Life is sweet for Larbert confectionery firm Mrs Tilly’s

Operations manager Blair Paterson keeps an eye on the tablet cutting''Picture: Michael Gillen
Operations manager Blair Paterson keeps an eye on the tablet cutting''Picture: Michael Gillen

When Elisabeth Paterson walked into her kitchen and discovered husband Peter busy stirring a bubbling, sugary mixture on their cooker, little did she realise it would lead to a whole new career – and be the start of a successful family business.

His determination to master the art of making tablet, the confectionery that’s almost synonymous with Scotland, saw him boil up pans of butter, sugar and condensed milk until he was happy with the finished result.

But his efforts paid off. Almost two decades later the couple now head the sweetie firm Mrs Tilly’s, with their tablet and other sweets on sale in supermarkets throughout the country as well as selected markets overseas.

But anyone who knows the Patersons would never doubt their desire to succeed with their entrepreneural spirit at the heart of everything they do.

Years before his culinary experiments, Peter, a mechanic-to-trade, decided to start a wholesale business selling snack products to small retailers.

Elisabeth explained: “It was on the back of Golden Wonder crisps pulling out of West Lothian and Highlander Crisps being produced by the former workers in Bathgate. He said there would be a lot of public sympathy and people would be keen to support the new brand.

“I had two small children at the time and didn’t really want to do it but got involved. We built up the run round Central Scotland, mainly to local independent shops, selling confectionery and soft drinks.”

However, a change in shopping habits in the late 1990s saw the couple forced to reconsider their future.

“Mums who used to go to the corner shop and buy their children crisps and juice on the way to school were now shopping in the supermarket,” said Elisabeth. “The corner shops were being pushed out and that meant our customers were drying up and we had to think of something else.

“In my mind, the tablet you could buy was never produced properly and you couldn’t taste the ingredients. After Peter came up with a process he was happy with, we decided to make it and introduce it on our retail run.

“We started in our kitchen with three massive preserving pans, hand-pouring it into trays. We sourced our ingredients locally and that is something that we still insist on today.”

However, she admits that although the couple knew the wholesale business, they were beginners when it came to food production.

“In the early days, we did everything by hand but didn’t know anything about labelling and bar codes. However, we picked all that up along the way.”

The company didn’t even have the Mrs Tilly’s name to start with. That came about because of where they lived and had their first production base – Tillicoultry.

“When I went to the printers to get the labels there was a note pinned up saying ‘Mrs Tilly will be back to look at this’ – they didn’t know my name but knew where I came from,” she laughed.

The firm’s first big break came when they signed a deal with Alldays and CG Lang to sell tablet in their convenience stores.

By now the second generation of the sweetie dynasty was involved, sons Blair and Keir and the demand for their products continued to grow.

Blair, now operations director, said a pivotal moment for the firm was the opportunity to forge an association with Tesco.

He said: “We were very fortunate as our product came at a time when supermarkets were changing, with customers wanting locally sourced products. While our category is controlled by big players, we are a regional product and had our own niche.

“We’ve built up a great relationship with Tesco and that has given us security and support. They’ve also proved to be great mentors as the business has grown.”

Six years ago the family spent six months sourcing machinery to increase production without, most importantly, changing the taste or quality of the product. However, every tray of tablet is still hand-poured and levelled.

By 2012 the Patersons knew they definitely needed bigger premises and looked to build a factory in Clackmannanshire. When that plan fell through they looked further afield and discovered a unit at Central Business Park in Larbert.

“Falkirk Council was exceptionally good with us,” said Blair, “We began planning to relocate, a process which took about six months, moving in around September 2013.

“Our base here is 17,500 sq. ft which is seven times bigger than we had previously. We used to store one pallet in Tillicoultry, we can now store 140 here. Although we had lots of extra space when we moved in, it’s already filling up fast.

“The move was all about taking ourselves away from a cottage industry to creating a brand. Our staff has increased from 16 to 26 and we would hope to eventually bring in another five.”

A few years after setting up, Mrs Tilly’s branched out into making fudge and macaroon, later adding flavoured lines, but sticking to a core of 12 products.

A tour of the factory reveals a sweet-lovers heaven where every week eight tonnes of sugar is converted into the delicious products, with many of the finishing touches still done by hand. And although specialised equipment was brought in from Italy to bag the confectionery, staff then pack these into boxs for delivery the length and breadth of the country.

The business which started in Elisabeth and Peter Paterson’s kitchen is now enjoying sweet success as an established Scottish confectionery brand.