Traditional UK sugar factory benefits from global sugar rush
A ‘sugar boiler’ churns out gray herbal tablets as the company rushes to meet growing demand for its traditional homemade sweets – Copyright AFP OLI SCARFF
Oli SCARFF, James PHEBY
Confectionery Edward Gray in central England evokes a bygone era when brass cauldrons steamed with molten sugar and workers wrestled with huge chunks of gooey molasses, but its artisanal products now benefit from global demand.
The business – also known as “Teddy Grays” – dates back to 1826 when John Gray went door-to-door in a horse and cart to buy homemade sweets, before selling them to retailers.
But it was his son Edward, an entrepreneur in the mold of Willy Wonka and Colonel Sanders, who built the name of the company.
The small factory in Dudley now makes around five tonnes of boiled sweets a week, with products including rhubarb and custard, pineapple rock, strawberries and cream, pear drops, caramel and ice cream chocolate coated coconut.
But the crown jewel is her “Herbal Tablet”, a menthol candy that she says has been relieving “cold nights and mornings” for more than 100 years.
“It’s an acquired taste, but with Covid now it gives relief from coughs and colds,” said Dave Healy, the company’s chief marketing officer.
– Secret recipe –
The secret recipe is locked in a safe in a nearby bank. Two descendants of the founder are the only living people aware of its contents.
“They wouldn’t tell me because I’m talking in my sleep,” Healy joked. “It all depends on the mix, if you don’t get the right mix you get an oily taste.”
The candy was only really known in the surrounding area, known as the Black Country due to the smoke and soot of its industrial past.
But the fashion for local and artisanal products, coupled with endorsements from celebrities such as actor and writer Stephen Fry, has seen its fame spread.
“When Covid kicked in, we opened an online confectionery…just to basically generate some sort of stock movement,” Healy said.
“But we got requests from America, Korea, Japan, Australia.”
Much of the interest comes from those who moved long ago from Dudley, about 10 miles west of Birmingham, and yearn for a taste of nostalgia.
“They say in their emails that they used to live in Dudley, that they liked the smell of the factory,” he said.
– Another mess –
Despite the incessant demand, the factory has no plans to expand, preferring to retain its intimate atmosphere and traditional ethos.
“Because old-school machines only go so fast, the only way to get faster is to put in a smaller sprocket so it spins faster.
“But you can’t expand the factory because it’s on a residential street. It’s a factory with museum status… you couldn’t develop it.
Healy warned that counterfeit herbal pills were on the market and instead look for the logo of a Wirehaired Fox Terrier on the packet.
The logo is reminiscent of Edward “Teddy” Gray, who was also a champion dog breeder and once won the world famous Crufts dog show.
“At that time, the old Mr. Gray looked a lot like a celebrity in his area,” Healy said.
“They were well off, mingling with stars like Laurel and Hardy,” he added.
“Apparently the story goes that Laurel and Hardy actually stopped at the factory.
“There is a house in the middle of the factory. When Laurel and Hardy came to perform at the Hippodrome, Ted Gray offered them a place to stop for the night.
Although having to sleep at night in a candy factory might seem like a prequel to one of their calamitous adventures, the couple reportedly had a great time and “wrote to thank you for being such a wonderful host.”
– Soaring costs –
Although demand is skyrocketing, the company is suffering from ongoing supply chain issues and soaring inflation.
“We had terrible problems getting the sugar in October, then it switched from sugar to glucose in December,” Healy explained.
“Glucose is up 50%. Their gas bill is up 300%, glucose people.
“We couldn’t put our business at 50%, they wouldn’t stand it.”
Whatever the supply constraints, it is unlikely that he will deprive himself of his solution.
“I eat them all the time. Someone has to test them, it’s like quality control. Not a bad thing, although I wish it was a brasserie.