Greggs' super-duper bakery in Newcastle goes into sweet mince pies overdrive at this time of year, as KATHARINE CAPOCCI discovers when she dons a hair net and shoe covers for a visit to the factory floor
IT’S a staggeringly sweet statistic for the fruity festive favourite. An incredible nine million sweet mince pies are being made at Greggs’ swish new Gosforth Park Bakery in Longbenton, Newcastle, this year.
It’s testament to the nation’s sweet tooth and undiminished appetite for the humble but popular pie.
The rich fruity sweet mincemeat filling – made from vine fruits, Bramley apples and candied orange and lemon peel – encased in rich crumbly shortcrust pastry, is truly a Christmas cracker.
The £16.5m bakery produces every sweet mince pie sold in Greggs’ 1,600-plus shops in the UK – and I was witness to several hundred of those being lovingly made the day I visited the factory floor.
Bakery operations manager, Stephen Turnbull, 34 years with the legendary North East company, is a fount of information – and also my guide for the morning.
He’s a cheery soul who’s devoted his entire working life to Greggs.
He likes his mince pies with a cuppa but confesses he’s more of a fresh bread man, with a particular penchant for stotties.
The hot news at the bakery giant this week is the search launched for the chain’s new chief exec after Ken McMeikan announced he was leaving.
My regulation hair net donned, and dressed in a plastic protective coat – not to mention all jewellery removed – hands washed and sanitiser applied, I’m almost ready to place a foot, encased in shoe cover, on to the factory floor.
With a retractable pen in hand (no pen tops, you see), Stephen leads the way on to the floor at the 90,000sq ft plant, built a year ago to replace their old site at Christon Road in Gosforth.
It’s reassuring that they take cleanliness so seriously. And our photographer is not even allowed to snuck his mobile phone in his pocket, as it has a glass front.
Inside, it’s a mammoth operation, a busy hum from the scores of staff on production lines, machines in full flow and radio show burbling in the background.
“We started making mince pies at the back end of September,” says Stephen, raising his voice over the din. “They are frozen when they go into the shops. They are baked in the shop that day – that’s what makes them so fresh. It’s maximum freshness with the mince pies.
“It’s a secret recipe, they are quality ingredients, but really it’s the fact that they are baked on the day.”
We walk past vast ovens, the surrounding air all warm and toasty, the cavernous interiors roomy enough to bake 2,000 loaves and 12,000 rolls an hour.
Stephen heads to the section where the mince pie-making operation is in full flow.
In fact, it barely stops at this time of year.
Stephen explains he is in charge of about 300 people, from bakery and logistics staff to transport and engineering.
He is married to Debbie, who works in catering at Newcastle Uni, and the pair, who live in Fawdon, Newcastle, have one son, Liam, 24.
Stephen started out at Greggs as an apprentice after studying bakery and confectionery for three years at college in Newcastle.
Of the nine million sweet mince pies, over 800,000 are expected to be sold in the North East, says Stephen.
And a sweet mince pie isn’t necessarily just for Christmas either – in the Midlands apparently they buy them all year round.
The bakery is in overdrive making a host of other festive treats to be supplied to over 200 shops across the region.
Other treats include Christmas ring buns, a fairy bun dipped in white fondant, rolled in sugar ball sprinkles and decorated with plastic toy rings – of which about 100,000 will be turned out by the Newcastle bakery; Christmas crispy cakes, cornflakes in a chocolate flavoured coating, hand-decorated with coloured sugar balls – more than 60,000; Gingerbread man cupcakes, a ginger flavoured cupcake, with cream cheese flavour swirl of frosting, and hand decorated with a mini gingerbread man biscuit – over 70,000; and Christmas tree biscuits, ginger flavoured with a chocolate flavour coating and decorated in sugar ball sprinkles – over 90,000.
Stephen adds there are no artificial colours or flavours in any of their Christmas range.
He points out the vast mixing bowl for the pies’ pastry base, making 94 kilos of pastry a time.
This is transferred to a metal funnel and the rolled-out pastry, which appears like magic, drops into tin foil containers.
The fruity mincemeat filling plops into pie cases before pastry lids are dropped into place.
The pies cost from 30p each or six for £1.40 and offer the taste of Christmas in one bite. Taste testing one afterwards with Stephen, off the factory floor, the end product is absolutely delicious. And tastes even better when slightly warmed.
The bakery is working practically 24/7, apart from a brief respite on a Saturday for 12 hours, in its bid to cater for appetites.
“We’ve got three shifts on here, a day shift, back shift and night shift,” says Stephen.
“We’re finished about mid-December with the Christmas orders. We make about 34,000 mince pies per shift.
“We made half a million last week and sold one million through the country.”
Team leader David Frater, 47, steps away from his station for a moment to tell me he has notched up 20 years at the company.
For a second I fear for a mince pie pile-up but this is a well-oiled operation and calm is quickly restored.
David chimes in that he still loves mince pies too –- completely unprompted by Stephen, I joke!
When asked why he’s stayed so long, he says: “Oh, it’s the mince pies! They’re nice and sticky. I love them.
“It’s job security, though,” says David, who lives in Gateshead.
“I started off in store working on Jackson Street in Gateshead as a store baker. I was there for 10 years. I used to make everything the factory did but on a small scale.
“Over the years it’s changed and all the artificial colours and flavours have been taken out of all the Christmas lines.”
Stephen’s preparing for a quiet Christmas with his parents round at his house. “I’ve just got Christmas Day and Boxing Day off because it’s our busiest time of the year. It’s a quiet Christmas because I need to come to work on the 27th.”
The Christmas ring buns, festive cupcakes and Christmas tree biscuits – along with the mince pies – will soon be a feature of Christmas past as they look to their next seasonal lines.
Stephen says, with a smile: “From the back end of January we start the hot cross buns.”