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Greencore plans to make more sandwiches using automation

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Efficiency: Greencore chief executive Patrick Coveney

Efficiency: Greencore chief executive Patrick Coveney

Efficiency: Greencore chief executive Patrick Coveney

Irish firm Greencore, the UK market's biggest sandwich maker, is likely to accelerate its factory automation plans due to the Covid-19 pandemic, according to chief executive Patrick Coveney.

The group already has some automated production for sandwich making in its facilities, but Mr Coveney said less than 50pc of overall processes could be done robotically.

"It will help on hygiene and social distancing," Mr Coveney told the Irish Independent as Greencore released interim results.

"It will also enable productivity and efficiency which, if you end up with a consumer recession coming out of this and there's a real focus on value, having more efficient production will be helpful," he said.

Mr Coveney said Greencore's sales volumes "fell rapidly" at the start of lockdown and continued to decline through mid-April.

Its food-to-go category saw weekly volumes slump by up to 70pc as a raft of retailers such as coffee shops were closed.

"Volume in aggregate stabilised by the end of April and we have seen that volume begin to pick up and grow back," he said. "It's currently about 60pc below the prior year level."

The Greencore boss said that despite the pandemic and significantly reduced volumes, the company is currently "modestly profitable" on a basis of earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (ebitda).

Greencore has secured formal agreement with its banks to waive net debt to ebitda covenants on debt owed to them. It is at an advanced stage of discussions with its private placement note holders regarding a similar waiver.

Greencore is assuming its revenue run-rate will return to 2019 levels by October 2021.

Mr Coveney said sandwich consumption remains strong at locations which are open. When people are making lunch at home, he said, 60pc of the time they make sandwiches.

"Each week for the last five weeks, consumer satisfaction with their lunch has fallen," he said, citing Greencore research.

"Consumers are getting bored and frustrated with the absence of choice."

Greencore posted revenue of £712.7m (€798.6m) in the six months to the end of March, with adjusted ebitda edging 2.1pc higher to £63.8m.

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