The Leycroft Road site is one of the world’s biggest crisp and snack factories in the world, each day churning out millions of bags of Walkers crisps - Britain’s third biggest grocery brand, according to NielsenIQ data.
It is also one of the oldest.
“In 2023, we’re celebrating 75 years of Walkers crisps, so there's no better time to renew our commitment to Leicester - a city and community that have been crucial to our success in the UK,” said Jason Richards, senior VP and GM for PepsiCo UK and Ireland.
“As we look ahead to the next 75 years and futureproof our UK operations, this £58m investment will transform our manufacturing site and installing state-of-the-art equipment will help us deliver on our ambitions on packaging and health.”
The investment is PepsiCo’s largest in the UK for a quarter of a century and adds to the £120m+ it has spent on its UK manufacturing operations since 2020, including a £24m upgrade to its Lincoln factory in 2021.
Sustainability at its heart
Richards said the £58m boost is earmarked to deliver sustainable growth at Leicester, with specific updates being made to drive progress towards packaging and health goals under its pep+ (PepsiCo Positive) platform.
The plant will get a new manufacturing line, which will increase the production capacity for more Walkers snacks - notably Walkers Wotsits and Monster Munch, both of which have grown in popularity in recent years.
It will also enable the local production of Wotsits Giants and Monster Munch Giants, currently manufactured in Europe, once construction is completed in 2024. This move will help reduce transport-related emissions by an estimated 915 tonnes a year, equivalent to taking around 540 cars off UK roads.
The cash will also be spent on changing gas-fired ovens to electric ones supplied with 100% renewable electricity. PepsiCo believes this will cut around 1,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year - the equivalent to the heating and cooking-related emissions of 366 UK households - aligned with its net zero emissions pledge across the company’s entire value chain by 2040.
New compact packaging equipment will be installed to reduce the amount of virgin plastic used in its multipack outer packaging by 56 tonnes a year. This follows the introduction last year of a cardboard ‘sleeve’ to replace the outer plastic packaging on millions of Walkers 20-bag multipacks.
Happy staff, happy output
“Alongside upgrades to meet increased demand for our snacks, we’re proud to be investing in creating better facilities for our people, who remain at the heart of bringing our most loved snacks to households across the country,” said Richards.
Plans include an extensive revamp of facilities for the site’s 1,120-strong workforce, including training areas, a restaurant and meeting rooms.
It also means training opportunities for employees, with up to 100 new roles being created to manage the increased workload across the new equipment and technology.
PepsiCo’s funding is also earmarked for new mixing facilities for the development of further healthier snacks ranges.
“These are set to play a key role in helping us to meet our ambition to have half of Walkers snacks sales come from products that do not classify as HFSS [high in fat, salt and sugar] or those sold in portions of 100 kcal or less by 2025,” said Richards.
Launched in 2022, Walkers 45% Less Salt has already become a hit with UK consumers, according to Nielsel IQ data (16% of UK households for the 52 w/e 25.03.23).
As the name suggests, the variant contains nearly half the salt compared to regular potato crisps, made possible by using new flavour technology to replace the sodium and rebalance the taste.
Walkers - an iconic British snack
Walkers was founded in 1948 in Leicester by Henry Walker, a local butcher. To counterbalance the post-war rationing for meat products, Walker decided to capitalise on the increasing demand for comforting (and inexpensive) snacks. His hand-sliced potato crisps were sprinkled with salt and sold at threepence a bag.
When meat rationing ended in 1954, Walkers continued making its crisps, diversifying its portfolio to capitalise on the consumer adventure for flavour, introducing Cheese & Onion (based on the nation’s love of the ploughman’s lunch) in the 1954, followed by Salt & Vinegar (fish and chips), Prawn Cocktail (iconic 70s starter) and Roast Chicken (roast dinner), Worcester Sauce, Smoky Bacon, Tomato Ketchup and Pickled Onion, among others.
Jump forward four+ decades and the £30m brand had become synonymous with UK snacking. In 1982, Walkers opened the Leicester factory, the largest crisp production plant in the world.
The company was acquired by PepsiCo Inc in 1989, under a $1.35bn deal that included Smiths Crisps. The two had only recently been acquired by BSN, a French cookie and beverage company, from RJR Nabisco, which was selling off five of its businesses - including Walkers - in an effort to reduce the debt it had incurred in becoming a private company.
PepsiCo had purportedly been preparing to make an offer to buy Walkers from RJR Nabisco when BSN stepped in with a pre-emptive bid. As BSN was only interested in three of its purchases - the British cookie business of Nabisco Brands; French pastry and cookie company Belin Group and Italian cookie and snack maker Saiwa - it offloaded Walkers and Smiths to New York-based PepsiCo, which was on a run in cementing its footprint in Europe.
At the time, Walkers was the UK market leader for potato chips, while Smiths commanded the majority share for extruded snacks.
In January 2003, Walkers bought Wotsits from Golden Wonder to replace the disappointing performance of its much-loved American brand Cheetos in the UK. Interestingly, the move was purportedly done to rebrand Wotsits under the Cheetos name, but nothing came of this and Walkers kept the Wotsits brand in situ.
Today, the Walkers Crisps brand includes its core crisp line, Wotsits, Monster Munch (created by Smiths in 1977 and formerly known as Prime Monster - a play on Prime Minister), Walkers Max, Walkers Squares, Oven Baked, Quavers, Walkers Sensations and other snacks.