For generations, the Batley air has been sweetly scented with delicious baking smells from Fox’s Biscuits.
It came from humble beginnings, but now Fox’s is famous the world over – and is celebrating its 160th anniversary this year.
Founded by one man in a small Batley bakehouse, the business has expanded and developed over many years, and now counts rapper Dizzee Rascal and boxer Amir Khan among its famous fans.
While the iconic brand is a huge part of local heritage, it’s also exported all over the world – so whether you’re in Soothill or South Africa you can dunk a Fox’s Classic in your afternoon brew.
The company still occupies the same premises at 1 Wellington Street, Batley, which it took over in the 1920s – but has developed it into a much larger site.
It employs around 850 people, rising to 1,350 during busy periods.
And Christmas comes early at Fox’s, where staff begin baking Christmas products in July.
What goes on behind the imposing facade of the Wellington Street building has always fascinated me.
So I was delighted when I got the chance to see inside the famous factory, which produces 1.5 billion biscuits every year – enough to go twice round the circumference of the Earth.
From development to distribution, everything is done in Fox’s Batley head office.
Fox’s is serious about health and safety and its stringent rules, which include a strict uniform and tight handwashing routines, have helped the factory win gold standard awards and ensure they can supply top retailers with their products.
After putting on my uniform I headed for the mixing room, where the biscuits start life. Production takes place over three floors, and the ingredients are sifted down from the floor above into giant mixing bowls on top of a weighing station in the mixing room.
Operations support manager Tom Phillips said: “Mixing is on one floor, baking on another floor and then cooling on another floor.
“The recipe is controlled by computer. A lot of biscuit companies now have high speed mixers but we still do it the old fashioned way, like you would at home.”
The ingredients are mixed and then rolled out flat on a dough web. The mixture is then moulded, cut or piped into the shape of the biscuit before a conveyor belt takes them into the ovens.
Tom said: “Most biscuits nowadays are made with rotary moulding but we make them in five different ways because we have such a wide range. It all comes down to what you want your finished product to look like.
“We have eight gas powerwed ovens at Batley. The short ones are 30 metres long but some of them are 55 metres long.”
The speed of the conveyor belt can be adjusted depending on bake time.
Chocolate biscuits are cooled to ensure the chocolate doesn’t melt when it covers them.
Viennese Melts are covered in chocolate on one side, and then turned and made into sandwiches.
They are then stored in a cool room, and then are put into an insert before being packaged. At Fox’s there are a number of ways to do this, from by hand, to by a state-of-the-art robot which scans the biscuits as they go along the conveyor so it can send the robot arm to exactly where each biscuit is.
Tom said: “Every hour we check biscuit samples to make sure they are consistent. We measure height, weight and length and if it starts to divert from the target we have to make an adjustment to the machine or tweak the recipe.
“A lot of the people who work here are skilled – you need these years of experience to know what you need to do to correct things.”
The biscuits are wrapped on a high speed machine, which also weighs and scans them with a metal detector. If something is amiss, the packet is blown off the line.
“Brandy snaps were one of the first Fox’s products and are still made today in the factory, and they are still packed by hand.”
After being boxed up the biscuits go to Fox’s distribution centre in Wakefield, where they wait to be ordered by customers.
Tom said: “The process takes about 40 minutes from mixing the ingredients to being packaged. Biscuits are sent out the same day they are made.
“We start production on Monday morning and run all the way until Friday night. Normally weekends are saved for cleaning and maintenance. We have highly skilled engineers and electricians, who work 24-7 keeping the machines running properly.
“A weekly schedule is put together which details which biscuits are to be made and when. The ovens have got big chimneys that go out through the roof. There is technology to take the smell away but people would probably complain!”