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The spud-tacular world of Mr Tayto's famous crisps

When it comes to the crunch, the famous crisps are a real flavour of home. Ahead of the local brand's 60th birthday celebrations, Ivan Little gets his teeth into the history of the company which is the big cheese (and onion) of snacks here.

The world's greatest footballer Lionel Messi may be scoring big time in commercials for a rival crisp company, but Northern Ireland's Tayto firm has big hitters playing for them too and they haven't been paying them a packet for their backing.

For Liam Neeson, Rory McIlroy, Ant and Dec, and Snow Patrol are all devotees of the Tandragee crisp-makers which is celebrating its 60th birthday on Monday.

And the firm's iconic cheese and onion brand is the stars' flavourites.

Neeson has a regular standing order for a couple of boxes to his home in America; McIlroy recently tweeted a picture of the distinctive yellow cheese and onion packets at a Thanksgiving meal to his millions of followers; Ant and Dec came on stage for a show in Belfast eating the crisps, and Snow Patrol has also been pictured munching the famous Tayto snacks.

The cheese and onion crisps also have Facebook pages dedicated to them.

You'll find poems and songs in their honour on the internet, and they regularly feature in lists of the top 10 things which people associate with Northern Ireland - especially ex-pats who can now order them online.

Tayto export their wares to 43 countries from the States and Bahrain to Malta and Dubai.

But nearer home, the number crunchers have revealed that one in five of the packets which crisp lovers get through here are Tayto cheese and onion.

However, a visit to the sprawling Tayto factory in Tandragee Castle, where over 400 people are employed, reveals that there are other intriguing statistics to chew over.

Like the fact that the Co Armagh operation produces an astonishing one million packets of crisps and snacks every working day. What many people also don't realise is that Tayto - which has no links to the company of the same name in the Republic - own a number of well-known brands across the water including Golden Wonder and Jonathan Crisp. The company has factories in Corby, Wolverhampton, Scunthorpe and Westhoughton, and across all their sites it employs 1,500 people producing five million packets of crisps and snacks every day with an annual turnover of £180m.

It's all a far cry from February 1956 when local businessman Thomas Hutchinson set up the Tayto firm in the historic 500-year-old Tandragee Castle which was home at various times to the likes of the ancient O'Hanlon clan; the Dukes of Manchester, Polish prisoners of war and even a United States army squadron during the Second World War as preparation for the Normandy landings.

In the early days before the high-tech automation of modern times, only a few hundred bags of crisps were turned out by a staff totalling just six people every week and they were all salted by hand.

Quite incredibly one of Tayto's first employees is still working in the office today, 60 years on.

Seventy-year-old Nan Morrow works only part-time now but as a teenager she was recruited by the company secretary Joe Henry who worked for Tayto until the ripe old age of 85.

"I have seen some astonishing changes here," she says. "In the office obviously, we have computers now instead of ledgers and the production process is all totally different. There were only a handful of girls on the line when I started but they soon needed more workers."

And Nan was handed a pivotal role in finding them.

"Mr Henry would ask me to find workers and I would go out on the bicycle and go round the houses and see if people wanted a job. And obviously they did."

Nan, who lives in Tandragee, has no plans to retire. "I love it here and the company has always been good to me. A lot of my colleagues have been here for a long time."

Another long-serving member of the office finance staff is 69-year-old Elsie Gill who was head-hunted by Nan Morrow 37 years ago.

"I don't think you find many better employers than Tayto and it's great that it is still owned by the Hutchinson family."

PR manager Bob Brown, who is another Tayto veteran, gave me a tour of the factory and revealed that the 120 tonnes of potatoes used for the crisps and snacks every week are grown by around 20 farmers north and south of the border.

The firm use three varieties of potatoes - Lady Claire, Lady Rosetta and Verdi - which Bob says are easy to grow and easy to process, giving a "nice clean crisp".

The potatoes can be held in vast storage facilities for up to a year under strict temperature controls before they are turned into 10 varieties of flat crisps.

They're sorted by size with regular sized potatoes going through an eight-blade slicer which cuts each crisp to a 1.2mm thickness and then they're washed and fried before passing through a computerised machine which rejects any of them which are below standard.

A number of workers then check the crisps again before the flavouring is added and the finished products descend through hoppers and are sealed into bags ready for delivery

The bigger potatoes are used for Tayto's hand-cooked crisps which have been a response to the growing trend for gourmet artisan snacks. The hand cooked varieties are sliced more thickly and cooked for longer and nearby a series of snacks are produced, some with corn.

Throughout the year, Tayto open up the factory for tours and they are extremely popular with school parties including a group from the Little Flower School from Belfast who were combining their visit with a project on the environment.

"The children were fascinated by what they learnt," says their teacher Emma Clark. "They also enjoyed getting free samples and meeting Mr Tayto, the company's mascot, but from a more serious point of view they will be taking what they have found out here back to the classroom to help them with their studies."

Visitors are also shown a locked room where Tayto say the "secret" ingredients for the flavouring of their cheese and onion crisps are added. "But no one is allowed inside," says Bob. "Only a handful of people know what is involved."

His colleague Brian Hazley, who's the production manager of Tayto, has worked his way up from the shop floor over his 34 years with the company.

"I have been through every part of the factory and I have seen an awful lot of changes. We used to have 60 people working on the lines but once automation came in, it's all different. But the people who were on the lines are now working in other areas of the process."

Brian says he was a hands-on manager who spent virtually all of his time in the factory. "I'm not an office man," he adds. "And the owners from the Hutchinson family are on first-name terms with most of the workers here." Geoffrey Barton has been with Tayto for 31 years and is line supervisor with the hand fried department. "We are all very proud of what we produce in Tayto. And it's very much a team effort here."

The entire workforce in Tandragee has been invited to a birthday party in the factory on Monday when the management are encouraging as many of their employees to wear something yellow in line with the cheese and onion crisps packaging.

Tayto acknowledge that competition is intense from Walkers, which has former England international footballer Gary Lineker as their advertising figurehead. "They are owned by Pepsico and they can afford the likes of Gary Lineker - but we have Rory McIlroy."

But Bob says he believes Tayto has a massive future ahead. "We are only restricted by imagination so if we can think it we can do. We have some exciting things in the pipeline especially as 2016 is Northern Ireland's year of food and drink

"We are talking innovation here and taking crisp making to the next level," says Bob,.

They're also laying on a birthday cake but they're not saying what flavour it will be ...

Belfast Telegraph


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