Later this year Shaws pickles of Huddersfield are celebrating their 130th anniversary. Northern Life’s Julian Jordan crossed the border to Huddersfield in Yorkshire to chat about chutney and prattle about pickles.
The renowned makers of chutneys, relishes, sauces and salsas will mark the milestone in September with a big barbecue for staff, shareholders, suppliers and customers.
The event will be in the courtyard at the company’s Wakefield Road entrance, by the old wrought iron gates that were rescued from Huddersfield Market. They’ll also be giving away 130 jars of piccalilli – their signature product – to members of the public. The old market gates are an instant reminder that this is a business with a heritage and with Huddersfield hard-wired into its DNA.
The impressive production line features lots of automation, yet it runs cheek-by-jowl with manual processes where members of the 26 strong workforce greet you with a nod and a smile. They all seem to know each other and get along well – first name greetings are addressed to managers and strains of laughter can be heard in the production facility.
I immediately feel that I like it here and that’s before I’m given the factory tour by 24-year-old Annie Shaw, the sixth generation of Shaws to be involved with the business. I watch fascinated as bubbling tanks of chutney are processed through steel pipes and onto a line where they are bottled and capped.
There’s something that is wonderfully nostalgic about Shaws and their produce – yet alongside their admirably old fashioned values and pride in their heritage, their passion extends into a future where they anticipate growth and innovation.
Annie studied Business Studies with Environmental Management at Huddersfield University, taking a year out working for a civil engineering firm. She then worked as an operations manager in a housing development business, after graduating and for the last 14 months she’s been working in the family business, focussing on operations. She felt that the call from Shaws was at some point inevitable, but it probably came earlier than she expected.
“I anticipated the call because my mum always said that Shaws would always be there, but you need to get your ‘in-field’ experience. You want to get a job and learn how to do things,” said Annie.
“I’ve been working since I was 12. I worked at an ice cream parlour, a cafe – even at Laser Quest!
“I’ve been coming here though for as long as I can remember – my Dad even let me clock-in when I was little,” as she nods in the direction of the old fashioned clocking-in machine that’s on display in the corner of the boardroom.
I point out that it’s a profound responsibility. It’s her name over the door. It’s not a responsibility she shirks from though. She says with a twinkle in her eye, though I’m sure she’s only half-joking when she says:
“There’s an unwritten agreement that if my partner and I have children, our offspring will bear the Shaw name!”
Shaws’ methods of production place them firmly and unashamedly mid-market in terms of the volumes they make.
“We’re not ‘Mrs Miggins’ producing over a hob at home, but nor are we some vast subsidiary of a global food giant. It’s a position we are happy to occupy as it means that we can produce volumes to make us competitive, but their methods enable them to make no compromise on quality and flavour – something we are fiercely proud about,” said Jan.
According to Marketing Manager Lesley Atkins, Jan has assembled a highly skilled and experienced team which she describes as a necessary move “to stay up to speed in the highly competitive space that is the food industry. It changes so rapidly that we needed to pull this great team together.”
They must be doing something right – they’re producing 34,000kg a week, turnover has grown by almost 50% over the last three years and the business has 26 employees.
It’s a far cry from the last decades of the nineteenth century when Ely Shaw migrated to Huddersfield from Scotland with his wife and 14 children. His son George founded the business along with his sons Walter and Vincent, making lotions, potions and food products for the mill workers of Huddersfield. In its early years the business was Huddersfield’s vinegar brewer. Reaching their pickling heyday under Martin Shaws specialist direction throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Competition from much bigger enterprises forced them to sell the pickling line and focus on making chutneys.
Annie Shaw’s father, Daniel and uncle Matthew used to work in the business. Matthew had a production and technical focus; whilst Daniel with his food science background, was involved in the product recipe development. Matthew is currently Shaws chairman.
As Annie enthuses: “When my Dad met my Mum, she was also into recipe development – and they worked together on our salsa recipe.”
Marketing Manager Lesley interjects: “That’s our biggest seller!”
Annie sees herself more in the business mould of her Uncle Matthew, as she is fascinated with the production process and on our factory tour, she enthuses about every detail and explains it passionately.
Parallel to family genealogy, the trajectory of the business has developed from a maker of lotions and potions, to today’s business. Products now include ‘the everyday range’ which is stocked in Morrisons and includes the Mighty American, Chunky Mango Chutney, Caramelised Onion and Devilish Relish. The Heritage Collection was launched in 2011 – a nod back to the company’s past including Beetroot and Horseradish and Piccalilli.
Our conversation returns to heritage and provenance. “People know Yorkshire generally for its fantastic produce, but we stress our connection to Huddersfield,” says Annie. “We’ve always been here and served the community with food products – it’s our home and heartland. We think one of the reasons our chutneys are so good is because the soft water here is so good.”
“We’re still a relatively small company and so we’re heavily reliant on the skills of our workforce. We’re not as automated as a lot of businesses – we have quite a few manual processes and the line is manned quite intensively and everyone knows how it works.”
There is a commitment to the people who provide the human touch that they believe gives their products a flavoursome edge over competitors. This trumps the cold, corporate, cost-benefits approach every time.
In terms of the future, Annie says that they have a passion to expand the reach of their products and show us new ways to consume them. They acknowledge that the word ‘chutney’ appeals to a certain demographic – the over 50s. And, the vast majority of people only use chutney on sandwiches or cheese boards. Shaws want to expand our minds as well as our palates.
This leads us into a fascinating discussion about what constitutes a chutney. I learn that a chutney is a spicy condiment of Indian origin, made of fruits or vegetables with vinegar, spices, and sugar; a relish is a piquant vegetable-based sauce or pickle eaten with plain food to add flavour; whilst a pickle is a relish consisting of vegetables or fruit preserved in vinegar or brine.
Jan the MD, enthuses about using caramelised onion relish to pimp up your gravy. Lesley uses the Mighty American Relish with pasta and Annie puts Devilish Relish in with recipes in the slow cooker.
“The great thing about our products is that they’re low-acidity and they last a long time in the fridge unlike a cooking sauce. So you can use it on your cheese board and then go and put half of it in your meal and if you have a spoonful left it can go in your gravy,” says Lesley.
“Salsas are probably seen as a slightly more healthy product because they have less sugar in.
Annie suggests that terms such as relish and salsa have more cut-through with younger people than chutney, but even at 24 she’s a fierce guardian of the Shaw heritage and sees change as inevitable and something that has characterised the company’s 130-year history.
“My grandfather once told me that a chutney is mainly fruit-based and a relish is mainly vegetable-based. Whether that’s still the case, I’m not sure, but at Shaws, we’re really good at creating chutneys, relishes, sauces and salsas – that’s why we’ll be able to progress.
“In the past we changed from being vinegar brewers to picklers to chutney makers – that’s what the market demanded. I think that now we’re seeing a move to jellies and more variety of flavours – such as more heat, as tastes have changed.
“That’s the future – we will adapt and change and that’s what a great business should be able to do!”