Warnez has a passion for the potato, and it is this passion that has seen the Belgian company invest in long-term relationships with growers and customers to bring to the table a purely natural, high quality product
With a cultivation area spanning a record 89,163 hectares in 2016, the potato continues to be far and away the main food crop of Belgium, with production having tripled in under 40 years. This success extended into 2017, when approximately 4.57 million tonnes of potatoes were processed into fries, crisps, croquettes, flakes, granules and other potato products.
Ever-present in Belgium’s potato market since it was formed in 1950, Warnez initially traded as a seasonal business supplying an early summer crop. Since then it has grown into a year-round, high-tech potato packaging company, packing between 900 and 1000 tonnes of potatoes each week, in bags ranging from 300 grammes to five kilos. Both the company’s own storage potatoes and those of its contract growers come from lime soil areas within a 250 kilometre radius of its headquarters and facility in Tielt, with the vast majority grown in Belgium, while some varieties originate from France and its new potatoes from Mediterranean regions.
“At Tielt, we specialise in the production and preparation of fresh potatoes, with almost 90 per cent of our output being supplied to Belgian retailers, including the likes of Lidl, Carrefour and Ahold Delhaize,” explains Peter Van Steenkiste, Warnez’s Sales and Product Manager. “Meanwhile, we also have a facility in Fleurus where we produce freshly peeled and cut, and pre-cooked potatoes for retail, wholesale and industry customers in Belgium and France.”
Best possible taste
It is estimated that more than 90 per cent of all the potatoes grown in Belgium end up being turned into frozen products, leaving behind a smaller, quality intensive market for fresh potatoes. “Growing potatoes that end up in the frozen food segment is completely different to growing those for the fresh food market,” Peter highlights. “It all starts with identifying the best growers that possess the right techniques, and then working with them by sharing our own expertise so that together we can deliver the best yield results.”
When it comes to its fresh potatoes, Warnez’s entire handling, production and preparation process is uniquely specialised to deliver only the finest quality of finished goods, regardless of the variety. “With each of our varieties, we begin by working closely with our chosen farmers to select the right soil type for the potato to grow in during its optimum seasonal period. This ensures that the potato retains the best possible taste once it arrives on the plate of the consumer,” Peter continues. “Once ready, the potatoes are delivered to our factory by truck and are washed in what we like to call our ‘jacuzzi’, which allows us to raise the temperature of the potatoes without leaving any blue stains on them. From here they go into an optical sorting machine, where they are separated by size. We also retain a manual sorting element as a means of retaining best quality practices throughout these activities.”
Further inspections are carried out throughout the automated sorting process, where crates of potatoes are separated via a barcode system before then heading to the company’s warehouse. Here the packaging process takes place, with dozens of lines packaging different quantities for Warnez’s various retail, industry and food service customers, in steam packaging, trays, paper bags and stand-up pouches. What the company has increasingly noticed in recent times is a trend towards the purchase of smaller quantities of potato. Whereas in the past it sold an abundance of five kilogramme bags of its potatoes, consumers have now gravitated more towards 2.5 kilogramme bags or smaller.
All of these processes are orchestrated and supervised via a Manufacturing Execution System (MES). The software, Mescontrol. net from Warnez’s partner Brighteye, helps it to reach operational excellence during processes including traceability, scanning and planning.
This is the company’s IT layer between the administrative ERP system and the machines on the floor/ operational control systems.
“One of the other trends we have seen growing in prominence in recent times is the demand for organic potatoes,” Peter adds. “In order to meet the increase in demand for these potatoes we work with those farmers who are equipped with the skills, techniques and tools needed to produce these varieties. Once in our possession, we make sure that these organic potatoes are washed and packaged in separate facilities, to avoid any contamination.”
As well a renewed desire for organic produce, Warnez has also experienced changes as a result of shrinking family sizes and of people choosing to cook at home less often than they perhaps did in the past. These factors have contributed to a rise in demand for potatoes that are packed to be cooked directly in a microwave and for baby potatoes that do not need to be peeled or cut. “Being at the forefront of the industry, this move towards peeled and pre-cooked potatoes is something we first identified around five years ago,” Peter says. “It was in doing so that we made the decision to open up a new facility where we would peel, cook and package these potatoes, and it is an operation that continues to grow in size and importance.”
The aforementioned statement is the perfect example of how Warnez has spent almost seven decades following market trends and conditions, and reacting appropriately by using innovative technology and processes to capitalise on growth opportunities. “Going forward, we have to make sure we continue to concentrate on delivering innovative solutions. Whether we achieve this through dialogue with consumers, co-creation work with our customers or the development of new products, it will be innovation that proves to be the key to our future success,” Peter concludes.