Andy Baxendale gears up for speaking at our sector showcase
As a member of Confectionery Production’s editorial board, Andy Baxendale has plenty of tales from his varied career. Editor Neill Barston meets him at his UK studios in Greater Manchester, to discuss life amid the pandemic, and his latest plans including preparing to speak at the 2021 World Confectionery Conference
Having tackled projects teaching fudge making in Saudi Arabia, developing CBD-based sweets in the US, and starring in a BBC screen series on confectionery through the ages, Andy Baxendale has never been afraid of a challenge.
These are just a few of the many highlights from what he enthuses is continuing to prove an especially varied and enjoyable career within an ever changing sector, as the industry evolves amid the coronavirus pandemic.
As the man known as the Sweet Consultant explains, it was by accident that he found himself in the business, after realising what was a very different early chemistry-based role in the nuclear power sector wasn’t for him.
So, as fate would have it, he found himself working for the renowned British confectionery brand Chewits in the mid 1990s, where he quickly built a strong technical knowledge of the sector that he says still serves him well to this day.
“Being there at Chewits introduced me to the sugar chemistry side of the industry which I found fascinating, which I built on. If you can fall in love with something that you do for a job makes things so much easier and why I’ve stuck with it,” enthuses the 54 year-old expert of those formative experiences, as he catches up with Confectionery Production for an exclusive video interview.
Those first experiences would lead on to becoming new product development manager for the business, which also opened up the opportunity for studies to gain a Master of Science (Msc) in Advanced Food Manufacture from Birmingham University, which he says has subsequently opened up a number of new pathways.
This included working for several other manufacturers in the confectionery field including Toms and Glisten, which he says have all helped gain an appreciation for the sector in forging and improving new lines of confectionery.
That’s certainly been the case for him for his present role at North East based Sweetdreams confectionery, home of the renowned ‘Choc Nibbles’ line of treats, where he serves as technical director.
As Baxendale reveals, while the past few months may indeed be continuing to pose broader economic tests in terms of coronavirus, he says that after initiallyhaving an enforced down period amid government advised covid restrictions, it’s been full steam ahead at the company’s premises in Northumberland.
Clearly, as Confectionery Production has recently reported, the sector is facing a tough period, yet many firms, including Andy’s present employer appear to be refreshingly resilient to the situation. “Though I was furloughed for about seven or eight weeks, with the factory being closed for several weeks during that time, it’s been full-on ever since.
The Chocolate nibbles side is a pocket-money treat made with proper chocolate, so it’s quite a unique product that only we make,” explains the technical director of his work with the business that has made a strong niche for itself within the British market.
In addition to its core range, the business delivers a number of speciality confectionery treats. These include ‘marbled’ cashew nuts encased in white chocolate, freeze dried raspberries with a white coating, cocoa dusted dates, and one of Andy’s favourites, a salted caramel chocolate almond, which the experienced confectioner reveals is proving a particular hit at present.
The company deals with a number of retailers across the UK, as well as serving a variety of small and medium-sized B2B customers, which he says remains a core area of the firm’s operations that is showing continued growth.
Speaking about his work with the business, he says there’s ‘never a dull day in its operations’ with his daily tasks encompassing everything from quality testing, monitoring its panning systems, through to work on sampling for new product development.
In terms of special measures, he says the company is continuing to enhance existing health and safety precautions, including additional sanitisation of its factory at Cramlington, installing social distancing systems where possible, as well as taking additional hygiene precautions in dealing with external contacts within the company’s logistics chains.
“We’ve had to make some adaptions in-house, such as having more PPE equipment, but in terms of production, the pandemic has not affected the business other than those first few weeks.” With the firm’s production capacity now back up to full strength, he says one of the biggest challenges has come in helping prepare the business for its latest BRC food safety standards assessment.
The site presently has a grade A rating, which it is eager to maintain. As Andy reveals, these stringent production standards remain the gold level of quality for the sector, and it’s clearly the case that obtaining them is something which remains highly prized.
The manufacturer certainly offers a very different set of challenges compared to some of his former roles after his days at Chewits, which included running a traditional sweet shop with his wife Helen near their home in Greater Manchester.
“We’d set it up at a time when traditional stores were just starting to make a comeback, and it had a great atmosphere there when it went well. The one thing it did teach us is that you have to have the right footfall in there, as these are impulse purchases, so you’ve got to have the right location.”
As fate would have it, they’ve preserved an element of being a husband and wife team at Andy’s Wigan studios where we meet up for our interview, which also serves as the couple’s creative workshop. It’s also where he intends to base some of his confectionery industry training when not involved with his Sweetdreams day-to-day commitments, and it’s the subject of passing on his knowledge that he will focus on at the World Confectionery Conference.
“Teaching skills should be the most important thing in confectionery, otherwise we will lose a lot of it. While it seems that many people have baking skills again these days, nobody knows how to make sweets.
“If you went back 150 years or so, everyone would have been able to make them at home whether that’s things like fudge or rock, but those skills disappeared, which I think is because ranges are so mass produced these days,” explains Andy, who adds it has been encouraging to see signs of recovery in terms of artisan chocolatiers slowly emerging round the country over the past decade or so.
“I think another reason we haven’t seen many people making sweets is due to sugar being so vilified at the moment. If you look at it on a cellular level, glucose is responsible for a lot of the interaction between your cells, so it’s been proved that if you take all sugar out of your diet, it affects the way your body lives,” says the expert, who asserts that he remains unconvinced by attempts to find alternatives for conventional sugar-based confectionery, with some commercial sweeteners containing undesirable chemicals.
With a note of considerable optimism he says he’s taken a strong personal interest in collecting confectionery sector journals dating back many decades that have served up a host of traditional recipes that he says still provide inspiration to this day.
There have been many highlights along the way so far for his consultancy work over the past decade. Among his diverse array of credits are creating sugar free chewing gum for a business in French Guiana in South America, through to working across Europe including a recent project for delivering a liquorice product in Sweden, that have certainly kept him on his toes.
But it is his recent experiences in Saudi Arabia that have proved particularly memorable for being somewhat unlikely out in the desert heat of the Middle East. “Teaching people to make fudge there in Saudi was a brilliant experience in totally different place. The people there were very accommodating – It’s a bizarre place to work though, in that it’s totally different from what we are used to here.
“I went to a shop of chocolatiers who wanted to diversify and put on a show in being able to do live fudge making demonstrations in the store, so it was an entertainment thing for them – they picked it up really well. I spoke to them recently and they’re under curfew as we are here, but they’re still going.
“It’s fantastic and really rewarding to see people learn from you, and it was the same with my visit to Oakland in California, where they were making CBD type tic tacs, they were starting off from scratch with the product, so it was really good to be able to train them up from the ground,” he adds.
Both Andy and his wife Helen, a primary school teacher, appear commendably passionate about their respective ventures. Whether either of their two children will follow in the ‘Sweet Consultant’s footsteps has yet to be seen, but as Andy concedes, their daughter, who is studying drama and performing arts, ‘makes a mean fudge,’ so it seems there’s hope yet.
Beyond the day-job, one of his other main passions are his Harley Davidson bikes, including a custom model which stands as a particularly cherished piece of kit. As his wife explains, “It’s his ultimate dream is to go on a ride with the Hairy Bikers (the BBC”s long-haired culinary biking duo), in somewhere like Mongolia, and just stop off and make some fudge there for a programme,” she laughs, of her husband, who, given his willingness to take on an intriguing venture, you wouldn’t put it past him to achieve such a goal after all his highly engaging projects around the world.