A shiny Heath Robinson-style tea packing machine reflects the growing success of Only Natural Products as it gets ready to ramp up production further still. Tara Craig reports

In a nondescript building on a business park outside Gloucester, the air is unfamiliar and slightly intoxicating.

Step on to the plant floor and the reason for this odd olfactory experience becomes clear. Stacked from floor to ceiling in 250g sacks are herbal teas of every flavour and combination.

And whirring away quietly in the middle of the factory floor is the state-of-the-art packing machine that bags and processes them. Only Natural Products, the supplier of Dr Stuart’s and Kromland Farm teas, invested £750,000 in this sexy piece of kit, which was custom-built in Italy.

The machine has only been up and running since January, and the facility since October, but both have already revolutionised life for the company not least because they have allowed it to drive growth of its new organic range, Higher Living.

Having adopted a steady approach to growth over much of the past decade, gradually growing sales from £400,000 to £1.7m during that period, Only Natural is now braced for a massive step change in growth.

It is projecting sales of £2.6m this year on the back of its new facility and strong growth of its new range, which was launched in April in eight flavours and joined this month by a further eight, including Sweet Chilli and Chamomile.

The machine, which can produce around 80 million tea bags a year, has allowed the company to pack not only its own teas, but also those of smaller suppliers, including the London Tea Company.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing since managing director Keith Garden took part in a 2000 management buyout, but even the loss of a £500k contract, when Waitrose bought Duchy Originals two years ago at the height of the recession, failed to dent his optimism.

The company’s commitment to supplying tea of the highest possible quality sets it apart, believes Garden, who claims that the downturn has not really affected the company. “You don’t have to be the biggest company in the world, but you can have the best products.”

As he points out, “everyone has to eat and drink”. Cash-strapped consumers will fork out for a decent herbal tea brand rather than hit a coffee shop, he believes.

But Garden admits that he and his team have had to work harder than ever in recent months, with much of August and September spent visiting retailers across the UK and Ireland, organising tastings and discussing merchandising.

The hard graft appears to be paying off with Higher Living in particular. It has already secured listings in multiples and health food stores worldwide, hitting Waitrose shelves this month. Garden is also keen to tap into the on-trade Dr Stuart’s is already in Coffee Republic in Kuwait and Higher Living in the Eastern European chain Coffee Heaven and is keeping a close eye on the export market.

He aims to grow export sales by £1m a year thanks to emerging markets such as China and South America.

“We may be a small company but we think big,” says Garden.