Is life sweet?

Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls are as Wigan as can be. Neil Tague catches up with the family firm’s bosses to see how they’re coping with a storm-tossed retail landscape

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The Jackson Five once described ABC as “easy as one two three”. Conversely, it can represent the most challenging year in the life of a venerable, even iconic Wigan business – Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls.

“Amazon, Brexit, Corona – if you’re hit by one of those, you’re limping, and we’ve been hit by all three. It’s been tough out there,” says Antony Winnard, joint managing director.

“People’s way of buying has totally changed. Sweets are generally an impulse buy, and if people aren’t physically in the confectionery aisle it makes it a lot harder.”

That combination of online retail’s growth, disruption to international shipping and the Covid-19 pandemic have made the last 12 months an uphill struggle for Uncle Joe’s, a business still as firmly rooted in its home turf as when the Santus family kitchen witnessed the first batch being cooked up in 1898. The sweets are still hand-made over open fires to the same recipe.

Antony’s brother and co-MD John adds: “We’re a non-essential, and places like TK Maxx being closed is really damaging.”

Needless to say, the brothers, who are great-nephews of founder William Santus and have been running the company since the early 1990s, are hoping for a fair summer, the continuing success of vaccine roll-outs and retail to stay open.

What might have been helpful, but hasn’t come to fruition, is a publicity leg-up from the 46th president of the USA. “We sent Joe Biden a gift, thinking that there’s a natural link there with
the Uncle Joe’s name. Sadly we’ve not heard anything, but you never know,” says Antony.

It’s been a grind. The company remains family-owned and independent, so every deal to get on a trader’s shelves has to be grafted on, even in good times.

They’ve had to let a couple of people go, but they’re keeping their heads together, getting back on the tools, making sure they get the most out of the skills they have in an in-house team of around 15. John says: “You know how people go on about putting weight on in lockdown? I’ve lost two stone!”

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Generally speaking, Antony looks after the inside of the business, overseeing production, while John is the front man, looking after sales and marketing, opening up new directions.

That usually means criss-crossing the globe, working the big industry trade shows, joining government delegations. As John says: “We’d have been at ISM in Germany in January, New York in June, we’d have been at Food & Drink Expo at ExCel in London – all those missed opportunities to take us forward.”

They’ll be OK, though – the Winnards have been doing this a long time and are helping others, working as “export champions” with the Department for International Trade. “I did a virtual conference in Kuwait last week,” says John. “It actually gives you a chance to speak to people from a wider geographic spread than you could get in one location.”

International links aren’t just about people and selling, of course. They’re about the transport of materials. Brexit isn’t helping, and nor are market pressures on materials from a certain online retail giant.

John says: “Packaging has been affected. There have been issues getting tin plate into the country. You don’t know when it’s arriving and at what price. The price of cardboard has gone up three times in three months, partly because Amazon take so much.”

Not for nothing is cardboard being called “beige gold” in the recycling industry.

Ingredients too are affected. “We use a specialist cane sugar from the Ivory Coast,” says Antony. “We’re having to carry twice as much stock as we need, purely because the supply has become inconsistent. It affects cashflow. The small things add up to big things.”

Responsibility for the family firm fell to the brothers in 1990, when John was 34 and Antony 32. “People thought we’d sell up and buy Ferraris. The company wasn’t doing that well but we gave it a real health check. Our first trade show in Germany in 1994 was a key moment.”

The next big step was a deal with Chelsea Market Baskets, a gourmet hampers business based in New York. This was done through a US agent who
is still working with the firm today.

John says: “Exporting’s always part of it for us. If things are bad in the home market, there’s always options to explore. We got into Japan through one of our employees getting married there. Her husband lost his job and asking if he could be our distributor there.”

Uncle Joe’s have been made at the same factory sine 1919, netting the firm a visit from HRH Prince Charles for the centenary two years ago. Sticking with the old school recipe means that not only is there a tale of provenance, dietary trends have swung their way too –
“we’re GM-free, gluten-free and suitable for vegans”, says Antony.

He continues: “Yes, it would be cheaper to do things differently. But our grandfather and father always told us:
‘If you put good stuff in you’ll get good stuff out.’ The cane sugar we use is at least double the price of white sugar or beet sugar but it would taste different
and our longstanding customers would let us know about it.

“We also use the best peppermint, from America, where we could get something five times cheaper from China.”

The old-fashioned way of making the sweets is an art form, and it’s something that’s scared off friends in other confectionery businesses. The human touch is a must, watching and controlling, waiting for the start of caramelisation. “It’s quite a skilled process. There’s a lot to do with ambient temperature. Sight and feel play a part. Someone has to make those decisions.”

One of the changes they’ve made is making bigger batches, requiring a mechanical lift for pans in line with handling regulations. They’re still handmade, which is important.

New things are being introduced all the time, though, including a machine capable of wrapping 2,000 sweets a minute, although generally it’s set at half that speed. “You don’t drive your car at top speed all the time, do you?” asks Antony, not unreasonably.

It’s been a tough time but the Winnards are smiling. John says: “You’ve got to take it as it comes. We’re small enough that hopefully we’ll be able to react well to any changes.”

Photos: Horward Barlow

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