Uncle Joe's mint balls are on a roll

Chris Arnot talks to the purveyors of an old-fashioned sweet with an up-market flavour

It comes as a surprise when the phone trills on Antony Winnard's desk and you notice it is a modern push-button model. Something with a wind-up handle would seem more appropriate in these surroundings.

Grainy brown office doors and matching panelled walls can have changed little since 1919 when Mr Winnard's great great uncle, William Santus, set up in business behind the railway line in Wigan. Factory and offices cost him pounds 2,412, 14 shillings and 10d. But the spacious premises enabled him to expand production of Uncle Joe's Mint Balls, already the stuff of local legend despite being made in a kitchen by his wife, Ellen.

Then, as now, they were sold on the Santus stall in Wigan Market. The difference now is that Uncle Joe's are also available in 650 retail outlets, including Fortnum & Mason, Liberty, Harvey Nichols and Selfridges.

William Santus and Co Ltd is a family firm of strange contradictions - parochial yet with a growing appeal to up-market customers who are unlikely to set foot in Wigan. Modern business methods have brought impressive expansion, yet it remains self-consciously old-fashioned.

Stroll across the linoleum to the office of John Winnard, Antony's brother and fellow managing director, and even the filing cabinets are brown. Here it is the modern photocopier that stands out against sepia photographs on the walls.

John, 39, handles sales and Antony, 37, production. Both joined in 1977 and worked in every department. They took over after the death of their father in 1990, and by 1994 turnover had risen by 67 per cent. It has remained stable since, but profits have more than doubled.

Only when they became directors in 1985 were the brothers let in on the most closely guarded of family secrets: Ellen's mint ball recipe. The original is kept in a bank vault, but the correct blend of brown sugar, American peppermint and cream of tartar is firmly lodged in Antony's brain. Every morning he locks himself in a little room under the stairs to create the master-mix.

All very quaint but also costly: a 40-gallon drum of the best pure peppermint weighs in at pounds 25,000. Cheaper peppermint oils are available, but the future of a business like this depends on preserving the integrity of its past. "You've got to target markets who don't mind paying premium prices for a premium product," says Antony. "All our feedback suggests that there are plenty of people sick of mass-produced foods and prepared to pay extra for quality, character and history."

Not that the business recipe always worked. By the end of the 1980s, the firm was losing money. "Our costings were all wrong. It was a time when the sugar market was very unstable and there were price rises every two or three days. We just had to put our prices up," says Antony. "Also there was a lot of waste in the production process and we had a bottleneck in the wrapping department. There were 12 hand-fed twist-wrapping machines with a girl on each. We heard about a closing-down sale in Dundee and managed to secure three high-speed wrappers for pounds 58,000. It was the first time this company had ever borrowed money, but we had to go for it."

The bottleneck cleared but moved along to packing. "It just meant we created two new jobs to replace the ones lost in wrapping," adds Antony. Today they employ around 30 people and hold regular team briefings to keep staff informed and take on board any ideas from the shop floor. Some of the increased profits have been ploughed into a machine that can double productive capacity at critical times; all orders for Uncle Joe's come in at once during the winter.

The firm also makes pear drops, toffee and other confectionery. But two- thirds of the 3,000 tonnes produced each year are made up of mint balls. An agent in the South-east has helped, but John Winnard also took a leaf out of his great great uncle's book: William Santus gave away mint balls outside the rugby stadium in Wigan; his descendant chose the more refined surrounds of Fortnum & Mason.

Meanwhile, a former Wiganer has set himself up as the company agent in New York. Any time now, Wigan will learn what Uncle Sam thinks of Uncle Joe's.

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