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Love Hearts maker Swizzels Matlow keeps clients sweet

THE first limited edition of Love Hearts sweets was produced at the Swizzels Matlow factory in Derbyshire to celebrate the fairytale wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer in 1981.

This month, the latest batch of specially made Love Hearts is rolling off the production line, commissioned to celebrate the hotly anticipated June nuptials of today's footballing royalty - Manchester United idol Wayne Rooney and fiancie Coleen McLoughlin.

For Swizzels Matlow, the company behind Love Hearts and other brands such as Parma Violets and Refreshers, which is planning its own 80th anniversary celebrations, it is a sign of how it, too, must move with the times.

"A sweet is a sweet, but you have to keep moving on and being modern and relevant while retaining the traditional flavours that everyone loves," said Andrew Matlow, grandson of founder Alfred Matlow, who said his proudest moment was joining the family firm. He started out setting up a department to make jelly sweets and is now communications director.

Being up to date has meant tackling increasing public concerns about children's health and rising obesity.

"These sweets are never going to be seen as a healthy alternative to the five-a-day [fruit and vegetable portions], nor should they; but we have to recognise that customers and consumers have concerns about what they eat today," he said.

Swizzels Matlow, with a turnover of J44m, has spent the past two-and-a-half years adapting production of its 250 product lines to make them free of artificial colouring. From this month, every box of sweets leaving the factory will bear a label testifying to this fact.

Purchasing director Brian Dee, the son of another founder, David Dee, said this had not been easy to achieve, but they had been asked by a number of retailers to reformulate their products.

He said: "It is not a question of whether these artificial colourings are good or bad, it is a reflection of the way the market is going. Children don't mind if their sweets contain tartrazine or sunset yellow, but their parents do. At the same time, children do mind if their sweets suddenly don't look the right colour. They taste with their eyes."

There have had to be some compromises along the way - the red writing of the Love Heart sentiments could not be replicated in natural colouring. They have now taken on a purple colour. It remains to be seen whether this will dent the sales of a sweet that was considered so symbolic of the nation that it was included in the Millennium Dome as an icon of the 20th century.

Swizzels Matlow began life in 1928, when Alfred and Maurice Matlow started Matlow Brothers in a small factory in London making jelly sweets. The brothers got together with rival factory owner David Dee in 1933 to share factory space in east London. This was the time when fizzy sweets in compressed form took off and Cach-O's, the forerunner of the Love Heart, first rolled off the production line.

The three men relocated to a factory in New Mills, Derbyshire, during the second world war and gradually combined their workforces and salesmen. However, not so much so that old timers at the company can help telling visitors proudly that they come from the "Swizzels side of the operation".

The company is proud of its family roots. As well as descendants of the founders, several generations of local families can be found among the workforce of 600.

In the process of continuous development of the company, Swizzels Matlow has discovered that there are limits to the health aspirations of consumers. A few years ago the company introduced a sugar-free range based on all of its bestsellers, including Love Hearts, Refreshers and Drumstick Lollies, and they did not sell. They were subsequently withdrawn.

The move into natural colourings has also been expensive and in some ways could not have come at a worse time.

The worldwide price rises in commodities have led to the cost of raw ingredients such as glucose and dextrose doubling in the past 18 months. As other suppliers have learnt, it is not a cost that is easily passed on to their customers, the big retailers and wholesalers.

Matlow said: "Children make the purchasing decisions on most of our products, and the rate of pocket money has not changed for some years. Add to that the limited denominations of currency we have, and you can see why sweets for 5p, 10p or 25p are the norm.

"The confectionery market is a highly competitive, high- turnover, low-margin business. There is no easy solution to counteracting the rise in commodity prices."

The company is tackling the problem by making efficiencies in production, but admits that it has been forced to reduce the weight of some standard products.

Swizzels Matlow has also been hit by communications regulator Ofcom's ban on advertising to children. Though it has not commissioned much television advertising in the past, it has had to think creatively about how it promotes new lines.

Its most recent product was Flabbergasted, a boy's answer to Love Hearts. Apparently, although males love the taste of the sweets, most would not be seen dead buying them. Flabbergasted is a packet of Love Heart-inspired sweets that contain a couple of chilli hot numbers. The key is, you never know which one it is going to be and the tension is raised with challenging messages such as "Fearful?" and "Are you a hero?"

Flabbergasted will be promoted on Swizzels Matlow's soon-to-be-opened internet site, which features competitions, games and educational content.

Commodity prices and advertising restrictions aside, Swizzels has benefited hugely from social trends such as the Americanisation of Halloween. Demand from retailers for giant "trick or treat" bags was so high last year that the factory had to put on three shifts to work 24 hours a day.

The company already sells 3% of its products over the internet and has been building up a corporate business selling products such as Love Hearts to hopeless romantics, among them Wayne and Coleen.

It clearly expects to weather the storm of rising prices. "We'll still be here in 80 years," said Matlow. "Whatever the current fad, there is always a special space for traditional sweets. That is passed down from generation to generation."

Source: Times Online

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