success story. It is the No 1 premium dessert brand in the UK and the second largest premium chilled dessert brand in France and Germany.
Gü is now launching in Australia and New Zealand, and is set to begin testing in the USA.
And its £28m, 125,000 sq ft facility on a six-acre site in Bishop's Stortford is the heartbeat of the business, helping to put smiles on the faces of pudding lovers across the globe.
Gü, which also has offices in Shepherd's Bush and Paris, was founded in 2003 by entrepreneur James Averdieck. He was working in the Netherlands when he sampled an indulgent souffle-type dessert and got the idea to try it in the UK market.
Having set up the business with seed capital of £65,000, he collected around £9m when he sold to Noble Foods, which is the biggest supplier of eggs in the UK and is home to The Happy Egg Company, for £32.5m in 2009.
The Stortford factory, in Dunmow Road, opened in October 2017 when the firm relocated its manufacturing plant from Walthamstow.
The production area and warehousing cover 125,000 sq ft and includes a spare building of 35,000 sq ft for further growth. That might need to be developed within two years as the company is growing between 10% and 15% a year and has 30% more capacity in its existing factory.
There are 151 employees working at the Stortford site, including French chef Fred Ponnavoy, who has been with Gü since the start and has designed and created every one of its puddings. He works in the bespoke innovation centre alongside the technical team, coming up with new products.
Gü's marketing team will find gaps in the market and spot hot trends before giving Fred a brief. For example, two years ago it did not have a salted caramel product and now its Salted Caramel Cheesecakes are the third best-selling chilled dessert out of around 1,000 on the UK market.
The skill is coming up with a pudding that can be successfully transferred from the design kitchen to the factory production line and scaled up using the fully automated equipment.
And while people around the world enjoy tucking into their favourite Gü puddings, there is plenty of work going on behind the scenes to ensure the company continues to grow.
"We've got a world-class, state-of-the-art factory here," said operations director David Fearnley-Brown, 59, who has been with Gü since April.
"What we're trying to develop now is a world-class operation, so the people are really critical to us."
He spent 20 years in the brewing industry and has had consultancy and operations director roles with a variety of companies in the food sector, such as Northern Foods and Lir Chocolates.
"We're investing a lot in training and retaining the skill sets within the business. When you've got a highly automated plant, you need to spend time investing in your people.
"Our strategy is calling it a F1 factory – it's a Formula One racing car and now we're developing our Formula One engineers, mechanics and drivers. That's where we're focusing."
The Stortford factory produces around 15 different ramekin desserts, with 1,500 cases of 12 ready every hour. Every single one enjoyed by consumers around the world is made there, with desserts being frozen if they are destined for foreign markets.
"It's quite different when you don't have a lot of operators. In Walthamstow we had people mixing stuff, and we don't have any of that any more," said managing director Pete Utting.
"What we do have is incredibly complex kit to not just maintain but proactively maintain so it doesn't break down.
"One of David's challenges for the team is getting into that mindset of 'fixing' problems before they actually develop."
David added: "Each team is broken down into cells and we have weekly problem-solving meetings and communication meetings to discuss what went well, what didn't go well and how we can work to solve it.
"It's about involving everybody in the factory if you want to become world class."
Gü, which is also implementing a maintenance structure used in the airline industry, recently relaunched its Heavenly Hot Puds range with two new additions – Sticky Toffee Puddings and Belgian Chocolate Brownies, with the latter being declared the best-ever Gü recipe in consumer testing.
It won Product of the Year in the Store Cupboard category at The Grocer New Product Awards 2019 for its Crunchy Hazelnut Spread, and was highly commended for its Salted Caramel Cheesecakes.
And its Chocolate and Vanilla Free From Cheesecake won Best Chilled Product and was named Best Innovation across all grocery categories at the ASDA Innovation Awards 2019.
"It's always a challenge trying to replicate a recipe in the factory, but we've been successful with everything we've thrown at them actually," said David.
"The Free From range was a really interesting one. It's amazing how much it tastes exactly like one of our existing products.
"People think that if it's gluten free or vegan and dairy free that it's not going to taste very good, but actually it tastes amazing.
"That's the skill of Fred and us putting it into the factory. There have been some great successes over the years."
With the Australia and New Zealand launch under way, there are further exciting times ahead for the business thanks to its trial in the north-east United States of America with Walmart, which approached Gü having been impressed by the brand.
"The US will be interesting. The majority of puddings eaten in the US are still frozen and I think that's partially due to the scale of the country," said Pete.
"If you're a chilled desserts manufacturer in the US, it's very difficult to distribute to all of the different retailers when it might take four days to drive and you've only got a 10-day shelf life.
"Their market has developed as a frozen market because of the mileage these businesses have to cover, so it will be interesting to see whether chilled desserts will be of interest. They tend to be more premium than frozen as well, so the US consumer will have to be willing to pay the premium that goes with it."
If the American test proves successful then it could mean an immediate investment in infrastructure is required.
"There are challenges, but they're nice challenges to have because it's all about growth rather than going backwards," said David.
"We do have that capacity available to us to develop [in Stortford], so it's about looking at the different business models over the coming months and deciding which is the best way to invest over the next two years."
While consumers across the Atlantic get ready to sample Gü's range of delicious desserts, UK pudding lovers can look forward to tasting the company's new premium mousses thanks to chef Fred designing a "multi-layered indulgence". They are set for launch in March.
"The UK business is incredibly important to us as it's the platform to expand," said Pete.
"We have to have a successful UK business to afford to be able to test in the US and these sorts of things, so keeping the UK business moving forward is quite critical for us.
"We think there are so many growth opportunities. The skill is choosing the three or four that you can make work before adding another three or four and another three or four, rather than thinking we're going to launch in 25 countries in one go."
Pete, 52, has been with Gü for just under a year having previously worked for the likes of Coca-Cola, Walkers Crisps and United Biscuits.
And he believes the Gü brand – the umlaut over the u represents two eyes and a smile – has developed a loyal following because producing great-tasting desserts has always been the primary focus.
"It's strange sometimes when you talk to your kids about where you work, but my kids like me working at Gü – it's one of those really positive brands," said Pete.
"I do think one of the fantastic things it's done since its birth in 2003 is just producing brilliant products. Parking the way it's branded, communicated, sold and whatever else, the products have always been very, very good.
"That has held it in such high esteem with consumers. If you flick through our social media, of all the brands I've worked on I don't think I've ever known as much love for a brand – it's incredible.
"It's a product you eat that brings a smile to your face – and that's a nice environment to work in."
More by this authorMichael Vaughton