Alan Knowles

Scenes from a biscuit factory

When photographer Alan Knowles chose Griffin’s as a subject he set himself a sweet assignment.

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Who among us can forget our early encounters with biscuits? The ornately decorated and opulent-smelling Super Wines, with their satisfying crunch and comforting vanilla sweetness. Elegant Swiss Cremes, with their fine-textured, melt-in-­the-mouth fillings, and Cameo Cremes, which as children we prized apart to get at the coconut filling. Jammy Shrewsburys, with their glorious chewy texture, and Girl Guide biscuits, which one ate in the time-honoured way of nibbling around the rim first, then working methodically towards the central medallion. Delicious!

Not all of my childhood biscuit memories are fond ones, however. Grandpa’s favourite Gingernut, with its brain-jarring crack and mouth-pricking ginger, didn’t suit my tender jaw and palate. It wasn’t until much later that I learned to appreciate this “difficult” biscuit—its spice haloed in sweetness—as being a miracle of the biscuit-maker’s art.

Hundreds and Thousands biscuits receive their topping.
Hundreds and Thousands biscuits receive their topping.

There is something reassuring about these biscuits, with their familiar names, shapes, tastes and smells. They seem to have remained the same for generations: wafers of constancy in a world of change.

It was through contemplating the place of biscuits in our culture that I came up with the idea of photographing them and their manufacture—an idea which eventually led me to the banks of Waiwhetu Stream, in Eastern Hutt. Here the Griffin’s biscuit factory looms over traffic on Wainui Road as a cathedral of commerce not unlike the Edmonds baking-powder factory of Ferry Road, in Christchurch—alas, now torn down.

The “Welcome to Griffin’s” sign that greeted me as I stepped from my car on my first visit seemed superfluous to the aromas of jam and baking biscuits that beckoned me into the factory. The manager, Bruce Vine—who seemed disarmingly young to be in charge of 270 staff—talked about the factory, my project and the biscuit business. From his briefing I concluded that the religion preached at this shrine to the sweet tooth was commerce of the old-fashioned kind—much like the biscuits being produced. Loyalty and long service were still rewarded here with a gold watch, and staff valued the family atmosphere.

The factory opened in 1938, and during World War II operated 24 hours a day making Australian and New Zealand army ration packs (which it still supplies to the New Zealand army). It has managed to survive increasing competition, though other well-loved biscuit brands—Bycrofts, Hudsons and Aulsebrooks—are no longer with us. Griffin’s itself is now owned by French food-industry giant Groupe Danone, bottler of Evian mineral water.

Super Wine scrap
Super Wine scrap
Reciprocating cutter for Round Wine
Reciprocating cutter for Round Wine

After fitting me out with white coat, steel-capped shoes and hair net, Vine took me on a tour of the sprawling plant, introduced me to the shift managers and left me to photograph what I liked.

Following my nose, I soon discovered that the source of the headiest aromas was the jam kettle room, where the gooey fruit filling for Shrewsburys was prepared in large vats. Here, too, was the fabled “apple cart,” loaded to upsetting point with bags of pulp, parked beside a mountain of cocoa butter.

Upstairs, Rosalie Paewai was assembling the “small” quantities of ingredients required for each batch of biscuit mix—though there was nothing very small about any of the quantities here.

Brown paper bags of salt and baking powder were added to the bulk ingredients by the bakers, whose task was to feed the hungry maws of their giant batch mixers. Once the heavy, soft mass reached the correct consistency and temperature it was dumped into hoppers that disgorged directly onto conveyors and rollers on the floor below, and thence to the cutters, stampers and rotary moulds that formed the biscuit shapes.

Reciprocating cutters, with mechanical push rods to operate the various stamps and docking pins, are used to make Wine biscuits, but simpler designs such as Melting Moments and Shrewsburys are moulded by half-tonne brass rollers with the biscuit shapes milled into their surfaces.

Fancy biscuits such as Hundreds and Thousands have their icing applied by an ancient enrober which has been in service since the factory’s inception.

Also dating from that time are three of the five ovens—massive cast-iron affairs made by Baker Perkins or Vicars, of England. At the end of each 30 m oven a team of packers places the biscuits on to plastic trays and sends them off on conveyors to be machine wrapped, boxed and despatched.

Packing coordinator Kath Thimbleby has good reason to consider the factory a “real family place.” She told me that during her 30 years with Griffin’s, three of her sisters and eight of her nieces had worked at the site. Such dynasties are not unusual, and many romances have blossomed on the shop floor.

Thimbleby’s proudest moment was in 1992, when she received her gold watch. Dozens of her colleagues are equally proud of their long service, and in 2002 alone 12 gold watches for 20 years’ service were presented company-wide.

Robert Walker on a rotary moulder forming Melting Moments.
Robert Walker on a rotary moulder forming Melting Moments.

In its heyday in the 1970s, the factory employed up to 600 staff, but increasing mechanisation and the rationalisation of production (including shifting the manufacture of chocolate biscuits to Auckland) have halved the payroll. Even so, the Waiwhetu plant is the biggest biscuit factory in New Zealand, and the largest employer in the Hutt Valley.

While printing my photographs, I had ample time to mull over why the factory had survived when most of its ilk had closed or moved offshore. Anyone watch- ing over my shoulder as faces from the Pacific Islands, Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines emerged from the developer could have been excused for thinking the company had already gone. Instead, as human resources advisor and former nightshift supervisor Barry Hewer observed, the opposite had happened. Of the 90 staff on night shift, only 8 were of European descent. Instead of moving overseas, Griffin’s had acquired an immigrant workforce.

For me the factory’s survival is proof that old- fashioned business practices work. Over the 12 months I visited the site, I sensed an atmosphere of stability and permanence—a refreshing change from the modern obsession with restructuring.

Salaries and wages were modest, but in return for long-term job security staff displayed fierce company loyalty. By dodging corporate raiders, Griffin’s appeared to have escaped the fate of having its business evaluated on the worth of its real estate and the scrap value of its plant, rather than the human capital and the wider economic benefits from being part of a community.

My porridge doesn’t taste the same now that Cremota has moved to Australia (to Gore’s and New Zealand’s loss). But no matter how I dunk my Gingernut, it tastes just right.

Eric Thompson on the high-speed mixer.
Eric Thompson on the high-speed mixer.
The scrap-return incline separates biscuits from scrap dough.
The scrap-return incline separates biscuits from scrap dough.

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