On the outskirts of Boston, on the grounds of a multi-million pound purpose-built site, man and machine combine to make food products for a vast number of shops across the UK.
Freshtime UK Ltd, based on the Riverside Industrial Estate, off Marsh Lane, counts leading supermarket and high street chains among its clients.
The firm produces prepared vegetables, snack salads and sandwich/deli fillers largely for shops (more than 2,500), but also for the ‘food services’ sector, such as restaurants and hotels.
Managing director Mark Newton said: “We are delivering seven days a week, 364 days a year. We give ourselves Christmas Day off.”
As to whether the operation spanned ‘John O’Groats to Land’s End’, he said: “We certainly are in Scotland and we certainly go down to Cornwall.”
Founded in 2000, Freshtime UK Ltd has invested more than £14 million in the site and employs about 350 people.
Much of its work is for so-called ‘private label’ goods, as in shop’s own brands, meaning the Freshtime UK Ltd name is not as visible as its products.
Mr Newton said: “It is out there in a number of stores, but 90 per cent of what we produce has other people’s names on it.”
The journey to the customer begins in the field, often those near Boston, but when the season means a product cannot be sourced locally the company looks to the likes of Spain, Italy, Greece, Israel.
Mr Newton said: “During the summer months, we buy as locally as we possible can.”
Despite the distance, a delivery from Spain can still reach the Marsh Lane factory in two days if the firm uses two drivers per vehicle, with the pair taking it in turns to sleep and drive. While deliveries is a big part of the company’s work, the company takes a number of steps to offset its carbon emissions and has ambitions of being carbon neutral by 2015.
The product may only take a matter of minutes to eat, but the conversations with farmers over specific ingredients begin a year or more in advance of them being harvested.
These talks continue over the months to ensure the quantity and quality is what the firm has in mind.
Planning is a big part of the company’s work. For example, it is keenly aware of the potential impact of this summer’s World Cup and is making decisions based on the dates - and even times - of England games.
Four years ago, England played Germany on a Sunday afternoon and it led to a surge in sales across the industry.
Mr Newton said: “The sales went up in salads by something like 70 per cent from one day to the next. That is several million bags or pots of salad that were sold one day to the next.”
There are also facilities on site to develop new recipes, with the firm keeping an eye on market trends and also utilising focus groups.
After all this planning, the raw materials are typically turned into a product on the same day as its arrival (some are set aside in case an order is increased, while others are tinned products and can be stored for longer).
Paul Faulkner, operations general manager, said: “It’s all about limiting the amount of time we hold them here.”
When a delivery arrives, the produce is inspected to ensure it meets the firm’s expectations. This is more than just a visual examination, with staff checking, for instance, the produce’s weight, its size or - in the case of mayonnaise - fluidity.
In an adjoining room, the produce will be sliced, diced or in some way prepared to be used in the products.
It will then be washed before passing onto the next room, where the raw materials will be assembled into the items which will go on sale.
The process is a mix of man and machine - a row of people cutting up a broccoli head being carried along a conveyor belt, a chain of others adding individual elements to a snack salad - the pasta, the salad leaves, the salmon - as it is brought towards a machine which will add the air-tight seal.
Of the operation, Mr Faulkner said: “We can get a product through the factory very quickly.”