Full of beans: Heinz in the UK

Heinz is best known in Britain for tinned soup, baked beans and condiments. The company succeeded with a dedication to quality, a concentration on relatively few product lines, and a strong commitment to marketing.

Henry John Heinz (1844 – 1919) began to sell bottled horseradish sauce in Pittsburgh from 1869. He aimed to emulate the high standard of the greatest producer of packaged foods in the world: Crosse & Blackwell. To demonstrate that he had nothing to hide, he packaged his product in clear glass bottles.

Fortnum & Mason of London was the food retailer with the best reputation in the world. Heinz cold-called on the head of its grocery department in 1886, and managed to persuade him to stock all of the seven product lines he brought with him.

H J Heinz used the “57 varieties” slogan from 1892. He actually had more product lines than this, but decided that the tagline had a pleasing resonance.

Establishment of a British subsidiary
A British subsidiary was established to manage Heinz imports from America in 1886.

H J Heinz appointed Charles Hellen (1866 – 1944), a perfectionist and “the best man I’ve got” as general manager for Britain from 1905. Hellen spearheaded the acquisition of Batty & Co, makers of the popular Nabob Pickle, in order to quickly gain a manufacturing site for Heinz products. The Batty brand was phased out in 1910.

Salad Cream was the first product that Heinz created specifically for the UK market. Introduced in 1914, it was supposedly formulated by Charles Hellen himself. The recipe likely owed a debt to Batty’s own “Dr Kitchener’s Salad Cream” product.

Heinz UK was established as a private company in 1917. H J Heinz died in 1919, leaving an estate valued at £1.1 million (about £115 million in 2015).

Heinz becomes a mass producer in the UK
Heinz UK sales quadrupled between 1919 and 1927. A 22-acre factory site was established at Harlesden, London, from 1925. It doubled the number of employees at Heinz UK from 500 to 1,000. The larger factory allowed Heinz to mass produce, and pass on the economies of scale to the consumer.

A view of the Harlesden site by Russell Trebor in 1992

Baked beans were manufactured in the UK from 1928. Soups and spaghetti production began in 1930. Previously these items had been imported from America and Canada. All products sold in Britain were manufactured domestically by 1933, except for four tomato-based products, which were imported from Canada.

A new soup factory was established at Harlesden from 1934. The three-storey building produced millions of tins of soup a year, across eighteen different varieties. The extension saw the Harlesden site increased from 22 to 40 acres. The site was producing 100 million cans a year by 1936.

Howard Heinz, the company president, donated £20,000 (£1.2 million) to buy aircraft for the British war effort in 1940. He also invited his staff to send their children to America for the duration of the war at the company’s expense.

Heinz Ltd was valued at over £9 million when it was converted into a public company in 1948. The American parent company owned 91 percent of the shares. That year a former munitions factory in Standish, Lancashire, was acquired to produce Heinz baby food.

Heinz Ltd grew sixfold between 1945 and 1956. The company employed around 5,100 people.

It was claimed that Heinz was the best known brand name in Britain in 1957. By this time the British ate more baked beans per capita than the Americans. Heinz products in Britain were by now formulated differently from the American versions, apart from Tomato Ketchup, which remained consistent across every market.

A second large factory is established in Wigan
Demand remained high for Heinz products, and a new factory was established outside Wigan in 1959. Situated on a 130-acre site, it was the largest food factory in the British Commonwealth. It cost £6.5 million (£135 million) to build and employed 2,500 people. Two thirds of production was dedicated to soup, and one third to baked beans.

Meanwhile, the Standish site was closed and administrative offices were relocated to Hayes, London.

A view of the Heinz factory outside Wigan (2009). Credit: David Ashcroft

Heinz was by far the largest producer of canned foods in Britain by 1960, and produced over one million cans of baked beans and over one million cans of soup every day. The company enjoyed far greater market share for its products (other than tomato ketchup) in Britain than it did in its home country.

Tinned ravioli was launched in 1965, and spaghetti hoops were launched in 1969.

Heinz dominated the baked bean market with an 80 percent share by 1967. That same year that the popular “Beanz Meanz Heinz” slogan was introduced. Heinz held 83 percent of the baby food market by volume in 1967. Heinz had 60 percent of the canned soup market (and 40 percent of the overall soup market) and 31 percent of the sauce market (behind HP) by 1968. The company had 80 percent of the tinned spaghetti market by 1969.

Heinz acquired a 40 percent stake in Manor Vinegar Brewery of Burntwood, Staffordshire in 1969. A supplier to Heinz since 1917, it was the single largest vinegar producing facility in Britain, and produced about five million gallons a year. Vinegar bottling was transferred from Harlesden to Burntwood.

Annual sales of Heinz Ltd surpassed £100 million (£1.2 billion in 2015) for the first time in 1972. Heinz of America acquired the eight percent of its British subsidiary that it did not already own for £7.7 million in 1977.

The Harlesden factory employed over 2,000 people in 1980.

Heinz sold its Manor Vinegar Brewery stake to Hazelwood Foods for £1 million in 1981.

The rise of supermarket own-label products
Heinz began to suffer from the late 1970s into the 1980s as supermarket own-label products began to take significant market share in traditional Heinz categories such as tinned soup. Own-label accounted for 37 percent of the baked bean market by 1982. Heinz reduced its workforce from 8,600 to 4,800 between 1975 and 1985.

Heinz employed 2,750 people at Wigan in 1985 when it was announced that 1,220 jobs would be lost there over the course of five years due to a £60 million modernisation plan which would introduce high-speed automation to the two UK factories.

Heinz marketing began to emphasise product quality in order to counteract the threat from own-label. The company began to manufacture own-label baked beans for supermarket chains such as Tesco from 1993. Heinz maintained that they only produced value beans for supermarkets, to a different recipe from their branded product, which enabled them to capture a greater share of the market without damaging their brand equity.

Heinz acquired Farley of Plymouth, the largest manufacturer of infant formula in Britain, from Boots for £94 million in 1994.

The Harlesden factory was closed with the loss of 450 jobs in 2000. Production was relocated to Wigan.

Heinz acquired HP, with brands including Lea & Perrins and Daddies Sauce, for £470 million in 2005.

Current operations
Heinz employed around 2,100 people across the UK and Ireland in 2019. The 53-acre Wigan site produces over one billion cans of food each year, and is the largest food factory in Europe, and the largest canning plant in the world. In Britain, Heinz has the largest market share in tomato ketchup (80 percent), baked beans (70 percent), canned soup (70 percent), brown sauce (70 percent) and baby food.

5 thoughts on “Full of beans: Heinz in the UK”

  1. I would have thought Heinz ravioli was launched before 1965 – I remember loving it as a small child (I was born in 53). Can’t have been a different make, surely?

    1. Hi Karen,

      I have a strong source for Heinz tinned ravioli being launched in 1965, but sources can be wrong sometimes! It could well have been a different brand of tinned ravioli you remembered, memory can be deceitful!



  2. This interested me because I was looking for a history of baked beans in Britain. Tinned baked beans are certainly more popular here, and have been so ever since I arrived in the 1960s. I am trying to find out if they were ever part of rationing — that could explain it to some extent.
    I remember people constantly diluting things with one third water, preferring sterilised milk, producing hugely “stodgy” puddings that contained hardly anything except flour, and the woman who served dinner at my boarding school, joking, when we discovered a cockroach in the rhubarb stodge, that “it’s part of your meat ration”.

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