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Potato Chips Night Shift

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At midnight sharp, I entered Burt's factory in Devon to see how my favorite potato chips are made. Hand Fried in Devon.

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I don't eat much processed food, but for a couple years now I've been buying Burt's Premium Potato Chips at my local gourmet store whenever my cardiologist is on vacation. With their simple packs and delicious ultra-crispy chips, they are almost worth the calories. And it says on the label Hand Fried in Devon. What could that mean?

I emailed Burt's to request a factory visit and interview, saying that I needed to get close to the oil and not behind some glass, as some factories have a visitor gallery. Jonty White, one of the founders, replied:

Dear Francois

Thank you for your email. We would, of course, be delighted to see you at our factory. We know your website and we would be thrilled to be featured! Unfortunately the 12th July is a Saturday and the factory will be closed. My only suggestion could be the following Monday (14th July) when the factory will be open again from 6am in the morning.

If we can arrange a mutually convenient time, you would be very welcome to visit the factory floor (no glass screens!), take pictures and meet our people.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Kind regards,
Jonty White

I had a reader at Burt's! This is indeed a small world. They run the production for as many days a week are required to expedite all current orders, then spend the rest of the week cleaning up. The only time I could make it was on a Wednesday night in July. I arrived in Plymouth around midnight after crossing Dartmoor Forest, a no-man's land where the Hound of the Baskerville is still howling at night. As I drew near to the factory, a heavenly smell of sunflower oil guided me like the Christmas star leading the three Wise Men.

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I knocked on a door and John Joseph opened and welcomed me in. He is Burt's Operations Director, a seasoned food industry professional and acted as a very friendly and knowledgeable tour guide for FXcuisine.com.

Burts started in 1997 in Kingsbridge, a small village in Devon, to supply farm shops. A couple years later they started selling to Waitrose, the British gourmet shop, and obtained nationwide recognition. Now Burts export to Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands and Switzerland, where I've been buying their crisps for years. Production outgrew the original plant, and in 2006 Burts moved to Plymouth to a much larger plant that could accomodate a doubling in size. They turn out 13 million packs a year. The high season is July and August, where everybody's waistline is as thin as a chip. Biggest competitor in the UK are Kettle and Tyrrel's, but the US is the fatherland of the premium potato chip, with Good's, Martin's and Hers. My favorite US chips, Terra Chip, is very similar to Burt's in its technique.

Potato chips/crisps are made from potatoes, sunflower oil, salt and some seasoning. The big difference between premium chips and regular ones, is the way they are fried. Fritto uses continuous frying, with the potato slices dumped in oil that always remains at the same temperature. Premium chips producer such as Burts fry them in 50kg batches, allowing the oil temperature to drop, then increase again. This is what gives them their extra crispiness.

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Potatoes are delivered by local Devon farmers. Between September and March, they are Hermes potatoes. From April to June, the factory uses late store Lady Claire, and from July to September the new crop of Lady Rosetta.

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The potatoes are washed and quickly peeled. We can set the machine to peel more or less, but we deliberately leave a little peel on our potatoes, explains Joseph. I really like the way Burt's chips have dark patches on the sides, it gives them an artisan look.

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The coarsely peeled potatoes descend slowly into a washing tub ...

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... where they exit clean and ready for their last shave.

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The potatoes are thrown into a hellish slicing machine and are spat back onto a special high-speed conveyor belt. Mama mia, you don't want your fingers stuck into that one!

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The potatoes fall into the hot oil. The oil rapidly cools down from 160°C/320°F down to 130°C/260°F. Then the temperature, absborbed by the cold potatoes, starts to rise again. It is this temporary decrease in temperature that make the potatoes really crispy, and it is obtainable only by working with batches, hence the name, batch-fried chips.

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Click for 360° interactive panorama Interactive 360° panorama #1
 See the double batch-frying vats in action - that's the heart of Burt's. Meet the fryer, who gives to 'Hand Fried in Devon' a whole new meaning. But who could afford such fine chips if the machine didn't lend a hand to the man?

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After only a few minutes, the potato slices rise on top, ready and crispy.

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That night the chain was broken due to maintenance and the fryer had to carry the chips on his back to the next stage.

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The chips now flow on a long conveyor belt where a Burt's lady checks for any black sheep.

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The chips climb onto a tower and are fed, still wet from the fryer, into a huge cylinder to be coated with the seasoning mixture. Their best seller is the sea salted version, with salt sherry vinegar and mature cheddar as runners up.

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Out from the cylinder and onto another conveyor belt, the seasoned chips flow and fall...

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... into a giant packing machine ...

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... where they are fed into portion-sized chips packs.

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From the top of the seasoning tower, I see the fine people at Burt's are busy packing the final product. Let's come down for a closer look.

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Each pack is weighted to make sure it exceeds the minimum weight printed on the label. A machine pushes underweight packs out.

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Finally the chips packs exit the chain where people place them in a box to be sent on their way ....

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... to my stomach

Burt's
www.burtschips.com
Plymouth, Devon
UK

Published 01/12/2008
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48 Comments

  • #1
  • Comment by Xavier
  • on: 01/12/2008
Wow, impressing ! I am suprised to see how these fragile and light chips remain in one piece through all the industrial process.

By the way, what is your local gourmet store ? Since I do not have any cardiologist yet, I assume I can eat chips until I need one ?
  • FX's answer→ Xavier, they sell Burts at Globus. You need to eat about 4 packs a day for 2 years to warrant the attention of a cardiologist!

  • #3
  • Comment by John Todd
  • on: 01/12/2008
Fantastic!

Great pix, great write-up. great food.

I'd love to see more articles about industrial food that is actually made with care and attention. Thanks to your website, I will not seek out this brand and taste for myself.
  • FX's answer→ John, Burts is a great brand, I really love it and have not found other potato chips that are way better. You can find other good makers, but for a really artisan potato cheese the only way is to make them yourself.

  • #5
  • Comment by lm
  • on: 02/12/2008
Bonjour! J'aime bien votre site!
I'm a student from South East Asia, and I often read your articles when I want to relax.(Um... about the greeting, I study French as an extra language.) Your articles are very interesting to people like me because they offer glimpses of the cuisine and culture from your part of the world. Kudos to you, and thanks for the good articles and pictures!
  • FX's answer→ Thanks for visiting! What culture do you come from?

  • #7
  • Comment by confused
  • on: 02/12/2008
hey, thanks for sharing... your pictures have inspired me sufficiently to go buy a packet of kettle chips to munch on.

hmmm.... just a bit confused here... where is the hand fried part? haha
  • FX's answer→ Well, I guess the machine lends a hand to the humans for the frying! It should say "batch-fried" which is technically correct and says it all, but it wouldn't sell so well.

and what would be he difference between these chips and the brands that can be bought at any supermarket? I mean, health wise...
  • FX's answer→ Tia, health-wise you'd be eating starch soaked with oil and salt even if you'd grow your own potatoes and fry them at home I'm afraid!

  • #11
  • Comment by lm
  • on: 02/12/2008
Me? Malaysian Chinese. Maybe you could check out cuisine from our part of the world some day, if you haven't already? *lol*
  • FX's answer→ Oh I'd love to, but I just don't speak those languages!

  • #13
  • Comment by Meramarina
  • on: 02/12/2008
Dear Sir:  

As a Liberated Potato, and on behalf of the League of Offended Vegetables,  I must congratulate you on this shocking exposé of the crimes of "Burt".

You have shown the sad fate of my unfortunate fellows, hidden, as it is, under cover of darkness in the sinister British night.  This courageous report will help to educate the public, we hope, to regard us as more than just the objects of despicable spud lust, a vice so widely practiced by the human tribe.  May it be clear to all that we are not just stupid tubers:  We are Beings of Starch.  

We do humbly request, however, that you do not show our kind again in association with the Salama da Sugo.  We are brave taters, but that was just too much.

Yours sincerely,  Mr. Potato Head

( ! )  How did he get in here ! ? !  I LOVE potatoes, feel pretty chipper about eating them in any form, and will continue to do so!  Do watch out for the save-the-potato brigade, though;  I hear that they are an underground movement and have eyes everywhere.
  • FX's answer→ Ah yes, terrible people, real terrorists those save-the-potatoes guys!

  • #15
  • Comment by FX Hartigan
  • on: 03/12/2008
joyeux fete de Saint François Xavier!

-- cet autre FX
  • FX's answer→ The FX of this world should rule the world! Bonne fête à toi aussi!

  • #17
  • Comment by LB
  • on: 03/12/2008
Oh dear God, I hope they do not star exporing to Australia, I am losing weight and I want to keep it that way.
  • FX's answer→ Yes, we'll pray the Lord that those delicious chips don't make it down under then!

  • #19
  • Comment by Brains
  • on: 03/12/2008
I've tried so many artisan chips but I found Zweifel natural flavor to have the best texture! These look super, but how come it says "hand fried?" Doesn't make a difference to me but it's strange.
  • FX's answer→ Brains, I have to sample Zweifel's recent products, their old chips where not all that crispy. Yeah, "hand fried" takes a whole new meaning here!

  • #21
  • Comment by L
  • on: 04/12/2008
I think "Timel's" should be "Tyrrells"
  • FX's answer→ Thanks L, I have corrected it!

  • #23
  • Comment by akemi
  • on: 04/12/2008
Oh wauw, great article and good photography. I have to go on a hunt to see if they sell them here in the Netherlands.
  • FX's answer→ Thanks, Akemi, I do recommend you try them if you can get hold of a pack in the NL.

  • #25
  • Comment by Luke
  • on: 05/12/2008
Too bad Burt's hasn't expanded enough to reach the USA. I'd love to see how they stack up against my favorites, them being Terra, Cape Cod, and Utz.

Aw damn, now I'm craving potato chips, having abstained for nearly a year!
  • FX's answer→ Luke, even though I like Burt's, they admit that most of the frying gear comes from the US which is the homeland of the premium batch-fried potato chips. Terra are great and I am sure you'll find several brands of similar quality in the US.

Wow, this is really great, can't wait to show this post to my son. He'll be thrilled to know how potato chips are made and see all those machines :) Thanks for posting!
  • FX's answer→ Foodista, glad you found some educational value in this article!

If you want to try a superb American potato chip, then you need to get your hands on a bag of Zapp's (www.zapps.com). They are made in Gramercy, Louisiana and they are goood! Unfortunately, they are only sold in the US.
  • FX's answer→ Thanks Baroness, I will try to get hold of a pack fo Zapps!

  • #31
  • Comment by Alan
  • on: 07/12/2008
Argh, I knew I SHOULDN'T have read the article the minute I saw the title. I love potato chips -- in fact I sample the local brands of each country I visit (Norway's paprika chips aren't bad at all). It's just that I've been trying to watch my sodium intake the last two months. I've successfully minimized my potato chip consumption during that period, but now that steely resolved has taken a major hit, no thanks to you Francois. Says I as I frantically zoom over to Burts website trying to figure out how to order some packs online....
  • FX's answer→ Alan, I am most sorry to be that tempting devil - yet again!

I loved your post. It is so awesome that they know who you are and you got to see everything up close and personal. :)
  • FX's answer→ Yes indeed, I was very pleased that the owner would actually know my website!

How I wish they can sell it here in Malaysia..
  • FX's answer→ I'm sure you have many delicious things we would die for, over there in Malaysia!

  • #37
  • Comment by don siranni
  • on: 13/12/2008
Re:Burts,The lowered then raised frying temps. - Should I delibratly  slightly overload the deep fryer, and then let heat back up to beginning point to increase crispyness of all deep-fryed fish/veggies? I've always done just the opposite to prevent oil cooling.
  • FX's answer→ Don, the longer the oil stays at the lower temperature before rising again, the crispier. So yes, definitely put enough of them so that it decreases.

  • #39
  • Comment by Madhoo
  • on: 15/12/2008
Wow this was wonderful,thanks to ur website for giving such useful information and idia about the processing. it would help me in making my MBA project.i dont know the brand but i will definetly search for it.
  • FX's answer→ Thank you Madhoo and good luck for your MBA!

Happy New Year Francois,
I discovered your website while searching for gougeres recipes. I just very much enjoyed the Burt's piece. Such a production.
Anyway- I am new to your site but want to thank you because the photos are so beautiful  and the food is lovely.
I enclosed the link to my company's website- this year we are building 2 new greenhouses - one for food production- interesting Japanese vegetables and odd citrus like citron.

So- merci- keep up the good work.
Cheers-
T.
  • FX's answer→ Thanks Theodora, and good luck with the Bonzai business!

  • #43
  • Comment by cristian dumitru
  • on: 09/01/2009
very nice this subject.hope more to come.best regards from Romania,BUCHAREST.
  • FX's answer→ Thank you Cristian

  • #45
  • Comment by George
  • on: 07/09/2009
Burts chips are scrumptious ! Everything form the design of the packet to the list of ingredients at the back is perfect!.
Its actually good to read and actually understand the ingredients used, instead of some chemical names!
And the taste! The 'Firecracker Lobster' is probably the best and also their Aged Cheddar flavor! Every other chips brand disgust me now...Thanks François!
  • #46
  • Comment by Robor
  • on: 08/09/2009
Amazing! Not clear for me, how offen you updating your fxcuisine.com.
Have a nice day
Robor
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  • #48
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  • on: 13/08/2011
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