Industry Profile Betty Miller

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Industry Profile: Betty Miller
15th March 2016

By Sandra Pearce

Betty Miller has set itself the challenge of baking the best dog biscuit in the world. We drop by its Daventry bakery to see how this journey is coming along



Baking the perfect pet biscuit, says Betty Miller’s Alex Baker, is a bit like science meets magic. It’s not just mixing a bunch of ingredients together, it ‘takes something else’. It’s that magical intuitive sense that a dough is just right, or it needs that little bit more water. No book can teach you that.

Based in Daventry, Alex thinks it is the only manufacturer in the UK pet trade that uses biomass pellet ovens, making it a carbon-neutral bakery. With biomass, the carbon released through burning the wood pellets is in theory absorbed by new trees being grown to replace those that were cut down for fuel. The result is a very short carbon cycle, which sounds pretty magical. To further its green credentials, the business uses an energy supplier that harnesses renewable sources such as wind, wave and solar.



Betty Miller is one of three brands belonging to Natural Bakery, which acquired the Hungry Hector range of semi-moist treats in late 2014. There’s a bit of wizardry about the Hungry Hector treats that keeps them fresh without artificial means. The secret, says Alex, is in the packaging: there’s a tiny sachet which acts as an oxygen absorber, keeping the food fresher for longer. It’s simple chemistry, and without any nasties.

Magic does not, however, always go to plan and sometimes it is not so much David Blaine as Walt Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Alex, who admits a particular penchant for experimentation, recalls one incident using potato flour. “When we added water, it looked like mashed potato and it went everywhere. It was like having 75kg of chicken-flavoured Smash, and trying to clean up was a nightmare,” he said.



Other times, what seems like the best idea in world just does not capture the imagination of customers. “Sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t,” he said philosophically. “We just move on to the next thing.” Though he does admit that now, with experience, the team has ‘a very good idea if something is going to work or not’. “It’s been a long learning curve.”

Baking, he reflects, is not for everyone. “I cannot just put someone on the production line and let them get on with it. There is a lot of mentoring, so we need the right person and with the right mentoring. Even with the simplest job, if they cannot see that something is right, you run the risk of it going wrong. With every mix, we stop it halfway and feel the dough. We are very hands-on.”

This is important, he explained, because rising temperatures during the day affects the dough’s consistency, which in turn can cause the biscuit to become misshapen or overcooked.”



They may be pet treats, but the approach is as if this is a bakery for humans. The production manager came with 30 years’ experience in the human bakery sector, and the Daventry site has modeled itself on the protocols and practices of the human food industry. “We do not draw a distinction between a human and pet food bakery,” he said. “We want to make biscuits the same way we make human biscuits.”

Crucially, it’s about treading that fine line between running a professional kitchen with high volume output and being a mass producer. “Every single biscuit gets touched by one of us at some stage,” he said. “All our dough, at every stage of the way, our staff are testing it and keeping an eye on it.



“Yes, it is very labour intensive, but people like treats made in the kitchen. We are not a mass producer but a volume producer, similar to the artisan bakery in the human industry. It is important for the products, to have that tactile interaction. It gives it character. And we take the time to make the products.”
As an example, look at Betty Miller’s flagship Big Biscuits. These are hand cut individually and then baked for an hour. At the moment, staff bake around 10,000 Big Biscuits each month.

Biscuits and other treats are made in 75kg batches, as the bakery has been set up to providing small batches of lots of variety. In fact, the bakery makes 100 different products, which is not surprising when you consider that almost 40% of its turnover is private label.

THREE IS A MAGIC NUMBER

Betty Miller, Hungry Hector and Natural Way are the three brands of the Natural Bakery. Though the three share the same emphasis on high-quality natural ingredients with absolutely no additives in any form, shape or colour, each has its own unique proposition and story to tell. Treats are a fun, impulse purchase, and so more than any other category, it is important to innovate and give customers choice, he said.



Betty Miller is all about having fun with treats. The premium end of the market, says Alex, tends to focus on the science and can be very stern in look. “Why can’t you have fun with your dog treats, but also offer a high-quality natural treat? We’re all about combining the two.”

The range, which now has more than 30 products (all of which are hard biscuits), therefore features fun, attractive packaging and offers simple recipes, but of high quality. “It’s a bit strange, a bit quirky in its approach… and the independent trade has grabbed it and values it.”



Natural Way Gourmet Treats has grain-free, meat-free baked products, and is placed at the super premium, luxury end of the treats spectrum, a bit like the after-dinner mint. It has more exclusive ingredients such as dried strawberry powder (for Strawberry & Rhubarb) and orange oil (for Carob Choc).
Other products in the Natural Way range all extol their natural quality and hypoallergenic properties, and feature herbs and botanicals.

Hungry Hector is the latest acquisition, and it caters to dog owners who had been asking for a soft treat. These highly palatable, semi-moist treats feature a very high meat content and are designed to be used on walks. The packaging is therefore geared towards this, said Alex, and each product is named after a famous walk: South Woof Coast Path, Hadrian’s Walk, Offa’s Delight, South Down’s Stay and Canine Way. Demand by retailers for Hungry Hector is strong, he added, and the challenge is increasing production, yet growing in a sustainable, organic way rather than ‘running too fast’.



All three brands want to grow their presence in the independent market, and with this in mind, attend six major consumer shows and both PATS. “At consumer shows we make the point of saying that if your local pet shop does not sell, to go and ask, because we we can arrange distribution.”

Although it does sell its products online, it charges p&p so as not to undermine the independent.
In January 2015, the bakery moved to a new site as it had outgrown the previous. Within months it had reached full capacity and went on to acquire the unit next door, effectively doubling its size to 16,000sq ft. It should all be fully operational this March.



Alex has two roles as such – he is in charge of growing Betty Miller, but he is also in charge of the bakery’s overall production. “I split my day between HR Alex, Production Alex, Marketing Alex, Sales Alex, Finance Alex and Management Alex,” he said. The reality is that there is never a typical day for him, and he has been known to do his day job and then jump on to the production line for the evening shift (the bakery runs from 7am until 11pm). In the early days, he also handled the maintenance of all machinery, as he enjoys seeing how things work. Whether it is taking apart a motorbike, stripping a car’s engine or looking at an oven, the essentials are all the same, he said. “I like pushing boundaries, and will tinker with the machinery or change things on the production line to see if we can do things differently or make things more efficient.”

At the moment, focus across all three brands is increasing production, and the business has more than doubled its machinery. “We are also innovating on packing lines, which still has a lot of human interaction.”
Developing a brand and marketing that brand simultaneously is extremely challenging, he says. Sometimes, one has to take a step back and evaluate exactly where one is, and where one wants to go. For Betty Miller, it’s all about making the best biscuit in the world, he said. “That’s our mentality, everything we do, we focus around making it happen.”
But a room full of shiny machines does not a bakery make, he said. “It’s the people and the interaction that matters, the drive towards achieving a common goal that makes us what we are. You can buy a machine, but you cannot buy what we are.”



Great customer care is key to this, as it’s all about getting their message to consumers, and the best way is via social media. “We use it a lot,” he observes. “Our trade is young and based on relations and personality, and we understand that. We are still a small, growing company; we do not have huge budgets, and it is definitely challenging being a manufacturer and a brand builder.”

It’s not for the faint-hearted, but there is an incredible amount of fun, he said. “I cannot think of anything else I would rather do. It’s captivating and motivating, I would get very bored very quickly otherwise. Our focus is growing our existing brands. We have some nice new concepts, and some real nice ideas for other products. But we want to get some real traction in the UK with what we have first.”
Pity one can’t wave a magic wand and achieve that instantly.