The once sunny world of British seaside rock has become a greyer place. Dental campaigns, the EC, an end to gentlemen's agreements and more sophisticated pleasures have left Grosvenor Confectionery licking its wounds.
You do not have to be Sir John Harvey Jones to suspect that all may not be well in the world of British rock. The stroll from Southend station to Pleasant Road offers evidence enough. At one end of the town's promenade, stalls peddle (as of yore) whelks and saucy postcards, and eternal children are dragged, through a timeless drizzle, from waxwork to ghost train to dodgem car. As you move eastward, however, these immortals of the British seaside are left behind for newer and more sophisticated pleasures: a world whose air is rich with the smell of franchise food, and where coins bring to life not voyeuristic butlers but Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. 'It's all pizzas and videos down there now,' remarks Roy Morgan, nodding glumly at Southend's seafront. 'Things aren't what they were.'
A touch of glumness is understandable. For precisely 75 years and three familial generations Morgan's company, Grosvenor Confectionery, has turned out the most evocative of all seaside treats: rock, that sugary comestible through which British social history runs as surely as the words Bognor or Clacton. 'Years ago, you came to the seaside, you bought a stick of rock,' says Morgan. 'There were basically three centres of production: Blackpool, Torquay and us. Our patch was from the Wash to Worthing. Nobody ever intruded on anybody else's territory.'
As the irruption of adolescent turtles onto Southend's prom shows, however, times have changed at the seaside. With the TV-wise public's taste for things American has come a transatlantic concern for its teeth, a preoccupation that is greeted with derision at Grosvenor's Pleasant Road factory. 'Any time they have one of those dental campaigns, they always show children sucking a stick of rock,' observes Morgan. ' The fact is, you get just as much tooth decay in a bar of chocolate.'
Whether or not this is so (rock is made from a particularly caries-friendly mixture of sugar and glucose), the reputation of the sticky British stick has suffered other foreign attacks. Under EC regulations Grosvenor is required to list every colourant used on its labels. 'We've got 15 different flavours and we make special rock for 30 different towns,' says Morgan.
'Since printers offer a minimum run of 20,000 for each label, we'd have to stock 9 million of them if we were going to do individual labels for each product. We just couldn't afford it. So now we do one basic label, listing every ingredient we use. That means that when people pick up a stick of our rock, they say, " Look at the e-numbers in that".'
What with health awareness and Brussels, the once sunny world of British seaside rock-making has become a greyer place. 'The industry is still there, still ticking over, and we're still meeting our targets,' says Morgan bravely. Then he adds, 'I don't want to sound negative, but the rock industry is in the doldrums'. Grosvenor's own figures tell the story.
In 1991-92, profits grew 7% to £252,000. In 1993-94, they struggled from £261,000 to £267,000, just over 2% growth. This slowing-down was not simply the result of national dental neurosis. It's also true that, in a more competitive world, the scrabble for market share is increasingly destructive.
The once cosy gentleman's agreement giving Grosvenor undisputed control of rock from Norfolk to Sussex is now a dead letter. 'It used to be that we didn't have to worry,' says the company's general manager. 'Each of our markets was defined by the distance a van could go and return in a day. Now the Blackpool people are using better roads to come down here and screw prices, and we have to do the same. We lost Eastbourne not long ago. It's every man for himself now.'
Finding a USP for something as basic as a cylinder of sugar would tax even the most sophisticated marketing minds. Such changes in the product as could be rung have been. Grosvenor's current best-selling product is not pink but rainbow-coloured, and new flavours include Buck's Fizz and Florida Orange. But as Morgan tersely observes, 'If you find something that's good, your competitors will be doing it two weeks later'. Competitive advantage in the industry in effect boils down to a single integer: price.
This is a field on which the rock-makers of Southend are poorly equipped to do battle. 'Our single greatest cost is wages,' says Morgan. One way round this problem might have been to diversify into other fields in which the core competences of rock-making could be put to commercial use. Alas for Morgan, it is difficult to imagine just where these fields might lie.
For rock is a perverse product.
The basic process of its manufacture (viz melting sugar) requires no tremendous skill. On the other hand, the actual making of rock is both fiendishly complex and distressingly rock-specific.
It might be imagined that the trick of making the word Southend run all the way through a 20-foot cylinder of candy would be performed by machine.
Not so. Each letter in a stick of rock is shaped by hand in sugar that has been melted, then cooled to a precisely malleable temperature. Grosvenor's chief letter-maker, Alan Reynolds, has been plying his trade for 42 years, and is still troubled by the letter Q. ('It's that little bit sticking out,' he says - a foible so distracting that for the Queen's Jubilee, he made a batch of 20,000 sticks omitting the letter i, the rock-making equivalent of sinking The Titanic). While this process is unquestionably skilled, it has little transfer value. 'Nothing's changed here for 75 years,' Morgan admits. 'Same product, same ingredients ... same staff.'
Further, rock-lettering is mechanically irreproducible. 'Callard & Bowser and all the big boys, have dipped into the rock business and then sold up again,' notes Morgan. 'It's too labour intensive. No machine can do one batch that says Brighton and then another that says Clacton. If you could invent one, you'd wipe the competition off the face of the earth.' Meanwhile, even a machine to make American Christmas candy canes - one possible synergistic bolt-on and a potentially handy way of ironing out rock's appalling seasonality - would cost £250,000, a sum which Grosvenor considers prohibitive since the UK market for the candy is unproven.
Morgan's answer has been to diversify into other hard candy specialities - a range of lollipops including a naked lady, and (possibly the world's most incorrect sweet) a rock cigarette. But the lollipop market is already well covered by competitors with means well beyond those of Pleasant Road, and the sideline remains small. So, too, is a line in bespoke rock produced as a PR give-away for the likes of Lotus, Legal & General and the Queen fan club - 'the group, not Her Majesty,' explains Morgan.
The really frustrating thing about the limitations of rock production is that not all news from abroad has been bad. By some inexplicable lapse in taste on the part of the rest of the world, the British have hitherto been the only race to have noticed rock's discreet charms. Word has clearly got out, however. Grosvenor has had a tiny export market - in the Canary Islands and, bizarrely, the Falklands - pandering to the cravings of rock-deprived British expats. But lately, Morgan says, enquiries have begun to arrive from 'all over the world - Mexico, New Zealand, quite a big order from Phoenix, Arizona'. The trouble is that rock is already at the expensive end of the cheap candy market ('You expect to pay for art,' reasons Morgan) and landed costs into any of the above would push it, implausibly, into the luxury league.
Given all this, it might be supposed that the atmosphere at Pleasant Road would be not so much gloomy as downright despairing. That this is not the case is due to an audacious and possibly life-saving piece of marketing reinvention. Most of the strategic problems of rock stem from its essential characteristics: that it is sugary and hand-made. Instead of trying to find ways of sidestepping this commercial truth, Morgan has decided to embrace it. 'Rock is as British as tripe and onions, all part of the heritage thing,' he proclaims. 'But the cellophane-wrapped product you buy now is quite different from rock in the old days. A lot of people over 60 remember rock as soft because it was sold in waxed paper that didn't keep it crunchy. So we're starting a new soft line, wrapped in old fashioned waxed paper.'
Grosvenor's toe in the water of the nostalgia market - peardrops and cough candy, both reintroduced last year - is doing well. Nor is Morgan simply relying on the wholesome sounding 'heritage' to make consumers overlook those nasty e-numbers. Much of rock's trouble has been that its market is restricted to the seaside - effectively limiting sales to the five months that are sometimes laughingly called summer. Since orders are placed only a few days in advance, a rainy Whitsun can spell disaster.
Grosvenor's hope is that its newly trad-rock will open up inland markets: stately homes, cathedral cities, museums. 'Tourists still go to the cathedrals if it rains,' Morgan notes sagely. Even Brussels cannot defeat British stoicism.