A Lake District chocolate maker is planning to transform its business with a £850,000 expansion – including the creation of a new factory and distribution centre in Penrith.
Friars, which owns chocolate shops in Keswick and Ambleside, has been supported by the Government’s Made Smarter iniative, which helps businesses take advantage of new technology.
Friars, which has been in business for almost 100 years, started making its own brand of premium chocolates by hand last year.
Now, the third generation family business plans to automate its manufacturing process, which it hopes will be game-changing for the company and increase production by 733 per cent.
The plans will help it meet the increasing demand for its products, managing director Michael Webster said.
Friars is in initial discussions to invest in a new factory and distribution centre near the M6 in Penrith.
Mr Webster, who runs the business with his brother Richard, said: “Our ambition is to become one of the UK’s largest manufacturers of quality chocolates, but in order to do this we need to look to technology to enable us to scale up our operation while producing the highest quality possible.
“Made Smarter’s support and advice has accelerated and derisked our investment in process automation technology which will take the brakes off our growth plans and transform our business.”
The new production system will allow it to automate the labour-intensive element of its production line while retaining key handcrafted elements.
Last year, after struggling to find a reliable source of vegan chocolates, Friars began making its own, and now produces up to 6,000kg of chocolates a year, using an entirely manual process.
Mr Webster said: “The human element is at the start and the end of the process, making up the recipe and then hand finishing the product.
“The digital machinery will replace the manual, repetitive, time-consuming and sometimes painful process in between.”
It currently makes 30kg of chocolates a day and the new system will increase it to 250kg immediately, with scope to scale up to allow Friars to expand.
The extra productivity will allow Friars to satisfy its own direct sales requirements but also to wholesale, and enable Friars’ head chocolatier to devote more time on the research and development of new products.
Mr Webster added: “The retail sector is going through an uncertain time, so we need to secure our future.
“Made Smarter has given us real confidence that our approach is the right one.”
Donna Edwards, North West adoption programme director at Made Smarter, said: “Friars is a superb example of a Made Smarter-supported business which has identified the value technology can bring to its operations.
“By combining automation technology with its handcrafted techniques, Friars is forecasting significant growth, and productivity and efficiency gains.
“Friars is among hundreds of manufacturers in the region grasping the opportunities offered by Made Smarter.”
Friars began as a cafe and catering business in 1927 before fully moving into retail in the 1970s with its shops in Keswick and Ambleside selling confectionery and giftware.