Turnover has nearly doubled at premium crisps maker Burts this year, thanks in no small part to a thriving export market. Alex Beckett reports

An old shed on a deserted railway siding in Devon was the inauspicious birthplace of Burts Chips. Twelve years on, and the premium potato chip company has moved on from the days it did business with little more than a 20-year-old fryer and two chairs to its name. Turnover in 2008 was £3.5m with Burts on track to hit £6m this year.

It now has three hi-tech factories in Devon that churn out a 36-strong portfolio including flavours such as Firecracker Lobster, Hot Chilli Lemon and Bloody Mary.

The vibrant pack colours, natural ingredients and handcooked texture have also won fans overseas. Its export market has trebled to 15 countries over the past year, with India, Malaysia and Dubai jumping on board. "Our biggest growth has been in exports," says co-founder Jonty White. "The Dutch, in particular, love our chips. Especially the paprika flavour. The world seems to be discovering the merits of the handcooked potato chip and appreciating the packaging, quality and flavours of Burts. It's not surprising, as they're used to just eating Lay's."

Following "an unillustrious stint in the City", White set up Burts in 1997 with his pal Nick Hurst and quickly built a following in independent stores. "The multiples were after us from day one, but we resisted them," recalls White. "We felt the brand needed to gain momentum and familiarity with consumers. Also we didn't have the capacity to supply such big customers."

Nowadays, though, Burts' eclectic lineup can be found nationwide in Sainsbury's and Waitrose. In Tesco, it is scaling up over the next few months from a regional presence at about 100 stores to a national presence. However, competition on shelf is tough, admits White. The brand is up against heavyweights including Kettle Chips sales of which have grown 16.8% to £80m in the past year [Nielsen] and Walkers' Red Sky, launched in February. Another recent arrival is Nando's Peri-Peri Potato Chips, launched last November. Not that White is too concerned about Nando's; Burts owns the licence to manufacture the spicy chips on behalf of The Grocery Company, the sales and marketing company for Nando's. The biggest threat to Burts, White says, is a resurgent own label. "Own label has definitely upped its game and the quality has improved over the past few years. Supermarkets recognised they needed to improve the standards," says White.

That's not the only challenge. "Potato prices are rising due to the increasing price of fertiliser and poor weather affecting crops," says White. "Labelling regulations are also a concern. The government's proposal to print all nutrition information on front of pack was ill-thought out and is being reconsidered. There'd be no room for the brand name!"

But White's intrepid approach should stand him in good stead. He has just returned from the US, having driven a Ford Mustang Convertible 1,000 miles to Wyoming to buy new fryers. And in summer, he appointed an MD, Peter Richardson, "who has a better head for numbers".

"We have come a long way from the railway siding. Running a small business is an easy ball to drop, but Burts is our passion. It's better than a real job."