Ice cream makers caught in cold war: Pendleton's Ices, controlled by its workers, is battling for a place in shop fridges alongside bigger rivals. Jonathan Foster reports

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ICE CREAM wars between two food industry superpowers threaten the prosperity of a Merseyside experiment in gelati produced under workers' control.

Pendleton's Ices in Kirkby resumed freezing in May after more than a year of financial problems and industrial action after its parent company was sold.

With grants from Whitehall and from Knowsley council, a new Pendleton's emerged, 51 per cent of its shares held by the workforce. Nestle, which owned the factory, donated equipment worth pounds 500,000, and a local businessman joined the board, investing about pounds 150,000.

It was on an old recipe - for a once-popular lolly called a Twicer - that the revived Pendleton's hopes were focused. But the Twicer's return to Merseyside has been partially impeded by Lyon's Maid and Walls, the companies dominating the British market.

They supply to shops many of the refrigerators from which ices are sold. Strict restrictions are applied on whose products may be stocked in the cabinets, and there is not much room for Twicers. Pendleton's is to complain about the practice to an investigation being conducted by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

'It means a new player cannot come into the market,' Steve Alcock, company secretary and union convenor, said. He led the workforce through a protracted campaign to save their jobs. Under a brief period of American ownership, most of the workers were sacked; they responded by occupying the site.

Even after Nestle bought the company and agreed to donate plant to the workforce, the putative Pendleton's was embroiled in interminable talks with receivers.

'The wider lesson of this episode is that insolvency laws need to be changed so that a workforce has enhanced rights to keep their business going,' George Howarth, the local Labour MP and a Pendleton's director, said.

Only 27 of the 75-member workforce have been re-employed so far. Cool summer weather, as well as refrigerator rules, has left Pendleton's 20 per cent short of revenue anticipated in its business plan, but Mr Alcock is sanguine about the company's viability.

Co-operative supermarkets are buying Pendleton's ice cream and lollies, while potential buyers for next summer have been impressed with improved quality.

'We just have to prove we can sustain ourselves, which we are confident we can do.'

It would be better still if some fridge doors could be prised open.

(Photograph omitted)

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