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Wedgewood Nougat – a sweet family affair

South Africa boasts an impressive premium nougat sector, with one of the most prominent names being KZN-based Wedgewood Nougat. It has just expanded its range with the launch of a new chocolate impulse product and a chocolate gift range – using real Belgian chocolate. 

“The chocolate impulse product will be 35g in size, following the European trend towards smaller servings in counter lines, while the gifting range will offer two elegant products that shout quality and taste but at affordable prices,” comments Wedgewood’s Paul Walters, who takes charge of the company’s marketing.

Wedgewood has come a long way since it began on Gilly Walter’s stove in the KZN Midlands. [Read the background to this very heartening entrepreneurial success story here and here]. Paul reports that Wedgewood currently exports to speciality food retailers in 12 countries, business that has been helped along by its ISO 22 000 ticket. Local reach, he adds, stretches to every province but that he’s on the hunt for distributors in Limpopo, Central and Southern Freestate and Northern Cape.

“We are looking to join forces with other SA manufacturers of temperature-sensitive products to consolidate regular refrigerated container shipments to Japan, Europe, the US and UK. Currently, no logistics company offers consolidation of reefer containers so we will have to do it ourselves.” says Paul.

Wedgewood AngelsSustainability is a Walters’ family watchword and nothing goes to waste, as you’ll read below. Egg yolks and nougat offcuts from the main nougat operation go into a secondary line – the production of truly delicious shortbread biscuits, dubbed Angels, made using one of Gilly Walters own original recipes, of course. Paul notes that these unique biscuits have also just been launched in a single-serving format for the foodservice trade. 

Wedgewood also bake its biscuits using brother Jon’s “Jungle Juice” (a biofuel made on theJungle Juice Walters farm from used vegetable oil collected from restaurants and fast food joints in Pietermaritzburg). It also fuels the family vehicles, farm tractor and factory fork lift.

Paul recently returned to SA after a stint abroad promoting Wedgewood in the UK and Europe. And he’s happy to be home: “We think that the SA market is refreshingly passionate, spontaneous and friendly after spending time marketing in UK and Europe. Viva SA!”

Wedgewood Nougat;

NougatA Brief History…. (It all started on the family stove)

Wedgewood Handmade Confectionery was started by Gilly and Taffy Walters on the family stove in 1999. Serious illness had driven the Walters family off their flower farm and Gilly and Taffy set about hosting dinner music concerts at their home to make ends meet. It was at one of these concerts that Gilly first made nougat and was inspired by happy guests to start selling it at the local farmer’s market in Pietermaritzburg.

We have come a long way from the family stove and in 2006 moved to our 1 400m² facility – custom built for food manufacture. We are passionate about sustainable business practice, the natural environment and committed to the development of South Africa. We hope that by living by our values, putting quality first and charging a fair margin we will build our brand to become market leaders in South Africa.

The Wedgewood team…. (36 Zulu voices singing in harmony)

Wedgewood Handmade Confectionery is a family business that now employs 45 full-time employees in an environment that promotes personal growth through innovative projects and fair labour practices. Although we do not profess to be spiritual leaders we try to bring Christian values into the heart of the business and start every morning with a song and prayer. 36 Zulu voices singing in harmony is a great way to start the day!

Food safety…. (No flies on us!)

Phew! Finally our food safety and quality management system is ISO 22,000 certified. A real team effort that we are proud of. 

Quality…. (Size doesn’t matter)

Quality first, quantity second. That is what we have based our business development model around and something we will never change. Quality is the heart of our business and we aim to make the finest soft honey nougat possible and many of our customers feel that we have achieved this. We only take on markets if we have spare capacity and since the improvement of our manufacturing processes in 2009 we now have increased capacity and are looking to enter the corporate retail sector in South Africa. 

Handmade…. (It just tastes better)

Handmade brings the art back into food because there are some things that machines just can’t do. Making nougat by hand ensures Walters Honey Nougat has a unique texture that is soft and smooth but not sticky while the Angels Nougat Biscuits are crisp and light. 

Unique flavour…. (Not too sweet)

Nougat was first made about 350 years ago. We believe that the modern palate has changed a lot since then and pride ourselves in having a flavour that is not too sweet (less cane sugar) which complements the delicious flavours of premium roasted nuts and specially selected South African honey. 

The finest natural ingredients… (No short cuts)

All our products are handmade using only the finest ingredients, no preservatives, no artificial colours, no large automated machinery, no short-cuts. Just good honest food made the old fashioned way. We crack our own fresh eggs in a specially designed room, we hand-select only a specific variety of local honey direct from the beekeeper and we only use the highest quality nuts that are then roasted to perfection before adding them to the nougat. This also helps us to achieve a nine months shelf life. 

Caring for the environment…. (Our biscuits are baked using our own bio-fuel … that’s 70% less carbon!)

Caring for the environment is not just part of our vision statement, we live it and we get a real kick out of it. What started out as a hobby for Gilly and Taffy has ended up as a big part of Wedgewood. Wedgewood’s first home has now become a benchmark oribi antelope conservation project recognised by WESSA, The Endangered WIldlife Trust and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife for the work we have done to protect South Africa’s most endangered antelope and is now home to over 1% of the population.

In our new premises we treat all our waste water, we make our own bio-diesel from used vegetable oil and this powers our three vehicles, backup generator, fork lift, farm tractor and our biscuit oven. The bio-fuel burns cleaner and emits 70% less carbon. There are more innovative and fun projects in the pipeline driven by Gilly and Taffy’s middle son – Sustainable Steve (pictured left). 

Sweet family affair (written March 2007, by Brenda Neall)

Entrepreneurs are a special breed and they are increasingly the innovation drivers in the South African food industry. And we need more of them because they create jobs and because you can’t buy their sort of passion with a pay cheque. Brenda Neall discovered a remarkable family of entrepreneurs at Wedgewood Nougat in the beautiful KZN Midlands.

THE arty-crafty-foodie Midlands Meander in KwaZulu-Natal, covering a broad rural ramble north of Pietermaritzburg, has become a ‘must do’ for any visitor to this picturesque corner of South Africa and there’s one name linked to it that is perhaps more famous than the route itself: Gilly Walters and her acclaimed Wedgewood honey nougat.

Gilly and her family might not like this description, because more genuinely unpretentious and just-so-darn-nice people would be hard to find, but it’s the truth, so they’ll just have to live with it.

Some years ago, Gilly rose to renown on the Midlands Meander through Touchwood, the family’s rose and veggie farm, and which later sprouted a popular shop and restaurant. Family and food are Gilly’s two great passions, and all her endeavours have involved both and even as youngsters, her three sons, Jon, Steve and Paul, were always part of the team and fast learnt the meaning of hard graft.

At Touchwood’s peak, cancer sadly struck Taffy Walters, Gilly’s land surveyor husband, and so they sold up the farm and moved to Howick. The ebullient Taffy (the ‘old bullet’ as his clan fondly refers to him), declined to succumb and in recovery turned his attention to a 60ha mielie field adjacent Hilton College that he planned to develop into a country estate (‘A kibbutz for his mates,’ quips Gilly), dividing it up into nine freehold erven for homesteads and with most being common land devoted in perpetuity to a proclaimed nature reserve and a safe refuge to breed the endangered indigenous oribi buck. Nine year’s ago it was a lifestyle property concept way ahead of its time, and those who eschewed Taffy’s offer to buy into his crazy scheme still berate their shortsightedness: this part of KZN is now hot real estate.

Set between two forests, the Walters called their new home ‘Wedgewood’ and the ever-resourceful Gilly devised a new enterprise; to use their acoustically-attuned house as a music venue extraordinaire and host intimate classical soirées that soon had guests and musicians, many of them international names, flocking to Hilton for these unusual and evocative evenings.

Gilly used her culinary skills to cater for the concert audiences and it was at one of these concerts that she made her first batch of Wedgewood nougat Mozart’s favourite food and was later encouraged by smitten guests to consider producing it commercially. Gilly’s kitchen stove soon became a hub of sticky white activity and the heart of an exciting home industry.

The recipe was perfected over time nougat is not exactly an easy thing to make and work with and soon sales at a local farmers’ market and other niche outlets began to take off. The Walters moved out of their kitchen into a small factory set up in their adjacent workshops, and Taffy reclaimed his evenings and his hands, much abused by the labours of hand-cutting endless batches of nougat.

Eight years on, Wedgewood Nougat has become a select confectionery item on national shelves, it has found a growing list of export customers in Japan and Europe and expanded into a new 1 000m2 greenfield factory across the valleys from Wedgewood at Birnamwood, sited in rural splendour overlooking the lush fields of Cedara Agricultural College.

The close-knit Walters family (parents, three sons, three daughters-in-law and an ever growing number of grandchildren) all live on the Wedgewood Estate and all but two daughters-in-law work in the factory – Steve is GM, Jon is an engineering genius, while Paul handles the marketing and sales. Gilly and Taffy have toned down into ‘sort-of’ semi-retirement and called it a day on their concerts (250 later), but their kitchen still is a focal point whether it’s entertaining friends, researching new products or just enjoying a working breakfast or lunch.

Why has Wedgewood been such a success? ‘It’s a great product! I think the nougat market is a remarkable phenomenon in South Africa, first started by The Coachhouse in Tzaneen and then Sally Williams really raised its profile,’ notes Paul. ‘Specialist nougat has evolved into a trendy and renowned niche, and such is its quality, we have proved we can hold our own in the confectionery world. But also discerning consumers here are a fantastic market base; they’re willing to try something new and if they like it, they’ll buy it.’

With Wedgewood stepping out of home-industry mode, the Walters Bros don’t deny the challenges in scaling up and moving into the export arena.

‘The business really grew organically initially, without much defined planning,’ says Paul. ‘We’ve now had to be more structured and set our vision, mission and goals. We’ve also recognised the importance of quality and safety credentials for overseas customers, even if we’re a small operation, and we should be HACCP, ISO 9001 and ISO 22000 certified by August.’

In attaining these tickets, Paul only has plaudits for the help and financing offered by the KZN SEDA (Small Enterprise Development Agency and an arm of the DTI) in reaching this ambitious end. They have also tapped into the DTI’s support for exhibiting at international food shows such as SIAL and ANUGA.

The Walters, while investing substantially in the business and building capacity, don’t ever want their brand to lose its home-crafted, hand-made appeal: ‘Quality over quantity is always a dilemma, but we’re interested in slow, sustainable growth,’ says Paul. ‘We don’t want to get too big. And we’ll never compromise on our quality ingredients: 36% nut and a 12% honey content, no preservatives or added gelatine, and small-batch manufacturing process. Essentially, Wedgewood is a quality nougat, and we aim to keep it that way.’

Wedgewood offers six nougat/nut variants in 55g and 110g bars, bon-bons and 110g gift boxes. With sustainability a Walters’ watchword, nothing goes to waste, and the egg yolks and nougat offcuts go into a secondary line, delicious shortbread biscuits, dubbed Angels, made using one of Gilly Walters own original recipes, of course.

The factory staff complement numbers about 30 for this hands-on operation, but some automation is improving efficiencies. For instance, Jon’s engineering talents have created mechanical rotary cutters for the onerous cutting duties, and packaging has been streamlined with a new Marden Edwards overwrapper and auto-labeller.

Wedgewood’s brand-enhancing point-of-sale display stands are interesting; they’re made on the farm of wood from alien saligna that has been cleared from the Walters’ two properties. This is a typical Walters’ touch, all devotees of environmental concern and stewardship.

Steve, (dubbed ‘Sustainable Steve’ by his brothers) in fact, has some novel long-term plans to make the factory site fully environmentally-friendly and mostly-self sustaining. His dream, already in the construction, will see water being harvested from rain and treated prior to private use in the family homes planned next door and in aquaculture (tilapia fish) ponds. This water will, in turn, be ‘cleansed’ from its nitrates as food for hydroponic vegetable tunnels, and recirculated back to the fish ponds. All the organic waste will go to compost, which will both heat up water for the fish ponds and fertilise the gardens and orchard. Effluent goes into a submerged sewerage treatment plant that will convert organic matter, through a series of bacterial anaerobic chambers, into available nitrates to feed into orchards. Ultimately, the fish, fruit and vegetables will feed their own families.

‘This is the joy of a family business it gives one the opportunity to pursue different objectives,’ comments Paul. ‘Our company’s bottom line is not primarily financial, but also about meaningful personal growth for ourselves and our staff. Wedgewood provides far more than a salary our lifeblood keeps us together and it has let us bring our passions into our business,’ he concludes.

Wedgewood Honey Nougat (033) 330-7444

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