FH: stories | Plamil Foods

After 60 years in business, the coronavirus pandemic has presented a “completely unique situation” to Plamil Foods, but experience and insight helped them see the way things were going and they took action early to protect staff and the business.

The company manufactures plant-based food and drink from its Folkestone HQ and it started out supplying vegan products long before it became the fast-growing industry it is today. These include soya milk, chocolate and egg-free mayonnaise.

Managing director Adrian Ling has been described as ‘the vegan Willy Wonka’ for his passion for chocolate and unconventional approach. He has developed an innovative and ethical business model which includes sourcing all the company’s energy from renewable sources and using recycled or recyclable materials for packaging.

“Some people say that chocolate isn’t a key food but we quickly looked at this and thought we don’t only supply chocolate – we supply a lot of other products but also chocolate and also as an ingredient to trade. We are a very diverse business and this is a big advantage because people still need to eat.” Interestingly, chocolate consumption has soared nationally, being a source of comfort in times of uncertainty.

Responding to crisis

“We were really taking this as a threat right back at the beginning of March and initiated our crisis management – in the food industry we have systems in place to cope with access to supplies, staff, and obviously high food hygiene standards. It was a matter of implementing and amending those so we could physically operate.”

Of the company’s 50 staff, Plamil took the decision early on to adopt working from home where possible and only those that were absolutely needed remained on site.

“Staff have responded well, we have changed layouts and have done all the things the industry is looking for us to do.  I’m very proud everyone has come together and worked hard to ensure that the business can operate in a safe way as much as possible.”

A unique situation

Adrian credits the company’s heritage for its resilient response to probably the greatest challenge Plamil Foods has faced in its 60 year history, “The roots of the company came out of wartime and as a long-standing business we have a financial heritage as well that goes behind us. My father, who created the company, instilled in me a financial robustness.

“We have always taken the approach that you never know when it is going to be a rainy day. It’s a shame that many companies will have a hard time and some will go out of business.”

While operating in lockdown, the company has continued its product development and has recently launched new packaging for its best-selling soya milk, which plays on its heritage, “Interestingly the launch of that particular product got advanced because soya milk sales increased significantly when lockdown started.

“Our internet sales have lit up – we are selling so much soya milk and those sorts of staple products online it is unbelievable. Consumer habits have changed, people are doing a weekly supermarket shop and there are limits on the number of items and what people can carry. People have reverted to buying this sort of thing online delivered to their door.”

The legacy of lockdown

Adrian is reflective about the lasting effects of the lockdown, “We are never going to go back to where we were as a business, we will go forward to a new normal. People will also start understanding they can’t rely on everything tomorrow as it has been today. We are more vulnerable than we have been before. I hope that perhaps people will start looking at the environment and becoming more wholesome.

“The health and wholefood trade has always advocated a better way of life than sheer commercial consumerism and I really sincerely hope we don’t go back to consumeristic habits.”

Characteristically he ends on a positive note, “I have to say who can ever resist a good chocolate! Whatever happens people will always be attracted to that.”