So this week I had the pleasure of touring the real life Quality Street factory in Halifax (UK). How cool is that!? Added bonus: they’re making Easter eggs there at the moment in preparation for the big day.
For context, John Mackintosh opened a sweet shop there in 1890, opened the world’s first toffee factory eight years later, and his son Harold invented Quality Street in 1936. The company was bought by Nestlé in 1988, and is now home to QS, After Eight, Butterfinger, and for a short time each year, various Easter eggs.
After a long, scenic drive up some very steep hills overlooking the minster town down in the valley, I kitted up with hairnet, earplugs, shoes, and white overcoat – the type somebody would wear to avoid getting blood on their clothes.
On the lower floor is the packing process. A shiny new set of chrome sorters, each containing hundreds of a certain Quality Street sweet, drop some down to create a fairly balanced mix, which are deposited into tins and tubs, packed into boxes, and placed on pallets to be shipped. Imagine that smell when you open a new tin of Quality Street, multiplied by a hundred.
Very little human intervention is needed, as more and more technology has been introduced to automate the processes.
Upstairs is the wrapping stage – conveyer belts of each sweet winding around the vast factory floor. They are carefully funneled into the wrapping machine, which wraps up the sugary treat in foil and coloured plastic wrap in the blink of an eye. Foil and plastic almost instantly! To a constant rhythm, dozens every minute.
Walking up to the top floor, we see the final stage back in the process – making the sweets. I’m immediately greeted by wide conveyers of round Strawberry Delights moving along, covered in hot, melted chocolate. It’s funny seeing the White fillings on their own, naked, before being bathed in delicious cocoa-y goodness. They then bounce along a conveyer, which drains any excess chocolate.
In the room next door are three huge vats of melted chocolate, hundreds of gallons being kept warm and stirred. A pipe dumps more chocolate in to refill it, and while I try not to laugh at what it resembles, I still really want to jump in and eat it all up. Then there is a labratory-looking room, full of the various fillings that go into the 13 (at the moment) different treats. Orange Creme, Strawberry Delight, Caramel Swirl – all combine to smell like an immensely pungent ice cream parlour. Pipes exit the top of these tanks, and go on the journey downstairs, making the chocolates, setting them, wrapping them, and mixing into tins, part of 25,000 tonnes a year that families around the country enjoy.
The chocolate isn’t made in Halifax, so no cocoa beans in sight. Instead, it’s shipped in from other sites in tankers, dropped off outside, and travels through six miles of pipes, winding through the factory, before landing in on of three colossal vats.
I always wondered how Easter eggs were made, even though they’re so simple! Molds of half an egg are coated with fresh chocolate on the outside, then turned upside down, where any extra drains off to be re-used. About five molds wide (all textured on the outside to give a fun appearance), thousands meander through a day, one after another after another. They are sent up into the biggest fridge you’ve ever seen, and cascade down a zigzag to the bottom of the fridge – long enough to solidify the half eggs. After a vibrating machine jiggles them our of their molds, the eggs-to-be make their way to a set of hot plates that hover above the eggs and melt around the rims. The machine folds two halves together, and we have eggs!
They are covered in foil, automatically folded on, and another quality checker disposes of bad eggs, before a conveyer pushes them into cardboard boxes, carefully timed spinny things shut the flaps, and a laser glues it shut, before packing into bigger boxes (known as outers or cases), and sending to supermarket shelves.
The factory floor is not a bustling hub of employees, because so much of the process is automated – almost starting and finishing on one high-tech conveyer belt that makes its way down the factory floors. Up to 700 people occupy the site during peak season. Of course, Quality Assurance people stand at checkpoints, looking for dodgy Smarties before they make their way into an egg. At some stages, the line is monitored by sensors that detect when something goes wrong, or even CCTV.
Seeing hundreds of little Quality Street Sweets and Easter eggs being made was a dream, and if they allowed phones I could have shown you how I look in a hair net.